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Think-Ed: Post- budget musings

Stuart Middleton


24 May 2010


The government is getting good advice from somewhere and this is apparent in the budget announcements related to education.

Of course there was the compulsory and indignant hue and cry about Early Childhood Education. But changing policies in ECE is not a form of child abuse nor should any education sector be left alone to travel in unproductive directions when it is clear that change is necessary.

The 20 Free Hours was always going to be something of a dog. It was totally untargeted and the fears that it would not increase participation nor would it see inroads being made in areas where access was appallingly low. This has turned out to be true. Fewer students consume more of the resource and while the 20 free hours is fine in theory and attractive to young parents – of course it is – it needed a good re-think. If the additional spending ($200 miliion) had been announced without the other attendant changes it might even have been greeted with glee.

The much praised intention of getting in place a highly qualified teaching force in early childhood education is becoming something of a perverse driver of funding allocation. Centres can effect dramatic increases in funding by getting their staff qualified without any increase in the numbers of children who have access to ECE. I was startled a little by a recent newspaper article I read in which the proprietor of a ECE centre spoke with pride that the $70,000 they had spent in getting their staff up to the required level was a good investment in terms of the additional funding that it brought in.

With ECE spending now at $1.4 billion it seems appropriate to ask whether it has the impact on education that it should. And whether the funding is being consumed increasingly by factors that do not increase access.

A few extra places for tertiary seems appropriate – not many but a few. But floating around this was a hint that the issue of paying out for unsuccessful students is a luxury that one day will have to cease. This will be one of the biggest issues tertiary education has had to face when the government decides to act – middle of its second term perhaps?

It is interesting that the fact that about half of those starting a post-secondary qualification complete it while about half do not has been remarkably static over a very long time and it seems to be able to resist reforms, increases so-called in participation, the growing of “tertiary” offerings downwards and so on.

Finding a mechanism to fund only success will not be easy. Of course the universities will be able to respond simply by becoming more selective which will suit some of them but not others. There will have to be some really hard thinking around the place “open access” has in our system. This role is carried by the community colleges in the US and de facto by the polytechnic system in New Zealand.

And this is where early childhood education (with its 20 free hours) and tertiary (with its open access) come together to share a similar issue. How do you balance the importance of targeting expenditure with the fact that you have to throw it around a bit simply because it is difficult to predict success. Perhaps the answer in both cases is to give the money directly one way or another to the parent of the little ones and, in tertiary, to the prospective student.

At this point reasoned discussion is usually drowned out by a wild mob screaming “voucher, voucher, voucher!”

But to continue. Perhaps it is the responsibility of the tertiary student to be accountable for their success and therefore their ability to continue studies rather than the institution. Failure to maintain a satisfactory level of success simply sees the allowance withdrawn. This would place an appropriate level of pressure on the institution which would be relying on continued success for enrolments at higher levels but that is exactly the case now.

This is all very well but one suspects that throwing the cash at it is in the long term the cheaper option. The word cumbersome springs to mind in thinking about the systems required to manage all this.

Targeting resources in education is perhaps not a very precise science. I guess it depends on whether you are content to hit the target or whether you want to hit the bulls eye.

Access has the look of a good investment. But it is unless it is measured in terms of outputs rather than inputs. It is what the Early Childhood Education programme gives a little one access to which matters. Presumably this is access to a good start at school or is there another purpose that I haven’t latched on to yet?

At a tertiary level, access is about what the tertiary education experience gives you access to – increased opportunity, employment, the ability to support your family and so on. Access isn’t worth much if it means only getting in to the place and exercising your right to fail.

It’s not so much the spending but the way we are spending.

Published inEducation

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