If this was television then today we start a three episode mini-saga, a story of inevitable success and failure in which those in power and with power know what to do but find it difficult to get things right. It is a story of real human tragedy and real human joy; it leads to the best that our blessed country can achieve and to the very worst.
Folks this is the story of the three dots. Those critical markers in education. The milestones along the educational journey to a bright future in which there are jobs and income, and civic participation, and better health and housing and happiness. Not just for some, but for all.
Dot 1: Early Childhood Education
It is rather obvious that if you wish to reach your destination it is a good idea to get on the train. In education, the best start you can have is to have access to two years of quality early childhood education. This is defined as 15 hours per week with trained teachers in a well-equipped and safe environment.
We do not achieve this equitably in New Zealand currently. National levels of access look quite good and the trends are promising but there are too many pockets in our population where access is very low. This was emphasised by the Minister of Education in announcing the new funding being made available to address this.
Ironically at the same time there were complaints from responsible sources that there was a worrying trend of young people having too much access. It seems that some little ones are in early childhood centres for 40 hours a week over five years leading to a total of 10,000 hours before the age of five. The two years quality rule would lead to 1,500 hours. If a little one is spending over eight hours a day in a centre for five years, it can only mean that the imperatives of employment are placing parents into the situation where they either have little choice or they make that choice because they are able to. It is being questioned whether being a fulltime ECE student from age 0 = a few months until the age of five is desirable.
That might be true but a net result of this is that places are then not available for others.
And that is a major impact of the 20 free hours early childhood education policy that seemed so promising and forward-looking when it was introduced. It even seemed better when the restrictions on access to it were removed by taking away the means testing. But whereas once a young parent could afford X hours of care to return to work, they could now afford X + 20 hours. In this way the 20 hours free policy has not operated to allow an increased number of little ones access to ECE but has rather allowed the same number of little ones to have increased access. This loose policy needs review urgently and the resources targeted much more carefully.
But access is controlled to a large extent by where early childhood centres are. The best indicator of desirable location is where the large, flash, private centres are built. They are liberally dotted through the rich suburbs and avoid with a vengeance any presence in the poor suburbs. Private centres go where the money is and leave the state to cater for the little ones in other communities. It is in those other communities where the needs are greatest both economically and educationally.
At a recent education summit in Auckland, Dr Peter Gluckman emphasised the need for ECE as the mechanism for laying down the non-cognitive behaviours that were so critical to education and which were developed in those early years. In fact he was critical of the emphasis in early childhood education on cognitive skills at the expense of these non-cognitive areas. It is the non-cognitive skills that build the foundation for much of the success that people enjoy in their journey and certainly it is at the heart of educational success. Research associated with the Head Start programme in the USA seems consistently to point to the long-term benefits of participation in this programme aimed at increasing access to early childhood education for disadvantaged little ones and the development of non-cognitive skills is emphasised in many studies. It is not the teaching reading and writing that makes ECE important, it is the development of non-cognitive skills.
It ought to be possible in New Zealand for us to achieve full universal access to early childhood education. The equity gap between those who do get access and those who don’t simply has to be closed if we are serious about starting little ones on the journey to educational success.
A bizarre note on which to finish. This week it was reported that videoconferencing via Skype has been introduced at eight Universal Childcare centres around Australia. The aim is to give working parents and grandparents more face-to-face time with the children. Really?
So, dot one is that all New Zealand children will have access to two years of quality early childhood education.
Episode 2 on Thursday: Crossing the Prairie