Opinion: More imposts on the struggling early childhood sector

  • 23/11/2018

By Simon Davies.

OPINION: If you want some aspect of the private or public sector to be messed up, just ask the Labour party to improve it. After an exhaustive and expensive review consulting with all the stakeholders, except perhaps the ones most affected, a number of changes will be announced  usually to widespread dismay.

With the changes just announced for the early childhood learning sector, once again I feel rural New Zealanders are being treated as third rate citizens.

Education is a big deal and I am a firm believer in it. For us that means both our daughters have been, or are going, to an early learning centre. This is both for learning, and more importantly for us, the socialising with other children.

In our case it means a 26 km round trip to the nearest centre, twice a day. We started both our girls before they were aged 3 so have been paying full costs.

The costs I can Iive with; not having the option of early learning education I cannot.

Therefore I was dismayed to hear that the early childhood education sector has just been subjected to the Labour treatment. The Education Minister has announced a number of changes, including insisting that 80 percent of teachers be qualified (over time, rising to 100 percent) and teacher to child ratios must be increased. The changes might sound great but the outcomes will be far from it. Both of these changes will result in fewer placements for children in early learning.

Right now the sector is struggling to find enough qualified teachers for the current children in the system. By increasing the teacher to child ratio and insisting on a higher  proportion of qualified teachers, it seems to me there is only one realistic option available for the sector to remain viable, compliant and to qualify for government funding. That is to reduce the number of child placements.

This is a rather perverse outcome, given in the same announcement the Minister stated that early childhood education is very important and his intention is to get more children into ECE.

The minister acknowledged the sector already has an issue with teacher availability, but was confident this would all be smoothed out in the future....Really!  How exactly?  There may be a few under-employed early learning teachers waiting in the wings in Wellington but there certainly aren't in the provincial towns and villages. In fact, to be frank there is hardly anyone employable who isn't already in a job in our hinterland.

As is often the case, the solutions dreamed up by bureaucrats in the Capital will have the biggest implications in rural New Zealand.  Child placements in these areas are extremely tight now, with a number of rural towns having waiting lists for early learning centres. These changes will only make it worse.

If by chance some entrepreneur had been thinking about taking the risk of opening an extra early childhood centre in a rural town, and by some miracle finding sufficient teachers  qualified or not  these new edicts from Wellington will likely shoot the prospect down.  And it will be the kids who miss out.

Simon Davies is President of Otago Federated Farmers.