There is a certain safety in numbers. They comfort us because of the fact that they are impersonal and can often hide things. Take for example the access to early childhood education – a critically important feature of any education system that has aspirations to provide a top quality education to its young people.
The current claimed level of participation is 95% and the government goal (in the Better Public Service goals) is 98%. All this sounds quite favourable but access is not evenly available across the community with some ethnicities (especially Maori and Pasifika) accessing early childhood services at a lower rate and some communities lagging far behind.
I was told the other day that in the Tamaki area the gap in access is alarming. This area is the subject of a focused redevelopment with government agencies and private enterprise looking to lift the entire area in every respect – housing, education, health, and employment. Central to this is access to early childhood education which is critically important to the development of young people and their brains and which in turn leads to a sound education, employment and all the benefits that flow from it. Employment means a family sustaining wage, better housing and health, less reliance on the social welfare system and less contact with the social justice system.
There are in the area of Tamaki being re-developed about 7,000 children aged between 0 and 4 years of age. There are about 2,000 places in early childhood services.
Access to early childhood services in Tamaki is running at around 30%. What hope therefore does redevelopment stand when the fundamentals are missing? Great store is being placed on the use of technology to lift young students’ performance and it well might. But it cannot provide that critical brain development that happens in years 0-3 and which is helped along so much by additional stimulation.
How can this happen in New Zealand?
It happens because we are fooled by national statistics. When we talk of the current level of access to ECE as being 95% we ignore the nuances of difference. It is probably 100% in many communities while in other communities – often hidden in amongst a larger sub-region – it is very much lower. This is true of parts of the southern area of Auckland, rural communities and so on.
There has been over the past couple of decades a marked increase in children accessing ECE services for full days rather than the sessional (i.e. part of a day) that was once common. These youngsters are almost certainly the children of those in employment. They will probably be accessing the 20 hours free ECE that makes the full-time extended access possible for this group rather than have any real impact of increased access for additional young ones. In other words, fewer children are using larger amounts of the resource.
It could be argued that parents pay at private centres for much of this and that is true. But you only have to see the growth in numbers of the palatial Palais des Jeunes being put up around Auckland to see that there is a very considerable amount of money to be made in the provision of services to the pre-schoolers whose parents can afford it. Government funding flows without fear or favour to these centres in the interests of the young people there and that in theory is excellent but it has also led to the ECE resource being very poorly targeted.
It is so hard for local communities to do much about this. I have had the experience of helping a community-based Pacific trust which had been running an early childhood centre for its youngsters for many years and now wished to build a new centre. It was a monumental task to align the resources, the officials, and the trust and to get progress. The centre will soon open and they can take their little ones into a purpose-built centre after having made do with very difficult conditions for many years. It ought to be easier for community based organisations to make progress in this area.
Finally, a solution is staring us in the face while we gaze at the rosy glow of Shangri La of long term goals. ECE services could be placed into each primary school right now. All the issues related to land, to governance, to security and to professional supervision would be solved and additional places created. As is being done in Auckland with a small scale trial, pre-built, purpose-built ECE facilities could be placed onto sites as quickly as they can be supplied. It ought to be possible to get hundreds of more places made available where they are needed and quickly.
Or we can continue to report progress at a snail’s pace as we inch towards numbers that comfort us. Getting access to ECE right is urgent.