Those working in early childhood education have revealed the sector’s dark underbelly, with examples of poor pay and working conditions, dangerous environments for children, and a culture of fear, silence and bullying. Laura Walters reports

Those working with New Zealand’s youngest citizens say the early childhood education sector is in crisis.

Inconsistencies in pay, working conditions and quality of care have been an issue in the sector for years, but teachers say things are getting worse.

Covid-19 has highlighted a range of problems surrounding the regulation and funding of a devolved and privatised model, revealing a sector and a workforce at breaking point. While the Government topped up the sector throughout lockdown, the future of the sector is uncertain, with occupancy rates expected to drop as the country moves towards an economic downturn and higher unemployment.

Early childhood education (ECE) teachers say they are stressed, overworked and underpaid. And many say they have been too scared to speak out for fear of losing their jobs, in an industry that has a culture of bullying.

While the Government has made recent steps to address teacher pay, with $151.1 million towards lifting the wages of those at the bottom of the ECE pay scale, those working in the sector say it’s not enough and pay parity is still a way off.

Meanwhile, the restoration of funding for centres with a 100 percent qualified workforce was also delivered in this year’s Budget at a cost of $278m. And the new 10-year Early Learning Action Plan sets out a commitment to move towards a 100 percent qualified workforce.

But it’s hard to see how that commitment will be achieved anytime soon, given the current ECE teacher shortage. Centres across the country are already struggling to get staff and keep teacher:child ratios down to a safe level – some are waiting for up to six months to replace staff. Meanwhile, more centres are being built.

Those working in the sector say the system is broken now, and they can’t wait years for problems to be addressed.

“It actually breaks my heart to see the children so upset all the time because we physically can’t get to them all the time.”

More than a dozen teachers, staff and parents have shared their experiences with Newsroom under the condition of anonymity.

Many pointed to the same issues: low-pay, poor employment conditions, stressed and overworked staff, an expectation of unpaid work, and teacher:child ratios that meant low-quality and sometimes dangerous care environments.

These poor employment conditions were highlighted last week, when the second-largest provider in the country was forced to back down on offering staff illegal contracts, following a backlash from the sector and the public.

Some teachers also shared examples of illegal and dangerous practices, including leaving unqualified teachers in charge of groups of children; breaking teacher:child ratio regulations and lying on documentation to hide the breaches; physically forcing children to sleep by holding them down; withholding food as punishment; and a lack of supervision that led to unreported injuries.

One person who had been teaching for the past 15 years said things had continued to deteriorate throughout their career.

“ECE is in urgent crisis in New Zealand – it’s scary,” they said.

Another said teachers were so busy and stressed that every day was exhausting.

“If us teachers are feeling that, then the children definitely are, which is really sad. 

“It actually breaks my heart to see the children so upset all the time because we physically can’t get to them all the time.”

This teacher said the children were bored and distressed, because money wasn’t put into resources unless teachers spent their own money. Meanwhile, the rooms were messy and unsafe because there wasn’t time to maintain the spaces.

“Each day is a struggle, teachers are unhappy and wanting to leave.”

One teacher said they ran out of gloves before lockdown, and a gastro bug went through the centre. Teachers were also told to use fewer gloves, paper towels and cleaning products to cut costs.

Some said there was an overemphasis on occupancy rates and making money, rather than providing quality care and education.

One teacher said they were expected to work 15-hour days, conduct parent evenings and attend weekend seminars unpaid. “If we didn’t then we were told we lacked passion.”

“The bullying was so bad that I nearly ended my life.”

Meanwhile, others spoke of a culture of bullying.

“In my opinion ECE can be extremely toxic environments, over many years I have had many very severe bouts of depression and feeling like I’m going to break down because of the pressure placed on us,” one said.

Another said they didn’t know how to improve the situation at their centre.

“When I say something I am threatened with redundancy and reminded how we were paid the full amount over lockdown.”

One teacher, whose child also went to the centre she worked at, said her concerns about illegal and unsafe practices were ignored and brushed off.

When her child started coming home injured – a toenail ripped off, large bruises and fingernail marks on her arms and shoulders – she raised it with the centre’s management and owners, but was told she was the problem, and was bullied until she resigned.

After offering her resignation, the centre requested she sign a record of settlement, which would stop her from reporting the centre to the authorities, filing a personal grievance, or talking to anyone about what happened.

“I strongly believe centres like these need to be brought to light and held accountable for the horrific treatment of children and blatant bullying of staff, but also that the relevant government agencies need to be held accountable for the fact that they are allowing this sort of treatment of children and teachers to continue by turning a blind eye.”

A team leader at one centre said she had been bullied by the manager for almost five years, but hung in there for the other teachers and the families.

“The bullying was so bad that I nearly ended my life.”

ECE research points to a longstanding culture of bullying and poor employment conditions.

In 2018, Massey University public health and ECE expert Mike Bedford wrote major drivers behind the teacher shortage were likely to be working conditions, physical and emotional health damage, bullying and exploitative contracts.

Experienced teachers were leaving the sector broken, he said.

“It is an injustice, but also damaging because stress and high turnover damage relationships with children.”

Meanwhile, ECE teacher and researcher Susan Bates wrote in a 2018 paper that those working in the sector faced physical and mental health risks, which extend to the children they worked with, and their own offspring.

They were at risk of mental-health problems due to the emotional nature of their work, a high workload and stress levels, poor regulations, and from bullying, she said.

“Workplace bullying causes both physical and psychological damage, often chronic and long-lasting, which must impact on the quality of crucial relationships with young children.”

These health issues, and the related burnout, impacted on teacher retention – an important element in a sector that relied on consistency of care and relationships for children’s wellbeing.

Bates told Newsroom the health and wellbeing of children was under threat with the current regulations, licensing, staff and employment practices. 

This was backed up by Bedford who has previously written that his research found up to 30 percent of New Zealand’s ECE services were likely to be actively harming children.

Key issues included stress, inconsistent relationships, noise, overcrowding and poor quality outdoor spaces. 

“I always want to make progress faster but I recognise the plan is ambitious and requires a concerted effort by government and the sector.”

Despite these issues, the big political parties don’t believe the sector is broken. While they admit there is a shortage of teachers and quality problems in some centres, they don’t see a case for a drastic overhaul.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said participation in high-quality early learning was an important part of supporting young children’s wellbeing and life opportunities. 

The past decade of cost cutting meant providers had been forced to do more for less, which had put additional additional pressure on service quality, he said, adding that the new 10-year action plan, and subsequent Budget boost, put the focus back on lifting the quality of early learning.

“I always want to make progress faster but I recognise the plan is ambitious and requires a concerted effort by government and the sector.”

Meanwhile, National Party ECE spokesperson Nicola Willis said the system wasn’t broken; it was under strain.

A severe shortage of qualified ECE teachers had been a source of pressure for some time, along with affordability issues for parents and disparities in funding between different types of services, she said.

Staffing gaps and increases in teacher turnover had also undoubtedly affected the quality of teaching and learning for some children.  

Like Labour, Willis said National valued qualified, registered teachers, and believed more needed to be done to attract and retain teachers.

Willis said in the short-term, she was concerned about the impact of Covid-19, and the impact the economic downturn would have on families’ access to ECE.

Predicted job-losses and reduced incomes would make it hard for some families to afford ECE fees, and parents may reduce their child’s ECE attendance hours or withdraw them altogether.  

Some ECE services were already reporting attendance had dropped to below 60 percent, and Willis said services could end up closing due to falling rolls once the extra Government funding ended in September.

“For years, policy, funding and regulation decisions have been based on financial rather than educational perspectives. We’re factory farming some of our youngest citizens.”

While Covid has put a spotlight on the inequities and deficiencies facing the sector, some say it has also provided an opportunity to fundamentally rethink early childhood education in New Zealand.

NZEI Te Riu Roa has published a social infrastructure discussion document, which calls for public provision and funding of ECE.

The union said while more than 93 percent of children under five regularly attended ECE, the current privatised model, based on occupancy rates, in a highly competitive market, was not the best way to deliver the best educational and developmental outcomes.

“The Covid-19 crisis presents a unique opportunity to fast track turning the tide on privatisation and through an effective plan to implement staged change towards greater public provision of ECE.”

Neither Labour nor National supported a fully public system. Both parties agreed more needed to be done to address teacher supply and quality, but the system should be retained in order to give families choice in the early learning services they wanted for their children.

Meanwhile, TOP has released an extensive ECE policy, which advocates for a major system overhaul, but in a very different way.

TOP’s policy is centred on forming and nurturing strong relationships between children and their parents, community and teachers. 

The minor party wants to keep a range of choices, and put a greater focus on community and parent-led services. It would use a quality-based contracting model to ensure ECE providers were maintaining quality services.

The model would allow the Government to award and end contracts based on providers meeting quality standards – rather than waiting for a centre to break the law and be shut down. TOP said this would have the added advantage of making sure taxpayer money was well-spent.

“For years, policy, funding and regulation decisions have been based on financial rather than educational perspectives. We’re factory farming some of our youngest citizens.”

Education and child development spokesperson Naomi Pocock said it all came down to what New Zealand prioritised in its society.

“The biggest challenge that the sector faces reflects the biggest challenge that New Zealand faces, which is that people, including parents, are on this working grind. And we’ve got a system that has been created – for a number of reasons – that isn’t really supporting or valuing our teachers, or our parents, as educators of the children.”

National and Labour talked different talk, but they walked the same walk, which was shown by the same crises persisting over decades of different governments, she said.

Rather than tinkering at the edges, those in charge needed to take a step back and make fundamental, foundational change in order to deliver on the promise to make New Zealand the best place in the world to be a kid.

Where to get help:

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email or online chat

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7. – or email or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand – 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness – 0800 732 825

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