The ELAP assures parents their child will “enjoy a good life, learn and thrive” in any type of early childhood service. Photo: Matt Molinari

The Covid-19 lockdown has only confirmed how vital New Zealand’s early childhood sector is to the future of this country. Now is the time to bed in a systemic policy infrastructure to support resilient children, write three experts.

The Early Learning Action Plan (ELAP), released in December 2019, was barely in its first year of implementation when Covid-19 hit. As the best of early childhood centres sprang into action to support children and whānau – Zoom-ing into homes to run activities and read stories, delivering food vouchers, and offering places for the children of essential workers – so too the aftermath of the lockdown has highlighted concerning management behaviour in the sector: bad employment practices and attempts to divert subsidies to profit.

In the new times we face, there are opportunities to move faster to realise the aspirations of the ELAP and create a systemic high-quality policy infrastructure for resilient children now and well-rounded citizens in the future. As individuals with a long history advocating for high-quality early childhood provision, we collectively urge that the opportunities to achieve this not be missed.

Historically, the New Zealand early childhood education and care sector has been applauded on the world stage as government policies have served the interests of children, parents and society.

New Zealand’s ground-breaking decision to transfer childcare administration from the Department of Social Welfare to Education in 1986 acknowledged children are learners from birth and have a right to the best their country can offer. Our early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, strengthens this right.

The ELAP assures parents their child will “enjoy a good life, learn and thrive” in any type of early childhood service. Since the late 1980s, early childhood policy documents – Before Five, Pathways to the Future and now the ELAP – have argued the interests of society must be upheld. Not only do high-quality early learning services underpin a productive labour market and community wellbeing, they have a critical role in protecting endangered languages and cultures and forging an inclusive society.

At the start of development of the 10-year ELAP, He taonga te tamaiti – Every child a Taonga, Education Minister Chris Hipkins told the Ministerial Advisory Group and the Early Learning Reference Group to be “bold” and in some areas “to turn the tide”. Transformation was the aspiration for Labour-led government working groups. However, as implementation of the ELAP has begun, the actions have been tentative and focused selectively on the workforce. We applaud the Budget measures to attract and retain qualified teachers. However, elements of these policies potentially divide the workforce. Also, the timid start has not satisfied the sector’s expectations of a systemic and holistic integrated 10-year action plan.

The Covid-19 environment has put the spotlight on the value of early learning services forming an indispensable social infrastructure for families and the economy.

We view our youngest children as the most precious infrastructure of a society. Let’s better ensure their future and make real the vision that “New Zealand is the best place in the world for children and young people”. The foundation election plank of Labour’s announced five-step plan for future months/years is ‘Investing in people’. That must include our youngest people — our taonga, our tamariki.

Our proposal is that a systemic integrated policy infrastructure supporting children and families in their early years is as important as the economic infrastructure of wood, bricks and mortar. The early childhood sandpit not only has ‘bucket and spade’ at the ready; it has a blueprint for action that makes it ‘shovel-ready’ for transformation. It is as deserving of new money as roundabouts, road alignments and bicycle paths.

Let’s speed up the implementation of the ELAP and give children, families and society the best human infrastructure now and for the future. The ELAP promises improved ratios for children under the age of three in early learning services, and more and better teachers in order to improve quality early childhood education and care. It promises investment in more services in under-served communities. These all attend to the interests of children, parents and society. Actions focused on retaining and growing the early childhood workforce would help improve the gender balance in the 2020 jobs that are to be created or supported by government.

The parental and societal benefits of early learning services reach into every industry: they enable construction, farming, food production and similar workforces to optimise their productivity now. Improved early learning services are also important for economic innovation and productivity in years to come as today’s children enter the workforce – if the quality of the teaching in early learning services improves.

Professor Carmen Dalli is Professor of Early Childhood Education at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington; Helen May ONZM is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Otago; and Dr Anne E Meade QSO, CNZM is an expert in early childhood education in New Zealand.

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