1 teacher to five babies ratio in childcare is 'state-funded child abuse', early care and education expert says

Teacher to child ratios and crowding in some childcare centres is "state-funded child abuse" for our babies and toddlers, according to a leading ECE expert. 

Mike Bedford is New Zealand's only Public Health Specialist for the early care and education sector, and does not mince his words.

He believes two of our regulations in particular, amount to abuse - teacher-to-child ratios for under-2-year-olds, and the indoor space we allow, per child. 

The government only requires Early Childhood Education Centres to appoint one teacher to look after five under-2 year olds. If there are ten children, the minimum number of teachers would be two, and so on, as group sizes get bigger. 

"That's noise, it's stress, it's emotional insecurity and it's also unhealthy environments," Bedford says. The 1:5 ratio for under two-year-olds is unsafe, and amounts to "abuse".

"That ratio leaves children in danger of emotional neglect, causing distress and potential long-term harm" says Bedford.

Bedford also believes the indoor space allowance per child is way too small; centres only have to provide 2.5 square metres of space per child, inside.

"The space per child indoors, the gross overcrowding. We have no excuse for that. It causes noise and stress and conflict. And it's very hard on teachers. I would describe that as state-funded child abuse." 

Bedford says every day, thousands of children are being put in conditions that no child should be subjected to.

"The key here is not ECE itself, it's the regulations for the conditions in which children spend their days, and the conditions teachers are expected to work in." Bedford says. 

The Fall

Bedford says it's sad to see these bad regulations continually ignored by governments, leaving children in distress. This a big part of what's caused the fall – a  collapse of the teaching workforce.

"There are many wonderful owners and teachers within ECE, they are doing their best in trying circumstances."

Bedford was first inspired by the vibrancy of the sector in the 1990s, and believes if the regulations change, it could once again become wonderful for all our children. He is quick to point out that it isn't all early childhood centres that are bad – some are great. Unfortunately but parents are often left with no choice but to enrol their child and a centre they are unhappy with, as the good centres have long wait lists. There are way too many poor-quality centres, and too little support for good ones.

The Problem

Bedford has spent 30 years working with the sector and feels he has a duty to warn parents how broken it now is.

He is now Executive Officer of an organisation called ECE reform, which is trying to change childcare in New Zealand for the better. 

"I'll describe it as a ship which is going down. It's not at risk of sinking. It is sinking, and it's unsafe for children," Bedford said. 

He has made around 1500 visits to ECE and care centres, and met with thousands of teachers.

He laid out a huge range of issues besetting the sector, ranging from teachers leaving because of conditions, to centres not being able to stay open if they did more than the bare minimum required. 

"I've had many, many conversations with teachers who have left early childhood education and care, or are planning to. While better pay is a justice issue for teachers, none of those I spoke to said it was pay that forced them to leave. In every case it was the conditions – especially poor ratios, crowding, noise, and stress."

"It's bad enough that parents should be worried now. I hate saying that because I don't want to worry parents," Bedford said. "A lot of parents are under enough stress as it is. But it is simply unfair to parents to let them think we have a sector that is being well governed and that they can be sure of their child's well-being." 

The Cost 

All of the chaos in the sector comes despite an expensive price tag - New Zealand parents spend the most on childcare in the OECD. 

We asked a Facebook group of parents from across the country how much they pay for childcare. And although it varied depending on the type of centre and the hours the majority say they paid between $50 and $80 a day.

That adds up to hundreds of dollars a week for just one child. More than mortgage repayments. That's crazy given the chaos in the sector.

The Solutions; Ratios 

After 30 years in the sector, Bedford has a pretty solid plan of how we can fix what's going wrong.

First up - it's up to the Government sort the ratios out. Currently, they're set at one teacher to five children for under two-year-olds, and 1:10 for two and over.

"We've got to improve the ratios, get rid of the 1:5 ratio for children under two and move immediately to 1:4. That is critical because that's the most dangerous thing we have in the sector." Bedford says. Ministry of Education denials and delays around this need to stop.  

"The next step is to get rid of the 1:10 ratio for toddlers. Move to a 1:8 with group size controls."

"There's a part of our brain, particularly the amygdala, that manages emotional response.

In infants it is in the calibration stage. They're learning... 'When am I okay? When am I not okay?' 'Should I be calm, or anxious?'. We're putting children into environments that are saying, 'You are not okay, you are not okay'. We're reinforcing anxiety in children. We are hard-wiring it and we've got to stop doing that. We have to have emotionally secure environments for our babies and toddlers."

Limit Group Size 

He also wants to put a limit on the number of kids who can be in a group. ECE Reform has worked this out with tables for group size and ratios together 'We know how to fix this'.

"You can have a big centre that is very well divided up into smaller groups but it is the big group sizes that are the problem," he said. 

"Sometimes (you can have) group sizes of over 50 children under five years old, great big groups of infants and toddlers. That is crazy."

"It becomes chaotic in terms of relationships. It means that children who are overstimulated are going to act out a lot more, and be harder to manage. They will impact other children, quieter children. Some of those may be the ones really needing attention. They get lost in the crowd." 

Improve Space Per Child 

Bedford says children need more space than the system requires ECE Centres to provide. 

Indoors, each child is only afforded 2.5 square metres, at minimum, 'free of fixtures and fittings'. It used to be free of furniture as well, but in 2008, the regulations were downgraded to  include furniture as part of that space. Children lost about ten percent of their space overnight – going from what Bedford believes was "overcrowding to critical overcrowding."

"So that's like 30 children plus the teachers in a modest 3 bedroom house for long days, 5 days a week" Bedford says. 

Bedford believes this is abusive, and needs expanding immediately. 

Australia, for example, requires 3.25 square metres indoors, excluding furniture.

Outdoors, New Zealand's space allowance per child is five square metres.

Bedford says this deprives children of opportunities for learning and play. 

"That like just half a ¼ acre section for 100 children. That's why so many have no grass, and children get told to use their 'walking feet ' outside." 

Change the Licensing System

Then there's the licensing system which he says is "more than two decades behind the times".

"We've got to get rid of the archaic, not fit-for-purpose licensing system. At the moment, it favours the worst providers because it encourages poor quality, there's no incentive for quality in the current system" says Bedford. 

He and his colleagues at ECE reform have come up with what they believe is a better system. It's called "Quality-based contracting", and sees the Government being responsible as the provider. Not by buying centres, but by contracting the services.  

"The huge difference is that when you contract, you have a responsibility to contract people who are going to do the job well. You don't contract a shonky operator. So it means that with a quality monitoring system, we can choose the best quality providers, the people who are going to provide those good environments for children."

"The contracting system we have designed is efficient and is incredibly powerful for quality management, and that's because you're making a decision on what's going to be best for the children and the teachers, rather than that drive to the bottom of simply doing regulation compliance".

Better Funding

"To turn this around. There's no question it has to be properly funded. But at the moment, the sector is also bleeding money to a small proportion of owners who are taking a huge amount of profit." 

There are a handful of really big companies, running chains with hundreds of daycares around the country. The top four - Best Start, Lollipops, Provincial Education and Kindercare - get $450 million of government funding a year. And these larger companies, with their economies of scale (and in the case of Best Start, not paying tax), make it really difficult for the smaller businesses and not-for-profit centres to compete. 

"You can make huge money in the sector. And there are people making tens of millions of dollars a year and the sector operating at minimum standards. But if you try to do quality for children, you're going to struggle financially." 

Better Monitoring  

Finally, Bedford is calling for the Ministry of Education and ERO to better monitor the sector.

"We have very poor regulations and poor monitoring of those regulations. The Ministry of Education should be checking those ratios. There should be spot-checks on ratios. If you get all that right - teachers will stay, some will even come back."

"We have indications from early childhood teachers that if you improved the ratio and put in place group size controls so you don't have these crazy big groups of babies, for example, then teachers would stay, teachers would come back. We can actually get teachers back into the sector if you improve the conditions if you make it workable for them".

The Response 

Sean Teddy, Hautū (Leader) Operations and Integration told Paddy Gower Has Issues the reference to ratios of 1-10 for children two years and over was incorrect. 

"Children aged two years and older require one adult when there are six or fewer children attending and two adults when seven to 20 children are attending."

"Once 21 children are attending three adults are required, once 31 are attending four adults are required, and once 41 are attending five adults are required.  

"This is why the ratio requirement is often referred to as being 1:10."

Teddy said the Early Learning Action Plan (ELAP) sets out the direction and vision for early learning for the next 10 years. 

"This includes improving the ratios of adults to children under the age of 3 years in teacher-led centre-based early learning services and developing advice about group size, centre design and wider environmental factors, and how to improve quality standards in these areas."

Bedford Responds to Ministry

"The Ministry of Education say they plan to improve ratios, but know they have pushed it to the back burner for five years, with no appropriate timeframe in the future. In 2021, teachers made a complaint to Parliament's Regulations Review Committee, saying the regulations placed children and teachers in conditions of stress and harm. The Ministry pushed back against the teachers, denying to Parliament that the regulations caused a problem. It's so frustrating for teachers , when the Ministry ignores them, and ignores the clear evidence."

"The Paddy Gower Has Issues reference to ratios of 1-10 for children two years was quite correct in context as a minimum ratio (except in the rare situations there are six children or less).  The concern isn't about the better centres that operate better ratios – it's about the common practise of running to minimum."

Bedford says "This response is very sad. To suggest that you would have three teachers and 21 children (over two years) except in the high-quality centre is a problem, as the Ministry funding rates don't support this. Wouldn't it be much better if, rather than making excuses, the Ministry responded by recognising these conditions as drivers of harm to children and sector collapse, and treated them with absolute urgency?"

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