Covid-19 is predicted to raise unemployment rates significantly. For many families, this will be devastating. From an Early Childhood Education (ECE) perspective, if the government invests wisely, there will be opportunities to improve child wellbeing. We need to value the quality of life of our youngest citizens, including their right to at least one consistent, warm, responsive relationship.
With The Opportunity Party’s universal basic income (UBI) policy, parents may choose to spend more time with their children. When they’re working, they could leave their children with a local home-based carer. These carers would talk to them extensively and are more likely to explore their local community than centre-based teachers can. Qualified ECE teachers would also have more choice under our proposal. There’s no doubt, children would be much better off.
How TOP sees the ECE sector changing post-Covid-19
Let’s face it, some ECE centres will close as a result of Covid-19. That’s not a bad thing, because conditions were pretty shocking in the worst of these centres, and regulations are still inadequate. Some smaller private centers have been doing a fantastic job of caring for the children in their care. But stress, inconsistent relationships, noise and overcrowding were just some of the issues children faced pre-Covid-19. It was much worse in larger centres, which could house up to 150 over two year olds and 75 under two year olds under one license.
What's more, some children were spending up to 10 hours per day in small fenced outdoor spaces, with no access to grass or natural environments and many had no space to run around. Often, they were isolated from normal adult conversation, parks, variety in their experiences, and other members of their communities. Such ‘Education & Care’ services, often with very corporate structures, did not prioritise care nor education of our youngest citizens. This needed to change and the time is now.
The government has a chance to make a difference in ECE. Approximately $2 billion is spent on ECE annually in New Zealand, one of the top rates in the OECD for per-child expenditure on ECE. Investment in early childhood is important. But TOP questions whether this money has been well-spent. Equity funding should be reviewed in light of the changing economy, the profitability of the ECE sector was declining pre-Covid-19, and TOP says it’s time to value the development of the children themselves.
Parents could have better options
Firstly, New Zealand can afford to give every 18-64 New Zealander $13,000 per annum and every child $2,080. This means a family of two adults and two children could receive almost $600 per week from a UBI. The evidence shows that most people continue to work with a UBI, except parents who spend more time with their children, and youth who undertake training.
For New Zealand society, having parents raise their own children is a good thing. Some families could attend playgroups, Playcentre or Te Kōhanga Reo so their children reap the many benefits of ECE, without having to spend long hours in daycare.
As we've said elsewhere, Te Kōhanga Reo will get a much needed financial boost over the next four years. But playgroups and Playcentres are still devastatingly underfunded. If we valued parents as educators of their own children, these community-oriented ECE services would get more support.
But TOP doesn’t tell anyone what to do with their UBI, so it’s important we still offer drop-off services for ECE. Kindergarten is an obvious choice, offering quality education to families. Private community-oriented centre-based services should also be supported.
Home-based care is an alternative that could be invested in. Home-based care can reduce risk of emotional development problems in children. Issues such as attachment disorders can develop through a lack of personal attention from adults in busy large-group care settings. Home-based care has the potential to further raise the standards of ECE, give qualified teachers more career options and provide greater community-oriented choice to families.
The home-based sector currently faces some challenges in terms of quality, professionalism and a perception of being a substandard service within the sector. These issues could be overcome with targeted investment and regulation, such as improving adult education requirements, incentives to reach quality funding and attracting registered teachers to the sector, with appropriate pay scales. The quality of our homes are also appalling in some areas of New Zealand and TOP has a vision on how to address this.
TOP advocates Dr Mike Bedford’s 2:8 home-based care model, as a complement to the current 1:4 model. This model was submitted in the recent ECE strategic plan consultation process, but was unfortunately ignored.
Home-based Care 2:8 Model
The core of the concept is to have two adults and up to eight children, in a private home setting. At least one of the adults would be a qualified ECE teacher, and the other at least commencing training. The 2:8 model is an additional option, and not intended as a replacement for the current 1:4 model. This fills a gap between current home-based care and centre-based care. A similar model operates in Helsinki.
The 2:8 model builds on the advantages of home-based care over centre-based care, as it offers:
- Better health benefits - lower infection rates, less noise and more space to run
- A domestic environment rather than an institutional or school-like environment
- Small group size and better ratios – maximum 8 children, maximum 1:9 relationships
- Mixed-age, family-like settings
- Location within a local community, with easy access to community facilities
- Flexibility of activities – less time- or programme-bound
- Use of existing infrastructure – homes, green spaces, community facilities – no need for new centres to be purpose-built.
It has the advantages of two adults on site for safety, facilitates breaks and support for carers, and can involve people in home-based ECE who do not own a home. Alongside the one qualified ECE teacher, educators with other skills and qualifications can be employed. These educators may have years of experience, good rapport with children, special-needs skills, or language and cultural knowledge. This approach brings a more diverse group of people into the ECE workforce.
This model offers opportunities for teacher training and mentoring through ongoing observation and engagement with children. The 2:8 model has the potential to rapidly and significantly raise the professionalism of the sector.
Home-based care is currently poorly funded, making it very difficult for carers to earn a living wage. This model can provide high quality ECE and should be funded as such. The Ministry of Education funding model would need to be amended to place 2:8 home-based per child funding on the same level as centre-based care.
This model requires legislative amendments to the Education (Early Childhood Education Services) Regulations 2010 and the Criteria for Licensing. Teachers would need to be able to retain full registration under this model (this also needs addressing under the 1:4 model). Attention also needs to be given to support for children with special needs, employment vs contracting models, teacher wellbeing and retention, and ensuring funding reaches teachers and isn’t lost to corporate structures.
This approach could also address the staff shortage in ECE. If developed well, it may attract qualified and experienced teachers back into the workforce, many of whom left under the rapid growth of centre-based ECE.
It’s time to rethink ECE in NZ. By focusing on a care and community approach, TOP believes we’ve found a way to do so.
Dr Naomi Pocock is TOP’s Education Spokesperson and Hamilton West Candidate.
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