Opinion: Time to overhaul early childhood education

Opinion: Time to overhaul early childhood education

By Dr Anita Mortlock

OPINION: Polarising commentary about early childhood education (ECE) has played out in the media recently.

Perhaps the most notable has been Deborah Cone Hill’s piece on children being "farmed out to for-profit childcare centres… so their parents can become productive working units" and Nicola Willis' response that "quality early childhood education won't erode your child's psyche".

On social media specific groups have picked up either pole.

There are comments citing that anti-ECE is anti-mothers, which is a fair argument given that all of the blame so far has been heaped on mothers. The fathers' responsibilities to their children has been ignored.

In the other camp, others say support for families using early childhood education services is anti-children.

What is called for is an entirely different discourse, which is not anti- or pro-ECE, but that stands for children and their families' needs.

This discourse would examine what families actually require in order to optimise their chances for healthy, fulfilling lives, including the children.

This involves a government and public who are truly invested in quality for early childhood education, as well as supporting parents who wish to care for their children during the day.

In terms of ECE it would include: Significant investment in relationships, smaller group sizes, better ratios, more space for children, unhurried routines, open and clear communication with families, provision of healthy food and stable, consistent staffing.

It would also require highly trained teachers who are able to understand the complex and diverse makeup of families, cultures, holistic needs, values, and practices and how to honour and synergise those in an harmonious way into an early childhood programme.

Specialist training for teachers of infants and toddlers is needed. There would be a specific and coordinated effort to work with families in poverty and those with children who have inclusive education requirements.

The previous National Government's active programme of increasing participation in ECE did not adequately examine infrastructure, leaving a legacy of burgeoning bureaucracy and paperwork, as well as inadequate outdoor space, trained teachers, ratios, and group size.

More than that, funding structures meant that ECE has become an attractive business option for many profiteering companies.

In this case, the sad truth is that the welfare of children must be balanced with shareholder interests.

The corporatisation of ECE has meant that even not-for profit centres must now behave as competitive businesses in order to retain enrolments and remain fiscally viable, and this takes attention away from children and their families.

This is not to say that all is doomed. There are excellent centres out there that are doing well, with provision of high quality, including their support of children and families' needs; however, it often costs the teachers' their wellbeing.

Early childhood education is here to stay and the question now should not be whether families should or should not use it.

A focus on polarised "sides" detracts focus from a more critically useful question. That question is what does the ECE sector need in order to best meet the needs of children and their families so that all can thrive?

Dr Anita Mortlock is a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, Faculty of Education.