In Tauranga, some 2000 people attended a rally to protest the cuts. Parents, economists, scientists, unions, primary principals and teachers, and opposition leaders: they’re all unhappy at the cuts to early childhood education funding announced in this year’s Budget. It’s a politically charged debate. But at the same time, evidence is emerging from the academic…
In Tauranga, some 2000 people attended a rally to protest the cuts.
Parents, economists, scientists, unions, primary principals and teachers, and opposition leaders: they’re all unhappy at the cuts to early childhood education funding announced in this year’s Budget.
It’s a politically charged debate. But at the same time, evidence is emerging from the academic community that cuts to ECE are likely to backfire when it comes to the government’s stated aims of reducing the youth suicide rate and risk-taking behaviours such as smoking, drunkenness and unsafe sex.
Even the government’s own chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, is widely reported as saying he wants more government funding focused on early childhood. Sir Peter told TV One that investing more in the early years would save money in future through reduced crime and improved employment. “I would be focusing much earlier in life, and giving children in the first six years of life a lot more skills so that they’re more resilient to cope with these issues, which are inevitable later in life,” says Sir Peter. “All the evidence – and it’s compelling evidence, absolutely compelling – is that if we want to create children who are more resilient to going through the later stages of life, developing those skills of how to make judgements, how to act more responsibly, and think about consequential influences of what they do” this is determined before six years of age.”
As the dust settles on the May Budget, however, centres are having to face facts and take radical approaches to remain open.
- Opposition to funding cuts to early childhood education (ECE) is growing.
- Some $435 million is being cut from existing programmes, over three years.
- The government has abandoned the 100% qualified teacher target.
- The cuts will affect more than half of the children currently enrolled in early childhood services.
- Evidence confirms that quality ECE will boost a child’s lifelong earnings and quality of life.
The evidence against cuts
The debate isn’t just about the quantity of early childhood education available to the community. It’s about quality, with centres no longer incentivised to have 100% trained staff. “Kindergarten employs qualified teachers because we know they make a significant difference,” says Clare Wells, New Zealand Kindergartens chief executive.
The critical importance of ECE is further backed by concerns from primary school principals. Pat Poland, president of the Waikato Principals’ Association, says the cuts will have an impact on primary schools’ National Standards results.
Poland is principal at decile four Deanwell School in Hamilton. About 20 per cent of new entrants starting at the school have had no pre-school education. Many have never seen a book and some cannot even hold a pencil. At the end of their first year these children invariably do worse in National Standards testing than their higher achieving peers who went to a local centre.
“Reducing hours or cutting the availability of the 20 free hours is going to impact the levels of achievement of children coming to us,” says Poland.
Research from around the world is stacked against the government’s approach. Literally dozens of studies show the lifelong benefits of early childhood education.
The much quoted Perry Preschool Program study in Michigan, US, divided a group of of low-income African-American children in two, with one-half receiving quality early childhood education and other the none. Over 40 years the favoured children outperformed their peers” significantly more graduated from high school, were in paid employment, earned more, owned their own homes and committed far fewer crimes.
In New Zealand, the government has set aside funding to target 3500 “at risk” children who are not in centres. However, many more “at risk” children are attending some form of early childhood education, and are among the 92,000 to be affected by the cuts.
In the UK, the New Economics Foundation report A Bit Rich: Calculating the real value to society of different professions found that the contribution to society of an EC educator was higher than a city banker, advertising executive or tax accountant.
“When we take account just of the lifestyle and equality benefits from being able to work outside the home, we find that every dollar paid to a childcare worker generates worth of benefits for society,” the foundation says. “They also unlock social benefits in the shape of the learning opportunities that children gain outside the home. For every dollar they are paid, childcare workers generate between and worth of benefits to society.”
The 2004 Perry Program study, in the US, which had tracked children for 40 years, found that those who received quality early childhood education committed far fewer crimes, went on to higher education in much greater numbers, earned more and paid more taxes than those who did not.
Academics here in New Zealand have come out against the proposed cuts. Massey University associate professor of early years education Claire McLachlan says the further reduction of funding and scrapping of incentives to have registered staff is a “significant loss”, which will see centres funded at less than 80 per cent in future.
“It’s kind of ironic that the government is pushing participation at a time in which they just made participation harder for many families,” says McLachlan.
“In reality, centres that haven’t wanted to employ qualified staff have avoided doing this as long as possible. Those with a strong profit motive, rather than quality motive, will have little cause to look for high quality staff, while centres that believe in the importance of qualified staff will have to pass costs on to families or make cuts in other areas, such as resourcing, professional development and equipment.”
NZEI Te Riu Roa surveyed more than 1600 parents following the Budget and found that of the 1604 surveys received, an overwhelming 1584 of parents said they believed their child should have qualified early childhood education teachers, and 1566 agreed that all children should.
Parents were also asked whether they should pay more for early childhood education and the response was a resounding “no”. “This survey is a clear signal that parents understand and value the importance of having fully qualified teachers educating and caring for their children” it’s a shame the Government doesn’t share that view, and instead chooses to undermine quality early childhood education,” says NZEI Vice President Judith Nowotarski.
Coping with the changes
Peter Reynolds, CEO of the Early Childhood Council (ECC), says the government’s removal of the 80% to 100% funding band has been a blow for early childhood centres, many of whom had invested money and effort into the building of their qualified teacher capacity.
Some are feeling as if they had wasted their money and time, adds Reynolds, and those that have gone the extra mile to achieve a government goal were now being rebuffed by government.
An informal survey of the ECC’s membership identified that over a third were likely to be affected by the move. Of that third, nearly a half were intending to increase their fees as a result. And the same number was intending to review staffing.
One centre that has taken a radical approach to the budget cuts is the East Coast Bays Community CrÃ¨che in Auckland. Centre manager Penelope Harding said staff went into shock when the budget cuts were announced. “We worked out we could lose up to $56,000 in our funding.”
Instead, following consultations with parents, the centre devised a strategy to ensure survival, says Harding. That involved applying for an all-day licence, which resulted in hourly funding per child being increased, although the situation was difficult because the crÃ¨che didn’t want to become a full day centre.Â The cost to parents has increased from $15 to $16 per session.
To make the numbers work, existing staff have had to reduce their non-contact time significantly, which makes the job harder. “The teachers are making the sacrifices once again,” says Harding.
The education sector union NZEI Te Riu Roa says it is ironic that a new early childhood degree is being offered around the country, at a time when the government is undermining the value of qualified early childhood teachers.
Te Tari Puna Ora o Aotearoa/New Zealand Childcare Association is launching a new Bachelor of Teaching (Early Childhood Education) in 14 regions from Kaitaia to Dunedin. The three-year course will allow students to study for a degree while working at a centre.
NZEI welcomes the move as it will open up opportunities, particularly for people living and working in smaller communities who have not easily been able to access degree training.
“It will meet both the need for more qualified early childhood teachers around the country and the demand from people who want to qualify and complete a specialist early childhood teaching degree,” says NZEI Vice President Judith Nowotarski.
The degree course also recognises the growing professionalism of early childhood education in New Zealand. One of the strongest indicators of quality early childhood education is having fully qualified and registered staff, she says.
“The sector is committed to upskilling and providing quality early childhood education for our youngest children. It’s unfortunate the government doesn’t share that view and is taking away millions of dollars from centres and services which have more than 80% qualified staff.”
The Education Minister has told kindergarten teachers that they should not raise fees to parents to deal with the cuts, but instead employ fewer qualified staff.
Judith Nowotarski says, “It just goes to show that the government is completely out of step with the sector and with what parents and children deserve. People do not accept John Key’s assertion that having 80% qualified teachers is good enough’.”