It won’t come as much of a surprise to learn that that the Governments’ 98 percent ECE attendance target is viewed by the Corporate childcare sector as a key driver of its ever-expanding business.

In a speech to her company’s AGM last year, the chair of Evolve Education Ltd Norah Barlow said the 98 % target was a key factor that underpinned a “long and successful future” for Evolve.

Just over a year after being listed on the share market, Evolve, whose brands include Lollipops and Porse, posted a $12.5m profit for the first half of 2016 – a profit derived in large part from $114million in public subsidies paid to it in the last year by the Ministry of Education.

Just two providers, Evolve, and BestStart (formally known as Kidicorp), now consume 20 percent of the entire Crown ECE budget, together  receiving more than $300 million a year in public subsidies – more than the total funding for every kindergarten in New Zealand

But while the 98 percent attendance target might be great for childcare businesses like Evolve, it’s less clear whether the target has been that great for New Zealand’s children.

“For New Zealand’s most vulnerable children, participation in a low quality service isn’t going to help them, in fact the research shows it could be doing them harm,’ explained Virginia Oakly, NZEI Te Riu Roa’s early childhood executive representative..

The Government knows this. It’s been repeatedly warned, by academics, ERO and the Ministry, that ECE is only beneficial for children if it’s high quality.

Yet, instead of lifting quality for all children, alongside its aggressive recruitment drive for ECE, the Government has lowered it.

In the past six years, the Government has frozen per child funding, increased maximum group sizes, and cut funding for qualified ECE teachers – a key indicator of quality ECE.

This has baffled NZEI members, who along with parents, and academics have asked, why the Government would compromise quality, knowing the risks to children?

Then late last year, a budget document emerged that showed, that reason for six years of savage cuts in ECE could be as simple as the 98 percent target itself.

Behind the spin

In the run up to the 2016 budget, Education Ministry officials prepared a short, six page document for their Minster called “Driving results through better investment”. Stamped “budget sensitive” the document is designed to give a confidential snapshot for the Minister about how public money is being spent – and saved – on education.

Without the usual spin, the advice was startling.

Officials boasted of making “over $528 million of savings” in ECE since 2009 in large part by removing the 100 percent qualified teacher funding band.

But those savings weren’t apparently’ enough.

With the focus still on the 98 % target the cost of ECE is “likely to outstrip affordability” to the Crown, officials warned, pointing out that the “return on investment is reduced by high subsidies for those who would pay anyway”.

In other words, the Government can’t afford to achieve its 98 percent target, without finding more ways to cut costs from ECE or asking parents to pay

For teacher led services that can’t or won’t raise fees, and are committed to only employing qualified teachers, this could be another nail in the coffin.

For children, it means less of what makes ECE such a powerful advantage in their lives – intentional teaching, from professional dedicated teachers.

For corporate franchises, with the ability to raise fees and hire unqualified staff at the minimum wage, it might look more like a business opportunity.

The future for ECE?

At the launch of NZEI’s Every Child is Worth it campaign at Wellington’s Hill Street Early Childhood Centre late last year, Andrea Shepherd (pictured above) described how the sector had transformed since she started out as a teacher 10 years before.

Even though she had a post graduate diploma in Primary education, Andrea  had to agree to retrain in ECE to secure her job at Hill Street .Back then, New Zealand was on track to have every ECE centre in the country staffed only by qualified teachers..

“I felt that I was entering a valued profession, valued both by society, and by government. This felt amazing,” she said.

“Moving forward ten years and it feels as if many of these gains for the sector have been systematically dismantled.”

What’s becoming clear is that the Government is relying on the corporate childcare sector to deliver a cheaper style of ECE that can accommodate huge potential growth, and push more of the costs on to parents.

In 2015 the number of Education and Care services – most which are privately owned, grew by 75 services, home based grew by 58, while kindergartens, by comparison grew by 4 services.

Again, it’s no surprise that the corporate Educare sector sees itself as the future of ECE.

“We see the future for ECE being better served when you have a larger group like Evolve, committed to quality delivery of education and childcare,” Evolve’s Norah Barlow told her AGM last year.

“With this larger group, you have a larger profit overall to apply to quality systems,” she said.

Evolve’s corporate goal is to acquire 20 more ECE services a year.

It’s fast looking as if that’s the Government’s goal for ECE too.