Talk-ED: Big issues in the world of the little ones

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
13 June 2011

From San Francisco

I’m over in the USA catching up with colleagues working in the secondary / tertiary interface area. California is experiencing pretty tough times politically and economically with budgets under real pressure and education budgets taking a hit. It’s worse here than it is at home.

It always surprises me when we get chatting how much we share in common with our American colleagues. But it wasn’t in the area of secondary / tertiary interfaces that we found an item of shared interest that dropped out of a conversation. It was with regard to the little ones under five years of age. We concluded that both our systems were under some pressure due to much the same issue – confusion between day care and early childhood education.

Childcare is where a young little one is looked after with care and to a high standard by people qualified to provide such care. They attend to their creature needs and see that they are happy and relaxed and getting along well with their peers and with adults. Of course some learning takes place – no-one has yet discovered how to stop little ones learning thank goodness, but it is not the structured teaching and learning of an early childhood education programme. These childcare centres require people with the requisite skills and they need to be closely regulated and controlled. But that are not early childhood education centres.

Early childhood education is structured teaching in ways that are appropriate to 3 and 4 year olds in areas that are appropriate and methods that reflect the critical concern for non-cognitive behaviours. There is an element of school-readiness in this and it is in addition to the care of little ones who remain very much in need of a safe environment under the watch of highly trained teachers.

Our current 1-5 system is seriously confused about these distinctions and the boundaries are so blurred that “care” and “education” mean much the same thing.

Over the past 10 days in this blog we have dealt with the three dots of a successful start to lifelong learning – two years of quality early childhood education, graduating from high school and gaining a postsecondary qualification. Currently New Zealand is doing quite well with the first of these until the provisions of quality early childhood education (two years of 15 hours per week) is scrutinized in urban areas of high Maori and Pasifika populations. Access is unacceptably low in many of these areas and until we get all three and four year olds into quality early childhood education for 15 hours a week over two years, the resources for pre-school care and education should be directed to that end.

I applaud the scrapping of the twenty hours on non-means tested care/education and applaud the scrutiny that the resources are now going to be put under. Yes, I have sympathy for those who need the twenty free hours to work in order to supplement their incomes but that is another issue. The ECE resource must be used according to principles of access for little ones not the size of their parents mortgages and rationed according to rules around universal ECE access. All three and four year olds must be in an early childhood centre for two days a week for the two years prior to their starting school. When that is achieved and cemented in place a more liberal approach might be able to be taken.

Of course there is nothing to stop centres both private and state offering child care for those younger but this must not be at the expense of 3 and 4 year olds getting their early childhood education and therefore this becomes the priority for state funding. There is probably enough to go around.

I have had final responsibility for early childhood centres as a secondary principal, as a senior manager in a teachers college, at a polytechnic and most recently as Chairman of Directors of a company that ran among its many activities, five early childhood centres. I know how the funding levers work and how they act in a perverse manner to achieve objectives that are not those of offering quality early childhood education to all three and four year olds for the two years before school. I know what the levels of trained staff do to the income streams. It all needs looking at.

The early years have become the last bastion of funding by volume and the results have been no more acceptable than they ever proved to be at other levels.

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