Children’s education must come before private profit

ECE Funding

Parents are right to be outraged that two year olds in early childhood education will be used to subsidise the government’s 20 hours per week free education for three and four year olds.

This will be a certain outcome of the policy due to be implemented from the middle of this year. Government subsidies for the 20 free hours will range from $4.09 to $10.60 per hour per child for 3 and 4 year olds provided the centre offering the hours does not charge a top-up from parents.

However because centres have complained the subsidies are too low the Ministry of Education suggested in a letter to centres last November that one option was for centres to “change the fees for all groups to cover the cost for free ECE”

In other words government advice is for centres to increase fees for two year olds and under as well as charge extra for any additional hours above 20 for older children. This will enable the government to claim it is providing 20 “free” hours.

This advice from the Ministry directly contradicts what parents were told at the time the policy was announced. The government then gave assurances that fees for under-3s would not be affected but its now clear the “free” hours will be part-paid by parents of other children who do not qualify for the hours.

The latest Ministry advice reduces the policy to a cynical exercise of government spin as it gives with one hand and receives the kudos while forcing early childhood centres to take with the other.

But the low rate of subsidy is not the only problem. There are two other fundamental concerns which threaten parent involvement and the integrity of early childhood education into the future.

Firstly the initial policy announcement said the 20 free hours were available for every 3 or 4 year old but only in teacher-led centres. This excluded most kohanga reo and playcentres because they tend to be parent-led and may not have qualified teachers.

On the one-hand this aspect of the policy could be seen to encourage better quality teaching but it necessarily discourages the involvement of parents. Early childhood education is an area of intense interest for most parents and parent involvement which has been championed by playcentres and kohanga reo involves a genuine community-building experience. Parents who meet and work in these centres form binding community networks which are of enormous benefit to the whole community.

The new funding policy looks at education through the narrow lens of the teacher rather than the wider context of child, family and community. Parents who make this choice should not have it undermined.

The second problem arose in the heat of the 2005 election campaign when the then Minister of Education Trevor Mallard announced the policy would be extended to private “for-profit” centres pumping another $50 million into their businesses. The Business Roundtable was thrilled.

The argument of the private sector is that the ownership of the centre doesn’t matter – it’s the quality of the children’s experiences which count.

It’s a simple, seductive argument – but it’s wrong. Ownership matters absolutely in determining the quality of experience a child receives because in the private sector quality is only available for those able to pay for it. In fact the “for profit” private ECE providers have lobbied hard over the years through their organisation – the Early Childhood Council – for lower minimum standards of training for those running ECE centres and the staff they employ. A range of quality at a range of prices is always the way they do business. No prizes for guessing who gets the lowest quality.

Meanwhile the corporate sector is rapidly expanding and taking over our early childhood centres. The largest, aptly named Kidicorp, was in the news last week because its share price rose 10%. The Australian corporate has just swallowed another two Montessori centres in Wellington and now owns 80 centres nationwide catering for almost 4000 children. The company has big expansion plans. No wonder. Business is good on the back of New Zealand government subsidies. The other two major chains, Forward Steps, owned by Macquarie Bank, and ABC Learning Centres are also Australian owned.

The new policy is grossly distorted. It rewards private corporates with subsidies while our community owned and operated centres install EFTPOS machines for parents to pay increased fees. It’s based more on corporate-building than community-building.

The alternative is a system where quality early childhood education is seen as a basic right for all children and is provided by the government on the basis of high quality for everyone.