Teachers at a centre weren’t surprised recently when a nine-month-old baby arrived for her first day with a report from her previous centre, in the UK, outlining her learning achievements to date. “We’re well down that track here,” says long-time ECE teacher Hayley Whittaker. “You look at the Gazette, and there are ads from places with names like Bright Scholars and Little Stars’.” She’s noticed a strong “push down” effect since the introduction of National Standards. “You have to feel sorry for parents. They have an older child who goes to school and the child is told they’re below standard on something and they don’t want that to happen to their younger children.” Whittaker, who was on NZEI Te Riu Roa’s National Executive representing ECE members and is now on staff, says, simply, “It’s rubbish”

A recent Listener article on stressed children confirms her assessment. The article cites longitudinal research showing that high-pressure parenting and schooling in fact leads to poorer socio-economic and academic outcomes for children. In the UK, leading experts have signed an open letter decrying government policies that push schooling onto young children.

Relevant

“If you emphasize accelerated learning ahead of assisting children to develop foundation skills, it’s not good,” says Whittaker. “Here’s just one example” it’s a good thing for a child to learn to grip blocks, to play with blocks, for midline physical development, because that leads to holding a pen. “But if you sit them down on the mat and force formal learning when they don’t have the attention span and it’s not relevant, you put them off learning.”

She advocates New Zealand’s ECE curriculum Te Whāriki, with its key competencies that support “child-directed learning with teacher guidance”, as being the model that helps propel our education system to being one of the best in the world. “There’s a power shift going on, away from the principles of Te Whāriki, and it’s especially bad for boys,” she says. “Testing them on numbers and letters turns into a fight between the teacher and the child. Yet if they are in the sandpit and you get them to work out how many buckets are needed to fill the wheelbarrow, and how many wheelbarrows are needed to make a mountain so many paces away, and you use rulers and measurements, that’s maths.”

Less is more

However, the less-is-more argument is a difficult one to win in the current climate, with its emphasis on targets and data. For one thing, parents are too tired to learn themselves about the complexities of child development and early learning.

According to retired kindergarten lecturer, Pam Cubey, “When I first started in Playcentre, in our group there was one mum who had a part-time job.” Cubey went on to a career in the sector, lecturing kindergarten students at Wellington Teachers College from 1979 to 1990. These days she’s a grandparent still with an active interest in the sector. “We used to be able to run night classes for parents” they’d all turn up” and we’d explain all this stuff. But nowadays they’re too exhausted because most of them are working.”
Cubey thinks that the tendency for parents to want to “hot-house” their children may well be linked to the current climate of austerity” and related parental anxiety. Academics in the US also describe a “baby genius edutainment complex” that “conflates childhood, competition and commerce.”

Persistence

Cubey says, “I heard a pre-school child being told that she had to learn her numbers otherwise she wouldn’t get a good job when she’s older. It’s ridiculous. “What you’re looking for is persistence. I saw another boy, about two and a half. He’d picked up a pen and paper and was working away. Then he didn’t like what he’d done and he scribbled over it and he started again. That’s what you want. You want a child to be saying,This was so hard. Now I can do it. Now I’m good at it.'”

But at the same time as overworked parents grapple with an array of services and products marketed at improving their children’s chances (there’s even an “IQ-boosting” infant formula in the US), parents at the other end of the spectrum, marked by poverty and deprivation, face a different set of problems.

Questions about quality

When the government stripped $400m of funding out of the ECE sector, it ploughed $91m back into a programme designed to lift the participation rates of target groups, including Maori and Pasifika children, and those in lower socio economic areas, whose rates of participation are much lower than other groups.
The programme’s six initiatives (including “supported playgroups”, “flexible and responsive home-based services”, and “engaging priority families”) appear to have had good results, with well over 3000 new children currently signed up. But doubts are surfacing. “While there’s an emphasis on children attending ECE, there are still questions about whether the ECE they’re participating in is high quality,” says Claire Wells, head of the Kindergarten Association (chq).

Sustainability is another problem. “It’s all very well to put in a lot of effort and start out with enthusiasm. But for all sorts of reasons, people may not be able to sustain it” they might not have the bus fare or they might not want to push the pram in the rain, with a couple of little ones walking alongside.” And sustainability is the key, says Wells. “Because of the developmental status of children, that’s what you want. A couple of hours a week over two years is much better than 30 hours a week for three months. I’m not sure that this is what the figures [on increased participation] are showing us. It’s early days for the evaluations yet.”

Solutions

Concerns have been raised about the qualifications of some providers of the new initiatives, and also their cultural appropriateness. There are reports of young children being transported across town to make up “bums on seats” and secure funding.

This is sad news for Karen Shields, head of the Counties Manukau Kindergarten Association, who has launched highly innovative solutions to barriers to participation, focussed on building strong relationships with parents, and also with other agencies working with vulnerable families. “It’s really worrying if educators don’t involve parents or don’t develop a relationship with parents. There’s no point if children are going to ECE but what’s going on at home is something else again. It’s so important that parents learn about children’s play and how they can help their children learn.”

Horse show

Shields says ECE can be very confusing for some parents. “They see signs up saying $20 for 20 hours free, and they think they can’t afford it. And they’re worried about rules and forms to fill in.” Shields solutions to the barriers began, surprisingly, at a horse show. A keen horsewoman, she was at an event and the horse trucks gave her an idea. “There’s the breast-screening truck and the Mighty Mouth dental truck, why not a play truck?” She secured funding under the participation programme to convert a truck to purpose, and the association is paying the wages of two teachers to drive it to venues where young mums with children not at school are likely to be. They engage parents and children and let them know what services are available in their area.

It’s been a raging success. “We were meant to find 40 children in the first year, and we’ve found 50 in four months over winter,” she says. Many of the children have already gone on to kohanga reo, kindergartens or other services. “It’s about explaining ECE in a non-threatening manner.” In tandem, Shields has been setting up supported playgroups within kindergartens so that parents can stay with their children and see what happens in a kindergarten setting. “We’re feeling our way. We’re building some really good relationships” with parents, with other agencies. The coordinators are amazing,” says Shields.

Three steps forward, two back

It’s all yet another example of three steps forward, two steps back for the sector: a pattern that another retired kindergarten lecturer, Mary Purdy, is familiar with. She began her career in 1951 as an assistant in a church hall, with a group of 40 children and one teacher. She still works as an assessor of student teachers for a training provider. “The profession has come a long way. There are some great people doing fantastic work” Helen May, Linda Mitchell, Anne Meads” good new developments come along all the time. Student teachers are of a higher quality too. Kindergarten teaching used to be something you did before you got married. It’s a career now. “But there is this thing in early childhood,” she notes, “where you get to a place and think, great, look at all these gains. Then something happens, the government changes, and it all goes backwards. You have to be prepared to fight for the gains, to keep the gains.”

More about NZEI’s ECE campaign at www.beststart.org.nz.