Earlier this month The New Zealand Herald revealed that two home-based childcare businesses have been overcharging the government for thousands of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

The services won’t be allowed to expand, but they’ll still get government subsidies and they won’t be prosecuted because the amount of money involved didn’t meet a criminal threshold.
In some cases the numbers were deliberately falsified. For example, children were enrolled twice or claims were made for babies who hadn’t yet been born.

As well as some providers deliberately rorting the system, a large chunk of public money is also propping up services of dubious educational value.

Enrolments in home-based ECE continue to rise, with the fastest growth in services that don’t have to have qualified staff. These now cater to 25,000 children.
Providers advertise on the internet and the radio for nannies, au pairs, grandparents, aunties and uncles, who can bring in $9 an hour per child in taxpayer funding.

One service that describes itself as providing “the most heavily subsidised education” offers nannies and grandparents a subsidy for every hour a child is looked after, up to $50 per week. Another offers child subsidies for all ages and trumpets that it’s “not means tested”.

Is it education? Qualified teachers are thin on the ground, usually appearing only for a monthly visit. But an Auckland au pair agency claims its three-day training and mentoring produces educators who are “as good as those with a degree”.

Where does the money come from?

Former Labour education minister Trevor Mallard – the architect of the 20-hours-free policy that provides most of the subsidies – said it was never intended to support unqualified staff.

He says it was always meant to go hand-in-hand with a move towards 100 percent qualified teachers.

In 2009 the National government re-set the ECE registration target to 80 percent qualified, removing the previous goal that all teachers in an ECE centre be qualified by 2012.

In the 2010 budget, that goal was changed too, and the focus now is on the number of children participating in early childhood education.

Labour’s current education spokesperson Chris Hipkins says, if elected, Labour will bring in a minimum qualification for all early childhood educators. He says the party will restore its original target of 100 percent qualified teachers.

One stand-out organisation that continues to employ only qualified staff is the Kindergarten Association.

But this month Whānau Manaaki Kindergartens, which runs 85 community based kindergartens in the Wellington region, announced plans to lay off qualified teachers after years of struggling financially. Parents are beginning to understand how the ongoing funding freeze affects them and numbers of those signing the petition are growing.

At the same time, there’s been a big spike in complaints about understaffing at ECE centres.

Earlier this month Child Forum released a report that highlighted major concerns about teacher-child ratios, with the way some centres operate described as “mostly crowd management” or like “factory farming for children”.

[g1_quote author_name=”Virgina Oakly” hide_author_image=”standard” author_description=”NZEI Te Riu Roa executive member 2015″ author_description_format=”%link%” align=”right” size=”m” style=”simple” template=”01″]

Good initiatives such as increased non-contact hours and a greater focus on special educational needs will have to be backed up not only with dollars but also with a move away from market-driven provision.

[/g1_quote]

NZEI Te Riu Roa executive member Virginia Oakly said it would have a huge impact on long term educational benefits for children.

“We warned the government when it reduced the ratios for qualified teaching that it would have a big impact on quality. “And we’ve continued to tell the government that many kindergartens and community-based early ECE services are struggling to maintain qualified staffing levels against rising costs.

But Ms Oakly said the government seems to have been obsessed with getting more children into early childhood education.

Last year Education Minister Hekia Parata appointed an Advisory Group on Early Learning to recommend improvements to how the ECE curriculum, Te Whāriki, is put into practice.

The advisory group’s report recommends a major overhaul of early childhood education, but this will require a major funding boost, Ms Oakly says.

She says kindergartens and ECE centres are facing a funding crisis due to the government driving up participation at the expense of quality.

“Per-child funding is inadequate and quality community centres and kindergartens are feeling a severe pinch.

“Good initiatives such as increased non-contact hours and a greater focus on special educational needs will have to be backed up not only with dollars but also with a move away from market-driven provision.”

The Advisory Group supports moves towards a fully qualified early childhood education workforce.

But it’s possible that may conflict with the government’s Better Public Services goals: by next year, its target is that 98 percent of children starting school will have had some form of quality early childhood education.

The moot point here is “quality”.