EA has taken a lot of flak for exposing poor practice in large, for-profit ECE centres. But one highly respected provider also has concerns.

Wellington husband and wife team Robin and Toni Christie have a huge local following for their welldesigned Childspace centres and related businesses, and a growing international reputation.

They recently presented at a conference in New Orleans – Robin on men in ECE and Toni on peaceful curricula for infants, toddlers and young children.

Practitioners come from all around New Zealand and Australia to attend sessions at their institutes for Leadership in ECE, Infants and Toddlers, and Environmental Design. Toni also consults for various agencies. They’ve been in business together for 21 years – after Toni came home from working in “awful” centres and talked to Robin, an arts student at Ilam in Christchurch.

“We decided to start our own centre. Robin’s father, and his father before, had been secondary teachers and Robin had sworn he wouldn’t be a teacher. But teaching is in his blood. He is just an absolute natural.” Both now have qualifications in ECE, Toni to a master’s level.

Their centres, based in five villas in Wellington’s northern suburbs, have a strong focus on the respectful, sensitive and peaceful care of very young children, aligned with the philosophies of Emmi Pikler, Magda Gerber and Resources for Infant Educators (known as RIE).

What’s more, the centres all run with 100% qualified teachers who are paid a living wage. Every house employs a manager and a permanent “spare” teacher to cover sick leave and holidays. Childspace also has an online business of high-quality resources and equipment for services.

“Someone once joked that we’re the ‘clean, green’ face of private provision,” says Toni, “and maybe we are!”

The businesses may not be hugely profitable but it’s “a good little company”. But is the current free market, privatisation agenda for ECE about to change that? For the last 21 years, Childspace has had waiting lists at all of its centres. That changed recently with the opening of a glitzy new 150-space centre in the neighbourhood – it has more spaces than the five Childspace venues combined.

“It’s all very shiny – it doesn’t look like children play there. But parents are going there.” For one thing, it’s cheaper than Childspace, which charges fees around the mid-range, in order to provide high quality.

Ministry of Education data shows waiting lists are falling around the country, and that data is most likely inflated – parents often put their names down at every centre they visit or they change their plans without informing centres.

But the Christies have no intention of changing their model to compete with the growing number of big companies whose aggressive marketing and expansion is widely perceived to be undermining quality in the sector.

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The research is really clear, big multi-place centres aren’t good quality. They’re a good financial model but they’re not good for children. At the end of the day, we know we have good values and we’re doing really good things for children – and their parents. Parents can rest easy and we sleep well at night.

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“The research is really clear,” says Toni, “big multi-place centres aren’t good quality. They’re a good financial model but they’re not good for children. At the end of the day, we know we have good values and we’re doing really good things for children – and their parents. Parents can rest easy and we sleep well at night.”

Toni says that who owns a centre isn’t the issue – it’s quality that matters. “You can have crap private centres and you can have crap community-based centres. Equally, there are exemplary models of each.

“The difference is that crap private centres are crap because they’re all about the money. Crap communitybased centres are crap because no-one loves them. The turnover of managers or parent committees is too high: you need someone special to drive them over a long period of time – somebody whose main concern is great outcomes for children.” She is concerned about the changes going on in the sector, and believes it is time for the government to call a halt on new centres, with limited exceptions.

Under and over twos – the same

She also thinks the arbitrary division between the rates of funding for under twos and over twos is “ridiculous”. “Under twos and under threes are the same – they’re still toddlers, they’re still in nappies, they still need a lot of adult interaction. But now, when children turn two they’re popped over the gate with 15 others. You see them clinging onto the gate, crying to get back into their safe nursery.”

Meantime, the public company buying up small centres, Evolve Education, has announced its financial performance is ahead of target, in part because it has cut wage “costs” in relation to revenue. This is despite good staffing practices being key to quality provision.