As the Government announces a pay equity deal for early childhood teachers, Professor Carmen Dalli, Emeritus Professor Helen May and Dr Anne E Meade call for the urgent implementation of the Government’s early learning action plan.

Heading into the 2021 Budget, it is timely to review the first year of the implementation of He Taonga te tamaiti early learning action plan 2019-2029.

When launched in December 2019, the plan raised hopes that accumulated workforce inequities, underfunding and quality issues in the early childhood sector would be redressed through a suite of actions over a 10-year period. At the time, Education Minister Chris Hipkins promised that, following significant gains in previous years by other education sector groups, 2020 would be the “turn of early childhood”.

However, the advent of Covid-19 made 2020 a challenging year for New Zealanders. For the early childhood world, it has meant the early learning action plan feels like a casualty of changing political priorities. Hipkins picked up responsibility for protecting the border from the pandemic, the plan implementation has slowed and resources promised to the sector have not transpired.

In Covid times, children, families and early childhood services are also facing new challenges. Amid the political and pandemic drama of 2020, the three of us wrote on Newsroom that these new times required new action for early childhood education: the momentum of change promised in the plan needs speeding up.

As we head into calmer times of “recovery”, and when one of three announced priorities for the 2021 Budget is “child wellbeing”, the need to enact the plan more swiftly is increasingly compelling.

The issues

The Covid-19 lockdown Budget of 2020 included two low-cost initiatives for ECE services: the starting salary of degree-qualified early childhood teachers in education and care centres would become the same as their kindergarten counterparts; and the higher funding band for ECE centres with 100 percent qualified staff would be restored from January 2021.

During the general election campaign, in September 2020, the Labour Party made the further commitment to gradually introduce pay parity across the sector. Posting on the party’s website, Hipkins noted that “Covid-19 has exposed and magnified the existing inequities in our system”.

It was pleasing to see this ministerial awareness of concerns long voiced by education leaders. With Labour winning a landslide victory, there was hope of political traction finally leading to resolutions. Wednesday’s pre-budget announcement by Hipkins, in the middle of concerns about the public service salary freeze, to bring the pay of ECE teachers in education and care centres in line with that of kindergarten teachers, is a welcome next step towards pay parity. But many silences remain about the enactment of other recommendations of the early learning action plan.

Thinking big

To address this silence, we are ‘thinking big’ to:

  • Assist post-pandemic “recovery” in the ECE sector;
  • Support the Government’s priority goal of “child wellbeing”;
  • Hasten the implementation of the plan to bring education and care services closer to kindergartens.

Decades-old policy divides between care and education still produce inequities across the ECE sector. New Zealand’s world-renowned integration policies forged in the 1980s are under threat.

The gulf in employment conditions is widening, leaving many teachers in the education and care sector far behind kindergarten teachers despite having the same degree qualifications and certification. Large variations in contracts, reflecting the exponential growth of corporate for-profit provision, is a key impediment to teachers being paid the same, regardless of employer.

Guiding principles for ‘thinking big’

The vision for the plan is that “every child enjoys a good life, learns and thrives in high quality settings that support their identity, language and culture, and that are valued by parents and whānau”.

Enacting this vision requires:

  • The holistic design of the plan to be upheld through systemic, not piecemeal, implementation
  • Equitable pay in employment agreements across corporate, private and public domains
  • Equitable funding across early childhood services.

Within the vision of the plan document, three actions were prioritised, each requiring increased funding. Firstly, pay parity was prioritised to achieve equity within the workforce and to enable equitable implementation of all other plan objectives. Secondly, regulations were proposed to improve the ratios of adults to children under age three years. Thirdly, more early childhood qualified teachers were to be trained or retained.

The current teacher shortage undermines the achievement of many planned actions, including the planned increase in the percentage of qualified teachers in order to ensure under-threes are educated by qualified teachers.

The ‘thinking big’ actions

The ELAP’s first objective was focused on children and promoting their wellbeing and that of their whānau. The plan was launched in the same year as the Government’s inaugural Wellbeing Budget. Notwithstanding, a decision was made to delay implementation of improved staffing ratios for children under age three. This was hugely disappointing, as the unsafe staffing ratios for under-threes (a hangover from the 1960 childcare regulations) do not put the interests of children at the fore.

We propose that this delay in improving ratios for under-threes is reversed. The Government needs to act now and put children first. The first 1000 days matter for children’s wellbeing; children currently living their first 1000 days cannot afford to wait another 2000 days.

Pay parity has been long awaited. Its promise was briefly realised for a few in 2004 through the Early Childhood Collective Agreement. At issue is how to achieve it fully given the diversity of education and care services and the numerical dominance of corporate provision with different employment contracts.

We propose consideration is given to the Ministry becoming a party to the Consenting Parties Collective Agreement, which would be linked to the Early Childhood Collective.

As a party to the Consenting Parties Collective Agreement, and thus at the negotiating table, it would be necessary for government to set aside funding to achieve and maintain pay parity.

Restoring a higher level of funding for centres that employ 100 percent qualified staff required in regulation is applauded. This restoration is particularly beneficial for the mainly school-hours kindergartens that have long met the 100 percent qualified teacher threshold. However, for education and care centres opening for long hours, it is difficult to employ 100 percent qualified teachers for 10-plus opening hours each day. The current shortage of qualified teachers compounds this further.

We propose that:

  • the 100 percent qualified teachers funding band cover a comparable quantum of time per day (week?) for both kindergarten and education and care centres, with the proviso that there must always be Teaching Council-certificated staff rostered on site and that for infants there are certificated teachers in their space at all times;
  • there are proactive policies to increase the number of qualified ECE teachers in New Zealand, comparable to current initiatives for increasing apprenticeships – e.g. fees-free study and/or scholarship opportunities.

We see this action as able to address some of the gender inequity of Covid-related unemployment, with far more women than men becoming unemployed in 2020.

What are we wanting?

We want many more actions in the promised implementation of the early learning action plan to be funded in the 2021 Budget. In ‘thinking big’, we also want the pace of implementation to quicken, otherwise the brave and progressive policy plans for ECE will languish incomplete, further compounding current inequities for children, teachers and families.

Professor Carmen Dalli is Professor of Early Childhood Education at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington; Helen May is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Otago; and Dr Anne E Meade is an expert in early childhood education in New Zealand. All three are alumni of Victoria University of Wellington and long-time colleagues who, over several decades, have collectively and individually engaged as researchers, writers, teachers, policy advisers and political advocates for government investment in high-quality early childhood services with qualified teachers.

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