The Labour Party promised to implement at least 80 percent qualified teachers in every early childhood education centre by the end of its first term in Parliament but the new action plan for early childhood education acknowledges it’s going to take a while longer to deliver.

Although this commitment did not make it into the Green Party confidence and supply agreement or the New Zealand First coalition agreement, as recently as this year’s Budget, Education Minister Chris Hipkins implied the Government was still aiming to execute this promise when he put in a (failed) bid to fully fund 100 percent qualified ECE teachers, and move to lower student ratios.

As well as a commitment to require at least 80 percent qualified teachers (aiming towards 100 percent in the longer term), Labour promised to reinstate funding incentives for all centres employing 100 percent qualified teachers.

The top action point in the new plan is to incentivise for 100 percent qualified teachers and regulate for 80 percent qualified teachers; then regulate for 100 percent qualified teachers in the longer term.

But it sets a four-year timeframe around this commitment, starting next year.

When Newsroom asked Hipkins whether he thought he would be able to deliver 80 percent qualified teachers before next year’s election – in-keeping with Labour’s 2017 promise – he said “it’s going to take us some time”.

It is not going to happen in the Government’s first term, and would therefore technically be a broken promise from Labour.

However, as Hipkins pointed out, it would likely be impossible to reach that 80 percent threshold before next year’s election, given the current workforce issues.

At the moment, ECE centres have to have at least 50 percent qualified teachers, and some centres are sitting quite close to that minimum level. There are also 10,000 unqualified, or under-qualified ECE teachers who would need to be given the time and support to upskill – the Government will not want to lose their skills and experience.

The lack of qualified teachers means some centres are struggling for up to six months to fill positions.

The plan does include a commitment to create a workforce strategy to deal with the capacity issues, but as National Party ECE spokesperson Nicola Willis pointed out, that is more of a plan about a plan, rather than any real action.

Willis said the plan released on Wednesday did not confirm funding or final policy; it is also subject to Cabinet agreement and Budget processes.

“I’m concerned that the proposals to incentivise 100 per cent qualified teachers will have the negative effect of making it even harder for centres struggling to find teachers, as they will face a further funding disadvantage,” she added.

Nicola Willis says she’s concerned about rewarding or incentivising centres with 100 percent qualified teachers could create unintended equity issues. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Those centres struggling to lift their proportion of qualified teachers were often in areas where there was less access to ECE, and rewarding those other centres could widen the equity gap, creating “haves and have nots”, Willis said.

New measures, which looked at how often and how long a child attended ECE rather than just how many attended, showed there was an oversupply of services in some areas of the country and an undersupply in others.

“We also know that not all children and whānau have equal access to resources within their community – the data shows that participation by Māori and Pacific children, and children in lower socio economic areas, continues to be below that of the general population,” Hipkins said in a press release, adding that early learning would be a top Government education priority going into 2020.

But Willis said the proof was in the delivery, “and my concern is it’s just another action plan”.

The action plan comes as the Government introduces its hefty Education and Training Bill, which provides the Education review Office (ERO) with the power to enter homes where home-based early childhood education is taking place “to review and evaluate curriculum delivery and health and safety performance”.

It also puts in place a maximum penalty of $50,000 for those operating a centre without a licence.

Hipkins pointed out the issues with oversight when it came to ECE centres, especially home-based operations.

There has been a recent raft of bad news stories about treatment and practices in New Zealand’s ECE sector, and the action plan and the bill aim to go some way to making sure kids are safe, as well as valued, stimulated, and with equal access to education from a young age.

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