Skip to content

Tag: early childhood education

What the naughty people did


(A Tale in the style of Listen with Mother)

“Good morning girls and boys.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Once upon a time in Auckland there was a group of lovely Mummys and Daddys who came from a little tiny beautiful island called Niue. They were beautiful people who wanted their beautiful girls and boys to grow up ready for school, and having fun, and being able to speak two languages. Yes, weren’t those girls and boys lucky?

But the Mummys and Daddys from Niue needed a house for their Kindergarten. Do you know what a kindergarten is? It is a lovely little school where girls and boys just like you go to play and to learn and to do things that will help them when they get to school.

Well, the Mummys and Daddys from Niue were lucky and found an old schoolhouse that was no longer being used. It wasn’t very nice but it was better than being outside when it rained! Have you been outside when it rains? It isn’t very nice, is it?  All the girls and boys and their Mummys and Daddys used this old schoolhouse for many years because they weren’t able to get the men and ladies from the big office building in town to agree to help them get a new kindergarten. The old schoolhouse became quite a tumbledown affair but still the girls and boys came to the kindergarten.

But, one day, the postman brought some good news. Do you remember what a postman is? Yes? The nice postman brought the Mummys and Daddys a letter that said that the men and ladies from the big office building in town were going to help them get a new kindergarten. Everyone was very very happy.

Along came the builder, his name was Bob. Along came the truck with the cement. And another truck with some timber. Bang, bang, bang went the hammers. Squeal, squeal, squeal went the electric saws. And soon a new kindergarten was built. Shiny and new, after all those years of waiting, the Mummys, Daddys, girls and boys from Niue were going to have their brand new kindergarten. They were all very happy.

But there was one more job to do. They had to build a sandpit. Do you like playing in a sandpit? Along came a little digger to make a little hole for the little sandpit. Then guess what happened? The little digger dug up some very nasty yucky stuff called asbestos. “Oh!” cried the digger man, “Oh!” cried the officials. Asbestos is very dangerous when it is dug up by a digger. And so they chained the gate, locked the doors and went away to find out what to do. And they never came back.

The Mummys and Daddys told the men and ladies in the big building in town about it but they must have been very busy people because nothing happened. The men and ladies in the big building in town were trying to find out who had to get all the nasty asbestos out of the hole. And still everyone waited.

Six months later – do you know how long six months is? Yes it is one whole spring and one whole summer. That’s a long time isn’t it? Well, six months later the new kindergarten, all shiny and bright was still waiting for the digger man and the other workers to come back and finish the sandpit.

“Why are we waiting?” asked the Mummys and Daddys.

“Why can’t we play in our new kindergarten?” asked the girls and the boys.

Then one weekend, when everyone had gone home, some naughty people broke a window and climbed into the new kindergarten. They did some naughty things like throw paint around. They broke windows. They “trashed” the place.

So the girls and boys from Niue still go to kindergarten in their old tumbledown schoolhouse. The new schoolhouse is still empty but now it is also badly damaged. The sand pit is still unfinished and the boys and girls and Mummys and Daddys are sad. They have waited for ten years for their new kindergarten. One day Bob the builder and the digger man might come back and clean up the new building. Then everyone will be happy.

Did you like that story? Tomorrow we will have a happy story.

Goodbye children.”

Studio Announcer:

“That was listen with Mother with Daphne Oxenford. The BBC wishes to advise that today’s story is based on true events that are unfolding in Auckland, New Zealand. Next we have a repeat of The Archers.”

Leave a Comment

There’s more than one way to reach the stars!

Rather than let off a few sky rockets on yet another silly day we remember, hard on the heels of that even sillier day called Halloween, I thought I would throw a few ideas up in the air as we head towards the end of the year. These are called game-changers. They would lift educational performance in New Zealand. We have known most of these for a long time but other things get in the way. On Thursday I will give a complementary list of show-stoppers.

Principals of secondary schools are welcome to use these lists as they put the final touches to their prize-giving addresses.

The “Game Changers” List

1. Access to early childhood education

It astounds me that in this rich country we still have uneven distribution of opportunity for early childhood education. I do not need to repeat the evidence, it is over whelming. And the lack of equity in the area is hidden by two factors – quirky gatherings of information about actual participation (likely to be lower than reported) and the evening out of statistics into regional and national figures.

A stark statistic: In the Tamaki suburb in Auckland there are 7,000 youngsters under the age of five and there are 2,000early childhood education places.

A quick but excellent fix: In areas of low participation, add an early childhood facility to each primary school – same Board, same management, shared outdoor facilities, great savings. Best of all, it would be goodbye to the entangling bureaucracy that surrounds the development of conventional centres.

2 Greater attention to basic skills in primary schools

I might be naïve but it is bizarre that in the country that led the world not only in reading performance but also in the teaching of reading that so many children fail to reach a safe standard in the eight years of primary schooling. The same can be said of mathematics (sometimes called numeracy). Add to the list the development of knowledge, social skills, preparedness for further education, and exposure to arts and practical skills all in a context of new technologies and you would have not only an interesting programme but one which didn’t place so many students on a trajectory of failure.

A stark fact: Students show a decline in learning in key areas between Year 4 and Year 8.

A quick but excellent fix: Demand that primary schools do less but that they do it to higher standards. The foundation skills are taught in primary schools. Isn’t it ironic that the term “foundation skills” has been transferred to the first several years of post-secondary education and training for those who have failed to accrue such skills and this is clearly too late.

3. See a clear distinction between junior and senior secondary schools.

Education systems that we admire and would wish to emulate invariably have a clear distinction between what is in New Zealand Year 10 and Year 11. The first two years of high school are years of finishing off the processes started in primary school and the preparation for discipline focussed study that is in a context of future employment. Years 11 and 13 in these overseas systems are clearly differentiated with the availability of clear vocational technical opportunities emerging to complement the university track (which is working well in New Zealand). In other words, young students have choices about their futures.

Another shared feature is that at that age students are credited with much greater maturity but also supported to a much greater degree. The style and organisation of schooling is more akin to a tertiary institution than to the primary schools from which the secondary schools evolved.

A stark statistic: By age 16 years 21% of 16 year olds have dropped out of New Zealand schooling system.

A quick but excellent fix:  Sorry folks, but there isn’t one. This area is where the most comprehensive reforms are needed. Put simply, apart from the track to university, the New Zealand senior secondary school is broken. That style of education no longer suits too many of our young people. Don’t despair – we share this with our sibling systems in Australia, the United States, the UK and most of Canada. WE need to look elsewhere for evidence of what works and then craft our own responses for our particular circumstances.

4 Cement the output of graduates from tertiary education to employment.

There needs to be a clear line of sight between tertiary programmes and employment. I know that the universities resist any such notion – I have been told by those who know that such a connection is not helpful – “We do not train people, we educate them.” Just think of it, all those untrained doctors, ophthalmologists, engineers, lawyers – what rubbish such a claim is.  And in light of the unrelenting marketing of universities as the place to secure a future, to get high earning powered positions it is simply not sense.

Tertiary education is expensive both for the taxpayer and for the students who are the sons and daughters of taxpayers. They have a right to know that their investment in education at a tertiary level be it at a university, an ITP, a PTE a Wananga or wherever will lead to a job. If a degree in business has prepared you to look after the valet parking desk at the airport (as was a case I came across recently) then it can only be concluded that the programme offered little in the way of access.

A stark statistic:  About one half of those who start a post-secondary qualification actually complete it.

A quick but excellent fix:  it seems as if we are drifting towards a situation where tertiary providers are to be held accountable for the progress into employment of their graduates. If this were applied to all levels and types of tertiary education it might well be a good thing. Of course it would have to be first accepted that a key purpose of post-secondary education and training is to get the appropriate job. This might also require a better connection between demand and supply in the labour market. Consideration of these a matters need to be sped up.

Leave a Comment

Pathways-ED: Big 3 Budget boon!

Stuart Middleton
24 May 2012



In amongst a budget that was pretty flat on excitement, there was some good news for education. Spending will bring some benefits to education some increase in the operating grants and the broadband roll-out will continue. Universities get another slurp into the PBRF research trough and there is a focus on science and engineering for increased EFTS funding.

Of course there is a downside – largely borne by the students who pay back loans a little more steeply, means testing remains and a new targeting of such assistance onto first degrees constitute something of a curate’s egg rather than a golden goose’s egg.

But the big three for me, no surprise here, is the increase in early childhood participation, the increase in the number of youth guarantee places and the NCEA Level 2 target.

To raise the ECE target to 98% from the current 94.7% might seem a modest increase but it is a huge ask in some communities. Access to early childhood education across different communities with different characteristics is discrepant. So if the goal is to be achieved do not expect a little bit for everyone, this will have to be well and truly targeted.

The increase in Youth Guarantee places is throwing good money after good money. The fees free places are providing a valuable opportunity for young people who otherwise might well lose momentum in the school setting, to enter a tertiary programme and, if indications from the first couple of years are a guide, succeed and move into qualifications that will lead them into real jobs.

Then there is the NCEA Target. It is stark in its expression! By 2016 85% of all 18 year olds will achieve NCEA Level 2 (or its equivalent). Now this is apparently not just 85% of those who tackle NCEA Level 2 but all 18 year olds. So the increase mentioned in the budget from 68% to 85% is the overall current result but there are challenges in this target that become more apparent when the total is deconstructed into its ethnic components.

The cohort that entered Year 11 in 2008 has performed as follows by the end of 2010 with regard to achieving NCEA Level 2.

  •          NZ European               68%                
  •          Asian                          74%    
  •          Maori                          43%
  •          Pacific                        58%


I actually wonder…

Now remember that probably 20% of 18 year olds have disengaged from school prior to age 16 years. Other students will have dropped out along the way through Year 11 and Year 12. So if this target is to be achieved equitably i.e. all 18 year old Maori, all 18 year old Pasifika etc then we will need to get our skates on. The group who will be the 18 year olds in 2016 are in Year 9 now. Help!

Earlier media attention was paid to the more controversial announcement in the budget that $512 million will be spent on improving teacher quality. We know of course that this is on the basis of savings that result from the squeezing of student / teacher ratio.

Something that intrigues me is a little calculation that I have done tells me that there is some good news for secondary schools in this. Based on national student number profiles (which means that there will be some differences for individual school to take account of their senior school profiles), the equalisation of the ratio across all the levels of the senior secondary school at the level of the current lowest (Year 13) rate will result in a 12% increase in teacher numbers nationally at the senior level.

Was this intended? I was surprised when I did this calculation because the Minister had said that schools would generally be affected by + 1 teachers. Am I wrong? If not then I am excited because increased teachers at the senior level should mean increased flexibility for schools.

If we are to hit that NCEA target in 2016 then that will be crucial.


Leave a Comment

Pathway-ED: Now would you like to see my pictures?

Stuart Middleton
29  September 2011

At last I have returned from, Europe where I have been taking in the sights, warming in the sun and ogling at the marvels of old and gracious civilisation.

Northern Italy to be precise and it was a grand holiday.

Thanks to John Langley, Dave Guerin, Karl Mutch and Colleen Young, for their great contributions to EDTalkNZ while I was away. I am encouraged to take another holiday!

Some little reflections rather than the photographs.

  • So much of the education I received all that time ago prepared me to live in Europe far more adequately than it did prepare me for living in my home country. So it was a daily joy to make connection with something that had previously been brought to life by a teacher or a book in a different and more authentic setting. Of course learning in classrooms is authentic but in a different way. Marco Polo, Garibaldi,  Verdi, and a whole lot more famous figures were recollected in context
  • I thought I would be able to keep up with the RWC but I must report coverage is virtually non-existent. Even the Italian team seemed to receive scant attention. The English-speaking press focussed on reports about the European teams and the four Home Counties. The English-language International Herald Tribune (the international version of the New York Times gave it all one paragraph when the “government of New Zealand stepped in over elected Mayor Brown when etc etc…”
  • Travelling with only an iPad as the device of choice was a dream. Wi-Fi is easily and effectively available and the range of iApps for travellers is so excellent that finding information or places or times was a breeze. This is the first time I have been out of New Zealand with only an iPad.
  • Talking about the internet, one wonders if the travel industry isn’t pulling the wool over someone’s eyes when they talk-up the dangers of making bookings over the internet. Well, we did everything over the internet – travel bookings, hotel bookings, restaurant reviews and a whole plethora of information about places. Most useful were the interactive maps that identified where you were, where you wanted to go to and so on. Anyone with moderate internet skills would be most capable of doing the same and that includes I would guess most of the people we teach.
  • Using the internet would allow people to be free of those groups – the brolly followers – that disgorge from cruise ships and gather seemingly always in the baking sun to listen to all the information about what they are standing in front of and wish they could jolly well get inside and out of the sun.

Was there much talk of education on the trip? Well not by us. The newspapers occasionally covered items and again, being unable to read Italian with any accuracy, these were most easily found in English-language international news. It is interesting what gets covered in this way.

  • A full report was given of the marked increase in China of induced births as parents worked hard to deliver the infant into the world in such a timely manner before 1 August so that they were able to be delivered into school on 1 August so many appropriate years later at the earliest possible age. Thank goodness our little ones turn up when they are five – it is one of the treasures of education in New Zealand.
  • There was quite a lot of coverage of school testing of students in the USA and not all of it supportive. One article was a thoughtful consideration of the extent to which testing was distorted when while purporting to be the testing of an individual student was subsequently used to measure the effectiveness of schools, the quality of the curriculum and the skill of the teacher.
  • No wonder then that, as reported in another article, the testing services in the USA were reported to be increasingly uneasy about the amount of cheating that went on. No, not cheating by students, cheating by schools. It was reported that around half of the schools in Washington – it did not make clear whether this was state or DC –  had been found to have cheated by altering schools on the test. This is evidenced by the “erasure” of incorrect answers which are replaced by correct answers. Oh dear. I wondered whether there was a chance that a student had rethought an answer and had wisely changed their mind. Apparently this was ruled out!

Finally I have to say what a pleasure it was to stop on the train at Reggio Emilia, the town which gave expression to a philosophy of early childhood education thought up by Loris Malaguzzi after the Second World War, which changed thinking about how little ones could be developed and how they could take responsibility for their learning. I thought of all my early childhood colleagues at that moment. Apart from that it looked pretty much like any other town in the region – from anywhere great ideas can spring.

It’s good to be home. We could well be the privileged generation, able to afford to travel while there is still sufficient fuel to take us and where a huge part of the earth’s surface remains friendly and welcoming. It is something to be treasured.

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 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

Think-Ed: ECE and the performance of 15 year olds

Stuart Middleton
7 February 2011

Hey, wait minute. For a number of years I have extolled the critical importance of early childhood education in terms of educational advancement and achievement. Two years of quality early childhood (i.e. 15 hours a week) would lead to such gains, I argued. This was on the evidence of research in the USA.

There is widespread agreement with this internationally. A Labour MP in Britain is arguing at the moment that early education will improve later school performance.

But, adopting its right of centre position and in order to challenge this MP, The Spectator weekly has recently published a table that, it suggests, shows otherwise. Here is that table:

% of three-year-olds in nursery school Country PISA Score in Maths (age 15) (Rank)
100% France 497  (6)
89% Sweden 494  (7)
87% Germany 513  (5)
83% UK 492  (8)
75% Japan 529  (3)
44% Finland 541  (1)
36% US 487  (9)
09% Switzerland 534  (2)
0.01% Netherlands 526  (4)


Well, I thought, that is because it is mathematics and there could be many explanations why there is no correlation between access to ECE and later performance in mathematics. The story would be very different, I thought, if we also included Literacy and Science. So I added them to the chart.

% of three-year-olds in nursery school Country PISA Score in Maths at age 15 (Rank in list)  PISA Score in Literacy at age 15 (Rank in list) PISA Score in Science at age 15 (Rank in list)
100% France 497  (6) 496  (9) 498  (8)
89% Sweden 494  (7) 497  (7=) 495  (9)
87% Germany 513  (5) 497  (7=) 520  (4)
83% UK 492  (8) 500  (5=) 514  (6)
75% Japan 529  (3) 520  (2) 539  (2)
44% Finland 541  (1) 536  (1) 554  (1)
36% US 487  (9) 500  (5=) 502  (7)
09% Switzerland 534  (2) 501  (4) 517  (5)
0.01% Netherlands 526  (4) 508  (3) 522  (3)


Just add a further bit of interest I added a line for New Zealand:

95% New Zealand  519  (5) 521  (2) 532  (2)


Of course this might all add up to nothing very much at all as is so usual in the popular media. The Netherlands rates well in this exercise but this conveniently ignores the fact that the system in that country has a “Mother and Child Health Care” programme that is universal and that 99% of all four year olds are voluntarily enrolled in primary schools (the legal school starting age is 5 years)

Then, this type of reporting also ignores that coarse nature of such a statistic as participation. Take New Zealand as an example. We might feel quite proud of our 95% rate but this is not evenly apparent across the system. Historically, Maori and Pacific Islands children have had lower access to early childhood education while the waged white middle classes have had both easy access and high quality provision. This is a fact and a trend that successive governments have always grappled with and it was exacerbated by the removal, for instance, of the targeting of the 20 free hours provision.

So let’s be impressed by Finland – only 44% participation The Spectator tells us but top of each category for achievement among the count rues in this survey (actually they did well in the whole PISA lists!). In Finland school starts at 7 years (but you can start at 6 years). About 75% of young ones in Finland have a significant exposure to day care and there is almost full enrolment in the pre-school classes at ages 6-7.

Reports such as that in The Spectator do not grapple with other issues – the extent to which the ECE curriculum is related to that of primary schools and premised on the fact that ECE should be preparing students for primary school. They don’t focus on the extent to which staff in formal pre-school classes are qualified (Finland has 100% degree qualified many up to Masters level!). They don’t report of the size of the tale of educational disadvantage and failure in the respective countries. Finland has a short tale we have a very long tale.

Stories such as this one in The Spectator start off by being political and never rise above the opportunity to take a few cheap shots. The key issue is to work towards quality early childhood provision for all students and perhaps a clearer distinction between day care and more formal ECE. I suspect that currently a disproportionate slice of the ECE resources are going to those whose focus is day care rather than ECE while those who might benefit from ECE are missing out.

I have long thought that adding ECE to primary schools was a possible and desirable way forward. But even if it were the same old sector division would arm themselves for war and protect their territory. It is not only the secondary / tertiary divisions that stop us being internationally competitive!

There are pockets in the community where access is very low indeed, perhaps as low as 40%. Whatever league tables we produce, this is a statistic that is intolerable in a developed, blessed and, in better times, rich country.

Leave a Comment

Access and equity

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.24, 26 June 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The unintended consequences of change are not a cause for blame and finger-pointing but it does require a mature response, a calm head and the courage to change course.

This seems to me to be the key lesson of the recent discussion on Early Childhood Education and the qualifications that teachers have or need. Of course logic would tell us that in a specialist area that is a critically important as Early Childhood Education, high qualifications that reflect sound understanding of teaching at this level, that provide a theoretical base on which programmes can be developed to meet the needs of the learner, and which provide for continuity of leadership are simply a good goal to aim at.

All this seems sensible and an excellent direction in which to head.

But the reality is something else. High qualifications in Early Childhood Education have largely become the generator of high levels of subsidy from public money for the proprietors of early childhood centres. The increased funding generated by higher level qualifications leads to a grotesque distortion in the use of money within the sector.

Perhaps the discussion has raised questions about whether the need to have appropriate qualifications across the entire staff of an early childhood centre is the same as everyone having the same high level qualification. This is something that has simply been accepted as a sine qua non – helped along I must say, by the regulations. But this situation has  has never applied in other sectors where a great variety of qualifications at different levels are seen as appropriate.

In the secondary sector one thinks of the deal that the technical teachers received over the past fifty years where they worked with high quality industrial qualifications for lower pay than their colleagues with degrees. When this issue was tackled in the early 1980’s it was largely through an amnesty. In the end it was easier to destroy the industrial arts curriculum than sort out the issue.

That Early Childhood Centres have the potential to become very profitable businesses is evidenced by the growth of centres, many specifically designed for the purpose and built on expense real estate. The dangers of this private enterprise approach have been well illustrated by the collapse in Australia of the ABC Learning Centre network. Private enterprise cannot meet the demand for early childhood education – it also requires investment of the state. And private enterprise has never wanted to do the hard yards in areas which have little money.

With nearly 40% of ECE teachers “unqualified”, the issue seems whopping. But in a balanced team different people will bring different skills and understandings to the task. Surely “unqualified” in this sense simply means “uncredentialled”.

I also believe that the 20 free hours has exacerbated some of the issues. Fewer students are consuming more of the places due to this extra bit of help that parents can get. I have no issue with this but it has not addressed the major issue in the Early Childhood education sector – access.

We know that two years of quality early childhood education is wonderful preparation for school. Those who get this are advantaged as learners right through their educational life. A lot of the ECE resource is, however, going into looking after the really little ones rather than this pre-school group of 3-and 4-year olds. Over 40% of 1 and 2 year olds are enrolled. Much of this is perhaps more a reflection of the pressure families (both single-parent and two-parent) feel from a financial or career point of view. Why can’t we as a civilised country address these issues to the advantage of both the parents and the children and free up more of the resource for the critical 3 and 4 year olds?

While all this discussion continues, there is little talk of that key issue – access. In the Counties Manukau region there are 28,000 children below the age of 5 and yet there are only 10,300 places in early childhood education facilities. Only 36% of students have access to that educational experience which we know is crucial to later success. Surely we do not wonder too hard about the origin of later issues when we so resolutely despatch little ones along the low road to educational failure.

The only solution to this is to not look to the private sector to bring their ECE business to town. The only solution is for the state to provide ECE facilities and services for 3- and 4-year olds in areas such as this. The best option would be to provide early childhood education services within each primary school up to a scale that would meet local demand. The land is available, the site is secure and the playground is relatively easy to achieve.

Staffing is the next big challenge. Questions must be asked about whether there is such a need for an evenly flat qualifications structure. Then there is the pool of inactive teachers. Many of these are Pacific-trained teachers who could easily and quickly be retrained. I know of one organisation that claims to have 100 such teachers on their books and ready to go, but action is slow. Pressure-cooker teacher education courses were de rigueur once.

I have little patience for some of the grizzling that has gone on in this discussion. Those who chose to ignore the requirements can hardly expect to impress us with their indignation. But it needs sorting out.

Of course it also needs commitment from a whole education system that this is a priority area for spending. The investment at those early years will save costs in later years. Marian Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund put it like this: “We invest in children because the cost to the public of sickness, neglect, dependence, and unemployment over the long term exceeds the cost of preventive investment in health, education, employed youth, and stable families.”

The troubled 15- to 19-year olds were once little ones. How many of them might have been saved from themselves and in the process saved us if the $1 billion they cost us each year now had been invested in their early childhood education?

Leave a Comment