Early childhood education has been in the media a great deal over recent weeks, initially with positive but increasingly with negative news reports.
The positive stories began when ECE teachers and practitioners were recognised as essential workers at the end of April as the country moved from Level 4 to Level 3 Covid-19 lockdown and children of essential workers were able to attend their ECE services again.
This was followed in May by two positive policy announcements by Minister of Education Chris Hipkins: first, the provision of funding to ensure beginning teachers in the education and care sector have parity of salary with their colleagues in kindergarten and primary school settings; and second, the reintroduction of the ‘100 percent qualified’ funding band for teacher-led services.
Both announcements were warmly welcomed by the sector, as they pointed to renewed recognition of the importance of qualified and registered teachers within the teacher-led part of the sector, alongside wider recognition that ECE teachers are as essential as their counterparts in primary and secondary schools.
Equally important, and as Hipkins noted, there is strong research evidence about the importance of qualified teachers in ensuring teacher-led ECE services are high quality.
The research is clear about what contributes to this: structural dimensions include teacher qualifications and teacher–child ratios; process dimensions include teacher responsiveness, and interactions that support children’s emotional and social wellbeing and developing sense of identity as a learner and member of a community, and stretch their exploration of and thinking about the world.
Alongside positive developments, however, disturbing stories of the ECE sector are increasingly emerging.
Among the most recent are reports of some early childhood employers in the education and care sector not passing on the government funding increase designed to boost teachers’ pay, instead using some of the funding for other operational costs.
Demands from Evolve Education that its teachers accept an employment contract guaranteeing only 20 hours’ work a week while also requiring them to be available for up to another 20 hours a week were met with an outcry from teachers across the sector and a sharp rebuke from Hipkins.
These stories have led several in the sector to comment that the current ECE funding system is broken and needs to be comprehensively overhauled.
The policy announcements above are part of the comprehensive Early Learning Action Plan, released at the end of 2019 and eagerly awaited by the sector for almost a year. The plan signalled government commitment to a strong and effective sector after almost a decade of funding cuts and policy downgrades left many services struggling for survival and teachers and educators feeling increasingly undervalued and burnt out.
But as good as the Early Learning Action Plan is – and it is very good – it is a pre-Covid-19 plan. And Covid-19 has starkly revealed a missing piece in ECE policy.
Despite Hipkins’ rhetoric about the long-term benefits of children participating in ECE, the mechanisms for funding participation are underpinned by an economic imperative focused more on employment than on education and supporting wellbeing, learning and development.
These mechanisms make for complicated and partial coverage of ECE costs.
Licensed services are eligible for a subsidy of up to five hours a day to a maximum of 30 hours a week per child, with differential rates for children aged under two years and over two years, and for different service types. Three- and four-year-old children attract an additional 20 hours’ funding and some parents may be eligible for a Work and Income subsidy.
Parent contributions therefore vary, but many face weekly fees in the hundreds of dollars.
In periods of high employment, such as before Covid-19, the funding mechanisms were argued, from a neo-liberal policy perspective, to reflect the private good generated to parents when ECE services enable them to work.
Such a stance, however, ignores the public good that arises from children being able to participate in quality ECE (through reduction in future social and remedial spending) and, more importantly, their rights as our youngest citizens to have equitable access to quality ECE.
Hipkins highlighted an expected downturn in demand for ECE from the economic fallout of Covid-19, noting in his announcement of the reintroduction of the ‘100 percent qualified’ funding band that it would also ensure qualified teachers are not lost to the sector.
We have already seen the impact of the current funding mechanisms since Covid-19.
While the Ministry of Education continued to pay its subsidy at pre-lockdown rates during Levels 3 and 4, the Ministry of Social Development suspended subsidy payments.
Services differed considerably in how they managed the thorny issue of parental fees, with some ceasing requirements for payments altogether during Levels 3 and 4 and others continuing to require partial or full payments. Many services have taken advantage of the wage subsidy to help cover lost income.
In discussions about the downturn in demand, however, less has been said about the impact on families and children.
Parents facing redundancy, reduced working hours or pay cuts are likely to remove their children from an ECE service they can no longer afford. Recent estimates suggest this is already happening, with attendance rates around 60 percent of pre-lockdown numbers.
At a time when families are experiencing high levels of emotional and financial stress, many children will stop attending a setting where they have well-established relationships with their teachers, educators and peers, and will lose the well-articulated benefits of ECE.
Their parents, too, will lose a source of support. For many, ECE teachers are the professionals they have the strongest relationship and most contact with, seeing them far more often than other professionals such as GPs, social workers or Plunket nurses who also work with families with young children.
While research on the impact of Covid-19 on children, families and early childhood teachers and educators is not yet available, anecdotally there are already many examples of the ways teachers and educators are providing essential support to parents and children dealing with the economic, social and mental health fallout.
We can mitigate against some of the negative impacts of Covid-19 on children and families by re-thinking the funding model so it prioritises children’s wellbeing, learning and development, regardless of the employment status of their parents.
Shifting from the current partial subsidy model to one that aligns with the schooling sector would see teachers’ salaries paid directly by the Ministry of Education with an operational grant going to the ECE service.
For those who think this too radical, it is exactly the model that existed in the kindergarten sector for many decades, so there is a clear precedent.
And if we don’t adopt such a model, we will be exacerbating existing inequities within New Zealand and letting down an increasingly large proportion of our most vulnerable citizens and their families for many years to come.
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