Ensuring quality early childhood education should be a priority of every political party in the forthcoming general election, writes Victoria University’s Jenny Ritchie

Would you feel comfortable being a patient in a hospital in which a minimum of 50 percent of the nurses were qualified? Would you take your legal concerns to a law firm where only a minimum of 50 percent of the lawyers were qualified? Probably not, for each of these scenarios. Yet current Government policy allows early childhood care and education providers to work in this way, whereby only a minimum of half of the ‘teachers’ charged with our youngest and most vulnerable citizens are required to have a degree-level qualification.

Research has confirmed the neurological and dispositional foundations established in the first three years of life are incredibly important. A growing body of research also demonstrates qualified teachers make a significant difference to the quality of early childhood care and education programmes. A recent meta-analysis found “higher teacher qualifications are related to improvements in supporting children’s development, including supporting language-reasoning experience, supervision and the scheduling of activities, organisation and arrangement of the room, providing varied social experiences for children, and creating a warm and friendly environment for interactions”. Children from less advantaged homes are the ones likely to benefit most from high quality early childhood care and education, so this provides hope for more socially equitable futures, if only we can get this right as a nation.

Our Ministry of Education requires all primary and secondary teachers to hold a degree-level qualification, so why should it be any different for the early childhood sector? Some people might point to the traditional view that caring for young children is the role of the family (read: mother) and claim mothers just ‘naturally’ know how to care for their infants and young children so therefore people caring for other people’s young children should be equally fine. It is not in fact the case parents just ‘naturally’ know how to provide optimum care for their young children, and the lack of parenting education in our society is a separate concern.

The reality of the current early childhood care and education situation is the majority of our young children are attending private, for-profit early childhood care and education settings, although the statistics kept by the Ministry don’t distinguish between for-profit and not-for-profit settings. What is clear from the Ministry’s data is the early childhood care and education sector and the home-based sector are expanding, at the expense of the traditional, community-based services of kindergarten, Playcentre and Kōhanga Reo.  

See the graph below.

While Kōhanga Reo and Playcentre are classed as whānau- and parent-led, and public kindergartens have always maintained a commitment to qualified staffing, the decreasing levels of qualified teachers within the early childhood care and education sector and home-based sector are a concern. The Ministry currently classes children being cared for in private homes in the home-based model who may be visited monthly by a qualified teacher in the same category as those who are taught by qualified teachers in other settings, which is clearly misleading. Paying for qualified teachers is of course a huge component of a service’s budget, and paying less for staffing means there is more money available for profits for owners or shareholders.

The privatisation agenda of the Government has resulted in an obvious crisis in relation to social housing. What is less visible is the long-term impact of poor quality early childhood education and care generated by Government policy that targets participation at the expense of ensuring all teachers are qualified to deliver excellent, rich and varied learning experiences that nurture and support children’s emotional wellbeing along with establishing foundational dispositions for learning such as curiosity, persistence, creativity and cooperation.

Our nation’s future depends on these children. Ensuring optimum early learning settings should be a priority of every political party in the forthcoming general election. Having a fully qualified early childhood teaching workforce is fundamental to this commitment.

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