Five academics from the Universities of Waikato, Victoria, Canterbury and Otago have said they welcome the strong message of the ECE taskforce about the importance of prioritising early childhood education.
“At the level of principle there is a focus on system quality and many of the recommendations indicate a commitment to continuing along the path of quality improvement which the sector wants”. Incentives for centres to employ 100% qualified teachers, addressing quality issues in the home-based sector, and provisions to promote innovation are excellent directions to follow.
“We also welcome the focus on encouraging leadership development within the sector- this is a new and long-overdue initiative”.
However, the academics are united in their opposition to the proposed new funding system. This provides for targeted funding for low income groups, Māori and Pasifika children while retaining fiscal neutrality. This proposal will inevitably undermine the 20 hours ECE policy that provides free or very affordable early childhood education for 3 to 5 year-old children. It will undermine a widely supported principle that all children should be entitled to early childhood education, no matter their circumstances. Another academic, who was a member of the Taskforce, Professor Anne Smith, has already expressed concerns that if the principle of fiscal neutrality is retained, that it is inevitable that middle-income families will have to pay more for early childhood education, which is likely to lead to lower levels of participation.
The Taskforce states that it will “provide strongly differentiated payments for priority groups – Māori, Pasifika, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds and children with special education needs”. In this system, a universal approach is replaced by one that is much more targeted, with families outside the “priority” groups paying more. A targeted approach would not serve the best interests of “priority” children, and does not address the needs of children who are not deemed to be “priority”. There are issues about how to set criteria for “priority” and assess these, and problems about children outside the designated groups or at the margins who do not meet criteria missing out. There is a danger of ghettoizing “priority” children, when research is clear that children from disadvantaged homes do better in early childhood centres that have more advantaged children in the same group. Universal high quality education helps to diminish gaps in achievement between high and low socioeconomic families.
Targeted approaches rely on costly and time-consuming administrative processes that can stigmatise eligible families, deterring applications for assistance. The Taskforce recommends that the early childhood service staff would assess whether families fit into “priority” categories. Any such assessment would constitute an intrusion into private family matters and risk spoiling the respectful and positive relationships that need to exist between staff and parents.
Middle income families with 3 to 5 year olds would lose funding under the Taskforce proposal. Recent New Zealand research by one of the academics (Mitchell) shows the very positive impact on affordability of 20 hours ECE. 20 hours ECE eased family budgets, benefiting family life and children’s learning and socialisation. There are indications that 20 hours ECE has enabled some children to attend who would otherwise have missed out.
A policy of free early childhood education is in keeping with trends in OECD countries to provide at least two years free provision before children start school. Internationally, there is advocacy to develop policy framed around the participatory rights of children. Provision of free early childhood education for all children whose parents see they would benefit from the opportunity is consistent with such rights.
For further information contact
Associate Professor Linda Mitchell, University of Waikato, phone 021 0239 1724
Professor Helen May, University of Otago, phone 021 279 3780
Professor Carmen Dalli, Victoria University of Wellington, phone 021 140 9038
Associate Professor Judith Duncan, University of Canterbury, phone 027-330 4595
Professor Margaret Carr, University of Waikato, phone 021 480 984