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Access and equity

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.24, 26 June 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The unintended consequences of change are not a cause for blame and finger-pointing but it does require a mature response, a calm head and the courage to change course.

This seems to me to be the key lesson of the recent discussion on Early Childhood Education and the qualifications that teachers have or need. Of course logic would tell us that in a specialist area that is a critically important as Early Childhood Education, high qualifications that reflect sound understanding of teaching at this level, that provide a theoretical base on which programmes can be developed to meet the needs of the learner, and which provide for continuity of leadership are simply a good goal to aim at.

All this seems sensible and an excellent direction in which to head.

But the reality is something else. High qualifications in Early Childhood Education have largely become the generator of high levels of subsidy from public money for the proprietors of early childhood centres. The increased funding generated by higher level qualifications leads to a grotesque distortion in the use of money within the sector.

Perhaps the discussion has raised questions about whether the need to have appropriate qualifications across the entire staff of an early childhood centre is the same as everyone having the same high level qualification. This is something that has simply been accepted as a sine qua non – helped along I must say, by the regulations. But this situation has  has never applied in other sectors where a great variety of qualifications at different levels are seen as appropriate.

In the secondary sector one thinks of the deal that the technical teachers received over the past fifty years where they worked with high quality industrial qualifications for lower pay than their colleagues with degrees. When this issue was tackled in the early 1980’s it was largely through an amnesty. In the end it was easier to destroy the industrial arts curriculum than sort out the issue.

That Early Childhood Centres have the potential to become very profitable businesses is evidenced by the growth of centres, many specifically designed for the purpose and built on expense real estate. The dangers of this private enterprise approach have been well illustrated by the collapse in Australia of the ABC Learning Centre network. Private enterprise cannot meet the demand for early childhood education – it also requires investment of the state. And private enterprise has never wanted to do the hard yards in areas which have little money.

With nearly 40% of ECE teachers “unqualified”, the issue seems whopping. But in a balanced team different people will bring different skills and understandings to the task. Surely “unqualified” in this sense simply means “uncredentialled”.

I also believe that the 20 free hours has exacerbated some of the issues. Fewer students are consuming more of the places due to this extra bit of help that parents can get. I have no issue with this but it has not addressed the major issue in the Early Childhood education sector – access.

We know that two years of quality early childhood education is wonderful preparation for school. Those who get this are advantaged as learners right through their educational life. A lot of the ECE resource is, however, going into looking after the really little ones rather than this pre-school group of 3-and 4-year olds. Over 40% of 1 and 2 year olds are enrolled. Much of this is perhaps more a reflection of the pressure families (both single-parent and two-parent) feel from a financial or career point of view. Why can’t we as a civilised country address these issues to the advantage of both the parents and the children and free up more of the resource for the critical 3 and 4 year olds?

While all this discussion continues, there is little talk of that key issue – access. In the Counties Manukau region there are 28,000 children below the age of 5 and yet there are only 10,300 places in early childhood education facilities. Only 36% of students have access to that educational experience which we know is crucial to later success. Surely we do not wonder too hard about the origin of later issues when we so resolutely despatch little ones along the low road to educational failure.

The only solution to this is to not look to the private sector to bring their ECE business to town. The only solution is for the state to provide ECE facilities and services for 3- and 4-year olds in areas such as this. The best option would be to provide early childhood education services within each primary school up to a scale that would meet local demand. The land is available, the site is secure and the playground is relatively easy to achieve.

Staffing is the next big challenge. Questions must be asked about whether there is such a need for an evenly flat qualifications structure. Then there is the pool of inactive teachers. Many of these are Pacific-trained teachers who could easily and quickly be retrained. I know of one organisation that claims to have 100 such teachers on their books and ready to go, but action is slow. Pressure-cooker teacher education courses were de rigueur once.

I have little patience for some of the grizzling that has gone on in this discussion. Those who chose to ignore the requirements can hardly expect to impress us with their indignation. But it needs sorting out.

Of course it also needs commitment from a whole education system that this is a priority area for spending. The investment at those early years will save costs in later years. Marian Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund put it like this: “We invest in children because the cost to the public of sickness, neglect, dependence, and unemployment over the long term exceeds the cost of preventive investment in health, education, employed youth, and stable families.”

The troubled 15- to 19-year olds were once little ones. How many of them might have been saved from themselves and in the process saved us if the $1 billion they cost us each year now had been invested in their early childhood education?

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