Why now is a good time to rethink the purpose of ECE

Professor Linda Mitchell and her colleagues surveyed 156 managers from Early Childhood Education (ECE) providers on the initial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report explores challenges concerning the sustainability of ECE services and raises critical questions regarding funding and planning. It suggests now is a good time to rethink the purpose of ECE, to redefine ECE as a public good, and to plan, fund and support it accordingly.  

Can you expand on what you mean by redefining ECE as a public good?

We have had a market approach to the provision of early childhood education, which means that any business can set up an early childhood service provided they meet regulated standards. There hasn’t been a planning of services that meet community need in particular. What that has meant is that in some areas there is an oversupply of early childhood services and they’re all competing with each other. Then in other areas there are not enough services, or they are not meeting the needs of families.

At the end of the 1980s there was substantially more funding to early childhood. Since then there’s been a huge growth in what I’d call ‘for profit’ early childhood centres. We’re talking about the education and care sector –  I’m not talking about Kindergartens, Playcentre, Kōhanga Reo, they’re all community based. But in the education and care sector, 71% are privately owned. So when Covid-19 happened and we had changes in enrolment patterns, people in the community losing their jobs, some who no longer find full day education suitable for them, that’s when the problems in the ‘for profit’ approach have been accentuated. It has meant that managers of education and care services are really worried about their future financial sustainability.

It would be much more efficient and a much better use of public money to have government planning early childhood centres in every community so that the provision was meeting the needs of families in that community. We need to move away from that market approach. I have always argued for that, but I think in the current situation that argument can be seen much more strongly.

What did Covid-19 and your study reveal about early childhood centres and the sector?

What we’ve seen is the amazingly crucial role that early childhood education plays in the lives of families with young children. Not only did they continue to provide education and care through distance measures, but they also supported essential workers through caring for their children.

We saw great support provided to families, particularly from the community-based centres. There were centres going around organising food vouchers for families who they knew were in dire economic straits. They were also brokering support from social services or sometimes housing support.

I think that it has really shown the absolutely important role that early childhood centres play and so my argument is that they should be seen as a public good. They should be treated in the same way as schools in New Zealand; a government responsibility, not a private responsibility. They should be funded in the same way so that teachers who work in the centres don’t find their employment conditions are reduced because of a private business owner’s decision that they can’t afford it.

When you talk about public funding, what do you think that would look like in New Zealand?

Well I would like to see the pay and conditions of early childhood teachers negotiated within a national agreement in the same kind of way that Kindergarten pay and conditions are negotiated. There should be pay parity with registered teachers in schools and Kindergartens. I would like to see the funding directly tied to pay and conditions so there is no leeway for providers to decide to spend money which is intended for salaries on their own business profits instead. The worst example of this is the listing of early childhood centres and businesses on the share market. That’s a situation where money that is intended for education, whether it comes from parent fees or whether it comes from the government, is getting siphoned off into profits for shareholders. I think that’s appalling.

Do you see parents still paying for their children to attend early childhood centres?

That’s a tricky question. Substantively the costs should be paid by the government, but because early childhood centres are open much longer than schools because of their childcare function there will probably always be something that parents need to pay. If you look at other countries, particularly Scandinavian countries, the government caps how much is able to be charged in fees. If a centre wants to receive government funding, they have to agree to a maximum they will charge in fees. If you look at Canada, in Quebec for example, something similar happens there. Until recently, $7 a day was the maximum which could be charged, a very small amount of money.

What I would like to deter is any possibility that funding that is intended for education and the early education service from going into the pockets of business owners or absent shareholders.

What do you think are the long-term impacts for communities when ECE centres are predominantly privatised?

What I know is that it leads to inequities. There has been a lot of research done internationally and in New Zealand that shows private providers are more likely to set up in higher income communities. That privileges communities and families that are better off so the people in low income communities don’t have much choice and they don’t necessarily have early childhood centres that are meeting their needs.

There are also what we call quality differentials between private centres and community and public services. On average, we see lower quality in privately run centres that are making a profit because the money you need to go into the services isn’t getting to where it needs to go.

What did your report tell you about the impact of Covid on the financial position of different types of early childhood centres?

As Kindergartens are better funded than education and care centres, Kindergarten management were not experiencing the same pressure that the education and care centre managers did. For example, the Kindergarten managers did not apply for the wage subsidy or rent reductions or the small business loan but quite a high percentage of the education and care management did. Nevertheless, they all felt the financial pressure.

I think more services in the community-based sector were seeing their role in a wider way and were brokering support for families who needed it. That model of operation, of early childhood as an integrated service, as a kind of hub that connects with services that support families, is something that I very much support. Some early childhood centres do occupy that role. I’ve been in a Pasifika centre that is attached to a health service, that kind of thing. It is a model that operates very successfully overseas but it does need some extra funding and support to ensure it works well.

How can we move towards that point?

I think early childhood education needs to be a part of a planned network of provision in every community. Some of the recommendations in the Strategic Plan for Early Learning are quite good. Recommendations like moving towards more equitable pay and conditions, well it’s time to move on that! “We need to turn the tide on the for-profit sector,” said Chris Hipkins in the terms of reference for that working group. What I’m saying is now is the time to do that.

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