Skip to content

Tag: access

Pathways-ED: We will reap what we sow!


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.


Leave a Comment

Talk-ED: Being fluent about equity is not the same as actually wanting it


Equity” and “access” are difficult concepts in educational discussions and I think that it is “access” that causes most of the problems.

There is a feeling that access is there then equity can be assumed. Everyone gets the chance to go to school (let’s put ECE to one side for a moment). If the chance is there then the system is equitable.  But that is a very limited view of access.  The point of an education is in the first instance and in the immediate future for most people something else.  Being in education is necessary but is not in itself sufficient to make claims about equity.

It is what education gives you access to that is the marker of an equitable education system. It could be that for many it can provide a set of successive opportunities to continue in education and training at the next level and to be successful at each level. For others it might more quickly provide that opportunity to enter the workforce. That is of course not the end of education and training because a well-positioned education system has opportunities for re-entry and new opportunities.  And good employers want to be part of this process.

But an education system that gives you access to little or nothing because it has failed to provide you with skills and knowledge to a level where the journey can continue is not an education system that can be said to have acceptable levels of equity.

So in measuring the equity of the different levels, access becomes an important tool. Early childhood education, primary education and secondary education all have the task of preparing the student for higher levels of learning and training or to put it another way, providing students with the tools, knowledge and skills to have access to further education and learning. From about Year 10 the kinds of access that will emerge place more complexity on the role of the educator. It could be that access to a range of further education and training sits alongside the skills and knowledge required for employment – being both college ready and career ready as the Americans would put it.

In short, an education system that has high levels of equity is one that will have continue to provide high levels of access to people as they journey through it.

So that requires citizens who aspire to have a highly educated community that values equitable access in its widest sense. This is in itself means that education has responsibilities to attend to the ethical and civic dimensions of development. If education in a systemic way and over time is successful, the community as a whole would aspire to have the highest levels of access and equity for all its people. “Equity” is a direct outcome of educational quality and therefore, as former US Secretary of Education Richard Riley asserts, a quality education for all is the “new civil right”.

So it is not enough to simply work towards an education system that can lift achievement. Such a goal can only have meaning in the wider social context where equitable outcomes across the whole community are sine qua non. The reason for listing performance and achievement is so that we can have that equitable society.

That then raises the question – do we want an equitable society in New Zealand? If the results we are getting (pretty good for many) continue to produce the levels of access and equity that it does (very low for some), and we know this and continue not to act to improve our performance for all students, you would have to say that we do not.

That seems a little harsh. But two things do encourage us to discourage us to continue as we do – the segregation between schools and community’s in terms of access and equity outcomes and our focus only on what happens within the school gates.

The focus on a wider challenge might encourage us to do better and to do it differently. G K Chesterton put it like this: “The main fact about education is that there is no such thing. Education is a word like “transmission” or “inheritance”; it is not an object but a method.”  Education is not a self-serving end in itself.

It seems appropriate on Bastille Day to remind you that many in the past have fought for access and equity. Is it time for us to storm the barricades of educational failure and disengagement once and for all?

Marchons professeurs, formez vos batailonsMon Dieu! Quelle rime abominable!

Leave a Comment

Talk-ED: A new year, a new response?


Stuart Middleton
23 January 2012

It’s that time again when all over the country students set off to start another calendar year of schooling, education and training. Some of those students will be the first batch of the 30,000 or so who will start school for the first time having reached that magic day, their fifth birthday. What a wonderful thing it is that we retain this tradition rather than do the bulk lot thing that they do in other systems (the Feb or Sept start).

The social contract is clear. Students are required to attend school regularly starting at the appropriate age, do what is asked of them, develop appropriate social behaviours and wear correct uniform. For their part, schools are required to teach a specific curriculum to a set of specific standards. If each party meets its obligations a young person should be able to face a secure future with knowledge, skills and aspirations that will take them into adulthood and able to earn a family sustaining age.

Well, that is all very well and good in theory. Increasingly schooling in schools is not enough and a postsecondary qualification is essential. So that brings into play another set of complexities – tertiary education. The young one’s starting school do not realise the extent to which that will present challenges that they are not often able to control.

So all of these little ones and their bigger brothers and sisters setting off to school at the moment in their new polo shirts of primary colours and sun hats big enough to camp under, face a treacherous pathway ahead. Actually they would have walked to school once upon a time but now an armoured division of SUVs will see them safely to school in many suburbs while in others parents will walk to school with them.

Do they know what their chances are?

I did a little study – what a real statistician would call a quick and dirty job – of a cohort of 100 New Zealand babies, right numbers of different ethnicities and so on, and applied what we know to be the success/failure trajectories of each group. I concluded that of those 100 babies born last year, only 29 would achieve a postsecondary qualification on the current performance of the education system, 71 would not. And I do not mean a degree qualification. I mean anything from a postsecondary certificate up. So about one in three will reach the minimum level of qualifications required.

That aligns with what we know to be the picture of disengagement and I do not see evidence that suggests that there is a trend of improvement. The increase in disengagement is stubbornly resistant to the efforts of educators.

One reason is that the demographics are working against us – the groups of students we teach well and to internationally stunning levels are getting smaller while the groups that struggle (and have for longer than we care to admit) are getting bigger.

Add to that the steady placement of vocational education options at increasingly older entry levels along with a blind belief that the comprehensive secondary school might meet the needs of all students (it never has in the past why should it now?) and that figure of 29% successfully competing a postsecondary qualification looks to be a stretch in 30 or 40 years.

Change in the education system is urgently needed and that is up to the grown ups not the little ones. So here is an agenda for professional concerns in 2012:

First, all jurisdictions want accountability one way or another so get over it and move on. If National Standards are right then change them but work constructively in the system rather than continue to bamboozle the community by staunchly rejecting standards – well that is how it seems to an outsider.

Secondly, seriously question whether we have been pulling the wool over the community’s eyes on the question of what schools can actually do. Less is more in curriculum design so sorting out what matters and doing that will make all the other stuff easy to do. If someone can read well they can do anything. Equitable access to technology is more important than more programmes (admit it, you got a gadget for Xmas and gave it to your grandchild to show you how to get it going).

Let’s be adamant about what schools can do and then ensure that we do that stuff so well that each and every student will receive a brilliant start in life through education.

Thirdly, get purpose into the lives of young people at school. Why they are there is the most important factor – if I ask a child in school the question “Why are you doing that?” and they cannot answer I seriously question the quality of the teaching.

Related to this is that focus on the end game of education. Forty years ago when everything seemed to be working and most people were in fact working, a central goal of education was to equip people to work. Is that such a bad thing? Sanitising education so that it is not tainted by vocational goals is crazy. Actually the universities know this and are blatantly vocational under the guise of being the critics and conscious of other people.

Having a strong focus on employability in real jobs need not in any way jeopardise the attainment of a liberal education which is in fact one which liberates and what could be more liberating to those imprisoned by educational failure to have such a quality education?

None of this seems very difficult really. It is just that it is urgent! Those little fellows starting the journey over the next 10 days or so need to be assured that it is worthwhile. The results in the school success statistics in 2025 will not be some disembodied set of figures, they will in fact be each and every one of these little ones.


Leave a Comment

EDTalkNZ: Glancing at OECD Statistics


Dave Guerin, CEO/Education Strategist for Education Directions, is today’s guest writer.

The OECD’s Education at a Glance publication kicks off a global rush each year to find the statistics that best prove your previous beliefs. Last week’s release was no exception.

In a perfect educational world, we would all have a deep understanding of our own and other educational systems. In reality, even those who are sector leaders or journalists are often too busy (or can’t be bothered) to go beyond the surface of things. So when a shiny set of comparative statistics comes out, it is far too easy to cherry-pick a few to make your case about how the world should be.

In New Zealand, the story about the OECD figures was that our public tertiary education fees were the seventh highest in the world. That does seem to be true but if you go to the relevant section of the 2011 Education at a Glance, you will find that:

  • only 23 countries were listed in the chart on p.258, so we’re 7/23;
  • the note to the chart says “This chart does not take into account grants, subsidies or loans that partially or fully offset the student’s tuition fees.”;
  • another chart on p.256 shows that New Zealand is fourth highest in the world (4/18) for the proportion of students benefitting from public loans, scholarships or grants;
  • a chart on p.269 shows that we spend the highest proportion of tertiary education spending of any of the nations listed on student loans (1/19);  and
  • text on p.257 states that NZ has one of the highest rates of access in the world.

My reading of all that is that we have high fees, but these are offset by near universal access to student loans, which are in turn subsidised greatly to reduce their real cost, meaning that access to tertiary education remains very open. In short, the real price of New Zealand tertiary education is low enough to let lots of people study.

My research might seem like a lot of trouble, but it only took 20 minutes on a rainy afternoon to write this whole piece. Of course, if you can’t be bothered with that, you could take the approach of Universities UK. In a two paragraph media release, UUK didn’t even bother citing a statistic – they just inserted the OECD’s name into their narrative about the need of higher spending.

Dave Guerin

Leave a Comment

Pathways-ED: Access isn't a doorway, it's a pathway

Stuart Middleton
16 July 2011

I have just finished attending a conference in San Diego that looked at success and retention in higher education. It was a good collection of folk from a number of countries and the presentations were a mix of the earnest through to the thought provoking. I did a couple of things including taking part in a panel. I got called to account by a fellow by focussing on “access” in one of my comments.

“In our country we have excellent access to higher education. It is just that a number of young people are not sufficiently prepared academically to get into the institutions.” I just had to firmly but nicely point out that this hardly constituted good access. The old problem is still there – access is thought of in terms of getting in the door.

I much prefer, and I commented along the lines (and received support) that “access” is best thought of as an outcome of education. What does your education give you access to? That is the key question and the only measure of access.

To pick up again that little three dot theme from the last couple of weeks – I promise to give it a rest after this – it is worth  thinking of access and early childhood education as a starting point and therefore appropriately useful to retain an “access into” concept. That is why it is so crucial that this access is not allowed to become simply an accident of birth or where your Mum happens to live. That would be a cruel punishment to visit on a child.

But schooling is another matter. Primary and secondary schooling is surely based on an assumption that both will give to a young person access into something else. If a young person cannot progress through the system because they have not been taught in primary school to read or to do sums then their access to secondary education will have been severely curtailed by their primary school experience.

The point to which a young person is taken by their secondary schooling will in fact be their access to whatever is to follow. Access to postsecondary education, a career, a family sustaining income, to the skills of being able to contribute as a positive and productive citizen will in large measure be a direct reflection of access accruing from secondary schooling.

Then success at a postsecondary level and all that follows will again be a matter of access, to a profession, to a career, to being able to earn money and much more money and so on.

Placing “access” into the position of being a measure of education success rather than simply saying that they have had good access if they can walk through the school gates and later into the hallowed halls regardless of the success at each stage is a much more productive way if thinking about it.

Less controversial is thinking of “equity” in much that same way. Equity is an outcome and a measure of how fair and effective has each person’s education been. It is not equity if having given a diverse range of people the same opportunity but with uneven levels of successful outcomes. Equity is when all members of our community, whether they be rich or poor, of whatever ethnicity….Wait a minute, someone else said all this in New Zealand.

They were right.

“Access” and “equity”, still the biggest challenges we face.

Leave a Comment

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

Stuart Middleton
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.

Leave a Comment

Talk-ED: Episode 3 – The Destiny of Destination

Stuart Middleton
7 June 2011

Folks, today we wrap up the continuing 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 3: Postsecondary Qualification

The first step achieved, two years of quality early childhood education, and then the second knocked off, NCEA Level 2 in the bag. There remains only one more step to ensure a life of relative success in education and all that flows from that – the gaining of a postsecondary qualification

Of course, in the long run, the level of qualification that is obtained will have a relative benefit in terms of money. Certificate, diploma, degree, postgraduate qualification and doctorate will all brings rewards but the highest has some relationship to the level of the qualification. But the biggest gap is between those who do not have a post secondary qualification and those who do.

And from the countries point of view, any postsecondary qualification will be of benefit to the country. Most importantly, getting one postsecondary qualification could lead to getting a higher qualification. A surprising fact is that if young school leavers have no gap between getting their school leaving qualification and success with a postsecondary qualification at any level they are very likely to go on to a high qualification.

Why is it beyond us to take note of these simple facts and make them our goals. This country has the best teachers in the world, something obscured a bit by the whingers and those frightened of change, but the fact remains – when New Zealand teachers get it right they get it better than anyone else.

So let’s go for it and make sure that each and every young person gets to the postsecondary qualification. Then it is over to the tertiary sector. But don’t underestimate the challenge that this would be. The most robust education statistic over the last sixty years is the fact that in English speaking countries a little under half of those who start a postsecondary qualification actually finish it. That is, remember, only half of those who start a qualification!

So we had better start acting in tertiary education thinking more about the student and more about how a co-ordinated network of provision could provide success for each and every student. This will require a step change in tertiary institutions – it is, folk, all about the students not about the institutions. We need concerted action to see that students are in the right course and flexibility to react professionally when they are not. Parity of esteem should be about not how we see each other but how we see each student.

Until New Zealand catches up, the greatest need will be for low level programmes and institutions that specialise at that level, being allowed to grow to cater for this. Over time – 15 to 20 years? – the growth should shift to those catering for higher levels as failure at school and at low levels of postsecondary programmes slowly disappear from our midst. Is this just a pipe dream?

The three dots connected would provide the basis for a targeted education system that sees a well-qualified community develop a skill-rich economy that puts New Zealand where it belongs. There is agreement that until the long tail of educational failure and disadvantage disappears, New Zealand will only fire on three cylinders. Wealth generated by the qualified and the skilled will, if there continues to be inaction on these matters, simply be soaked up in providing for those who take and do not generate that wealth.

This set of goals can do the job:

1.  Each and every New Zealand pre-school child will have access to two years of quality early childhood education.

2.  Each and every young person in New Zealand will graduate from secondary school with at least NCEA Level 2.

3.  Each and every young adult in New Zealand will complete a postsecondary qualification

Why are these goals appropriate and important?

Evidence supports the view that when a young child has access to quality early childhood education (i.e. 15 hours per week for two years with qualified teachers), he or she will not only be equipped to start the journey through school but also be advantaged throughout their entire education.

Finishing and graduating from secondary school with the recognised school leaving qualification (and this is NCEA Level 2 in New Zealand) makes a school leaver highly likely to proceed to a postsecondary qualification.

Finally, completing a postsecondary qualification is the marker of a potential lifelong learner. When that postsecondary qualification is gained without a break after completing secondary school the student will in all likelihood go on to a qualification at a higher level.

Can we do it?  Yes, we can.  Must we do it?  Yes, we must.  Will we do it? Well …

Just close your eyes and imagine a world in which each young person is unleashed on the future.  Dr Seuss in his wonderful book Oh, the Places you’ll Go!

You have brains in your head
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.

1 Comment

Pathways-ED: Episode 2 – Crossing the Prairie

Stuart Middleton
2 June 2011

Folks this is the continuing 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 2: Schooling

Having got off to good start in Early Childhood Education (and three cheers to the ECE Taskforce that has recommended the ending of the untargeted 20 free hours) it’s off to school. I do not know any young person who doesn’t want to go to school at the age of five – why does that not last for the 13 years we would like them to be in school? The second dot is the successful completion of at least NCEA Level 2. Students who complete the school leaving qualification are likely to go on to complete a postsecondary qualification.

Schooling is divided into Primary and Post-Primary for a good reason. Primary is what comes first and post-primary builds on that. The use of the term secondary is relatively modern (indeed the NZPPTA preserves this useful reminder of the connection between the two in its name).

What is the role of the primary system? Well. I don’t think that it is very complex. It is to put in place an array of basic skills that lay the foundation for further education and training. Becoming a lifelong learner starts at primary school and those who fail to put into place those skills have no chance of becoming a lifelong learner – it’s that important.

What are the skills? As Dame Edna would say : “Call me old-fashioned Possums, but……” Surely the essential skills of language have to be at the top of the list. Reading, writing, listening, speaking are central skills in anything. If you can read you can do anything, learn anything. If you can write you interface with the world in so many different ways. Listening and speaking are keystone skills in team activity, working with others, being engaged with others, taking an active role as a citizen. Lack of these skills is crippling and limiting.

We wouldn’t even consider all those strange concepts such as financial literacy, computer literacy, food literacy and so on if everyone had high level language skills which these days are wrapped up usefully in the term “literacy”.

Sums, maths, numbers, numeracy, call it whatever you like but students who are good at this are well-equipped to tackle so many other things. The skills are fundamental. If you have to learn the tables to do this then just get on with it. If you have to do 20 mental arithmetic questions each day to increase ease and facility with numbers then do it.

It would be good if students developed some sense and understanding of the country in which they lived but it would have to be authentic – the modern, diverse country they live in not the world of Julius Vogel. Slowly the history of our nation would come into play and then there would develop an understanding of other countries. Primary school is also the place at which an ease with Te Reo Maori could usefully be developed.

Probably there is a need for a much narrower curriculum focus than that currently pursued but that might seem to lose too many valuable things that primary schools do. It will boil down to priorities.

When it comes to post-primary education there is clearly continuation of the development of language and of numeracy with an increasing emphasis on the ways language is used for varying purposes. It was always a disappointment that the notion of language across the curriculum enjoyed such a short life-span in secondary schools. Its intent was good but its execution was never able to overcome the silos of subjects.

As students approach the end of Year 10, the knowledge that they need to have around careers, vocational pathways and suchlike becomes central to their formulating a plan for intelligent subject choice and emphases through their senior schooling. So we are probably looking to start this process as early as Year 8 and perhaps even earlier. The goal of the senior secondary school must be to equip each and every student with the skills, knowledge and competencies required to proceed seamlessly to post-secondary study.

As with primary schools, doing less with increased focus and greater integration is probably a useful catchcry in reforming the secondary school curriculum.

The school system is central to a well-performing education system. Alternative programme and interventions can only operate at the edges – the bulk of students will and indeed must succeed in the school system. Schools cannot do everything. They are not resourced to do everything. It is timely for the school system to decide what it does best (and there is some evidence that it is in international terms a pretty good best) and get on with that.

Tune in next Monday for the last instalment in this story of connecting the dots.

 Episode 3 on Thursday:      The Destiny of Destination

Leave a Comment

Talk-ED: Episode 1 – Starting the Journey

Stuart Middleton
30 May 2011

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

1 Comment