20 Feb 2017

Think what early childhood education is worth, govt urged

9:00 am on 20 February 2017

Early childhood groups are urging the government to rethink what their sector is worth.

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Quality early childhood education had a big impact on a wide range of social harms and the government should be spending more, not less, the Early Childhood Council says. Photo: 123rf

Government forecasts estimate spending on early childhood education would increase by $102 million dollars or 5.5 percent this year and by about half that figure in each of the next three years.

The increases were based mostly on growing enrolments as the government pushes toward its target of 98 percent of children experiencing early childhood education before they start school.

This year total spending would exceed $1.83 billion and last year the Ministry of Education warned the government that projected increases to spending were "likely to outstrip affordability to the Crown".

It also said that the return on investment for the government's spending was reduced by high subsidies for people who could afford to pay for early childhood education themselves anyway.

The chief executive of the Early Childhood Council, Peter Reynolds, said the ministry needed to rethink that advice.

"We're facing a pretty fundamental question and that's the extent to which government has a role in subsidising early childhood education in New Zealand. This government is certainly trying to cut back and rebalance that equation."

Mr Reynolds said increases in government spending were caused by increased enrolments, but the amount paid per child had barely increased at all in recent years, and that was putting early childhood centres under pressure.

Budget documents last year said cuts to the sector had saved $528 million since 2009, much of that through the abolition of higher funding rates for centres where more than 80 percent of staff were registered, qualified teachers.

Mr Reynolds said quality early childhood education had a big impact on a wide range of social harms and the government should be spending more, not less.

"There comes a point in time when the government's got to come clean and have a very clear view about whether it sees this as an important area to invest in or not."

The government is redesigning the early childhood funding system, but it was not yet clear whether that would result in less money per child or more.

The chief executive of Kindergartens New Zealand, Clare Wells, said parents were already paying a lot.

"While the government is actually subsidising the service as well through its grant, that effectively hasn't increased for the payment for each child since 2011. There's been a slight increase, a slight adjustment, but not significant," she said.

"So centres have had to make up the shortfall and the way they actually make up the shortfall is through fees to parents."

The chief executive of Early Childhood New Zealand, Kathy Wolfe, said the government was reluctant to fund early childhood education appropriately.

However, she said she had not seen any sign that further cuts were coming, and she was hoping the government would re-introduce higher subsidy rates for centres where 100 percent of staff were qualified, registered teachers.

The Educational Institute (NZEI) is campaigning for increased government funding for schools and early childhood centres.

The union's president, Lynda Stuart, said the lack of increased funding on a per-child basis was undermining the quality of early childhood education.

"What we've got is a situation really where either parent fees go up or quality goes down."

The Education Minister Hekia Parata said the ministry's statement about affordability was intended to highlight the continuing growth in demand for funding.

She said total funding for early childhood education had doubled since 2007 and early childhood education was 33 percent more affordable for parents than it was ten years ago and more affordable than it was a year ago.

"Per-child ECE funding in New Zealand is among the highest in the OECD," Ms Parata said.

"In the year to September 2016 the cost of childcare increased by 0.8 per cent and the QES average ordinary-time earnings increased by 1.7 per cent. So in the year to September 2016, the cost of childcare relative to earnings decreased by 0.9 per cent," she said.

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