Paddy Gower Has Issues investigation reveals crisis in early childcare sector putting kids at risk

I have a three-year-old son called Eden, who goes to an early childcare centre near our home in Auckland's Te Atatu South four days a week. He has a wonderful relationship with his lead teacher.

"Jacintha says Jupiter is made of gas! It's a gas planet!" he excitedly tells me. "The girls wouldn't play with me, but it's ok. They don't have to. Jacintha played!"  

"Jacintha said I did a good job of my painting, then she got me the dump truck to play with!"

As I watch his scrumptious, impressionable, curious little face run off into the centre in the morning, my heart drops - but only for me. It soars for him because I know he will be cared for and educated amazingly well.  

But not all Kiwi kids are so lucky. Investigating Our Early Childhood Education system has been a shocking eye-opener. It is a sector in crisis. It's been sounding the alarm for years but now things are really falling off the cliff.

On pretty much every indicator, we are on an accelerating downhill slide. Quality is declining. Teachers are bailing out in droves. The number of providers closing is skyrocketing.

There are years-long waitlists and even childcare deserts. Blackspots, where there is no care at all available.

Take Cromwell, for example, some waitlists there are three years long. There are now waitlists for waitlists and centres are getting up to 10 desperate queries from families every week.  

Kassy Davidson is one of them. The 29-year-old mother of three preschoolers has part-time care for her four-year-old and two-year-old, but now, she can't even get on a waitlist for her four-month-old, despite ringing around as soon as she found out she was pregnant.

Kassy Davidson.
Kassy Davidson. Photo credit: Paddy Gower Has Issues.

The problem is, she's desperate to work, as the skyrocketing cost of living eats away her money and her peace of mind.  

Her husband works hard as a heavy machinery operator helping to fuel the town's growth - but even earning good coin, it's not enough. So Kassy tried working nights at a bar but was only getting three or four hours of sleep before she had to be up with the children - she burnt out within three months and had to quit. 

Then, there's the biggie: the quality of care in New Zealand is patchy, and in some cases dire. And children are suffering.

Once I started talking to teachers and parents about what they'd seen, I was horrified.  

More and more centres are struggling to provide our children with the basics. An increasing list of ECE providers are on something called a provisional licence. It means they are under a Ministry of Education microscope for not meeting the most minimal of care standards. 

Last year, we had 208 services on this list, compared to 75 in 2016. That's almost tripled in six years.  And this will be the tip of the iceberg. The Ministry of Education rarely does spot checks, and teachers can find it tough to speak out about their employers or get enough evidence to prove what they've witnessed.

Teachers have told me children can be left in wet nappies all day because the centre doesn't have a backstop. 

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Children get injured, and those injuries are not reported to parents, for fear of losing enrollments. 

Teachers told me of centres underfeeding children, or just feeding them two-minute noodles. Some centres don't have developmentally appropriate equipment for toddlers, like climbing frames, and when the teachers ask for it, they are told their salaries are too expensive, so there's no money left.

Helen van der Merve has worked in the sector for decades and says some dodgy players are putting children at risk.
Helen van der Merve has worked in the sector for decades and says some dodgy players are putting children at risk. Photo credit: Paddy Gower Has Issues.

Teachers want to provide amazing care, they feel like they're failing children when they can't. They eventually have to leave these low-quality centres doing the bare minimum or less and leave the children in there suffering. 

They can walk out, but the children can't. The sense of guilt that comes with that is overwhelming. Overwhelming to the point some can't face going to another centre, and they exit the industry, or go to Australia - which is campaigning hard right now to get our people over there.

One of the things Australia does better is ratios. In New Zealand, you only have to have one teacher to five babies.

Imagine a mother has just given birth to five babies, quintuplets. We would not expect them to look after all of them alone all day, right? Well, that's happening right now in some Early Childhood Education centres.

Then from age two, the legal minimum is one teacher to 10 toddlers. Imagine 10 two-year-olds, still in nappies, having meltdowns and needing cuddles - with only one set of hands. It's simply not enough.

In Australia though, their legal minimum is one teacher to four babies, and 1-to-4 or 1-5 for two-year-olds, depending on the state. So Australian two-year-olds get access to double the number of teachers ours do.  

CEO of Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood NZ, which represents ECE providers, Kathy Wolfe says the ratios need to be improved.
CEO of Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood NZ, which represents ECE providers, Kathy Wolfe says the ratios need to be improved. Photo credit: Paddy Gower Has Issues.

There is no evidence to support our ratios. The sector here has long been calling to improve them.

That's because ratios are of critical importance. There's a massive body of research that proves how important the first 1000 days of a child's life are to their entire future. 

Get it right, you'll have happy, healthy children who grow into happy, healthy adults. Get it wrong, and you risk damaging their brains. 

Researchers in this area talk about toxic stress; if a child is in a chaotic environment where there are not enough teachers or high staff turnover - they cannot form a strong bond with them, and they go into ongoing fight or flight mode. 

This most often shows up in a child being overly aggressive, or their brain trying to protect itself by shutting down, then they can't learn. Without proper care, there is no education to be had. It's that simple.

Associate Education Minister Jo Luxton, who is in charge of Early Childhood Education, acknowledged improvements are needed and the Government plans to improve ratios in the "medium to long term." But there's no specific timeframe.

Then there are the closures. They are accelerating fast. In 2020, we had 87 providers close, but this year, as of just a few days ago, we've had 232. Home-based care providers, which usually have more adults available to children, are over-represented at 106. And these closures are vastly overwhelming the number of new openings. It's a losing sum game.  

Unfortunately, it's often smaller, independently-run centres throwing their all into giving children quality care and education that are the most likely to shut. Over time, all providers but especially this group, have found it harder and harder to remain financially viable.

The reasons why are complex, but here's a big few.

You've heard of the 20 free hours, right? Centres only get enough funding to provide the bare minimum of care under that policy, but centres that want to provide more for children instantly face a funding shortfall. 

To the centre, 20 hours is not free. That's why it's not truly free to parents, either. You get all these strange things going on as centres try to claw back costs. They may require you to be enrolled longer than 20 hours, so while the 20 hours is "free", they can cover the cost by charging a higher rate for the extra hours. Or they may charge what's called an "optional charge" for supplies, which isn't really all that optional if you want to secure a place for your child.  

Another biggie is pay parity. Most ECE teachers are being brought up to the same pay as kindergarten teachers, who have traditionally been paid more. 

The policy is opt-in, and most centres are opting in, or they'll lose staff. Everyone agrees pay parity is a wonderful and necessary thing for our hardworking qualified teachers, who've studied for three years to understand how to provide developmentally appropriate care and education. But only a portion of the extra costs of those increased salaries is being covered by the Government. Another shortfall to make up.

There's a historic element too. The incoming National government of 2008 froze funding per child. At the same time, they stopped offering a higher funding rate to centres that provided 100 percent qualified teachers. They did increase overall funding, but only because they were pushing for more children to be in care.

So less funding for each child means lower quality for each child, right? Many, many centres have told me this was the beginning of their financial pain - it put them on a road to eventually breaking even, and even though Labour has been steadily increasing funding - it hasn't kept pace with the rampant cost of living we are all experiencing.  

So there's this impossible tension between the cost of providing quality, and what parents can afford to pay, to help with the shortfall.  

Much has been made of the private nature of our child care and education. It's mostly private businesses now, and almost without exception, everyone I've spoken to working in the sector believes it's gone too far. 

I don't believe it's the market share of the big ECE chains that's the problem. It doesn't make a difference to children if you can save some money by writing up one policy to use across each of your 100 centres. It's probably a good thing if you can save cash by having one administration worker covering payroll at a greater number of centres. 

But standards do matter. And the number of teachers who have told me of their terrible experiences at some of the big chains - experiences where ratios were ridden to the edge, despite advertising better ones. Having an attitude where it's more likely to be profit-driven, rather than putting kids first.

I know that's not the case at my centre. The husband-and-wife owners genuinely care about what's best for the children and often work inside the centre. The stress of operating must be there, but they are putting their all in. Let's do better so it's not so tough for operations like these to survive. And most importantly, let's go hard to improve the quality of care and education for all Kiwi babies and preschoolers - what could be more important than that?

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