A shortage of childcare providers is forcing parents to drive their kids across the city each morning. Fees are soaring, and parents don’t get the information they need to weigh up the options. So what’s going on in early childhood education?
(First published in FishHead magazine, February 2012)
It is, as Melanie Heaphy puts it, quite crazy. “There’s waiting lists for everything – for kindy, for the paid childcare centres … It’s nuts. People are putting their kids on waiting lists as soon as they are pregnant, just about.”
This is not, it’s fair to say, what politicians envisagedwhen they began vastly increasing early childhoodeducation (ECE) funding in 2005. In that time,spending has gone from $410 million to around $1.4billion, and over 1,100 new centres have opened.At the heart of this revolution was a guaranteed free20 hours of childcare for three- and four-year-olds,designed to ease the strain of child-rearing and helpmothers get back to work. But it’s a guarantee that’sworth little when parents can’t get their child into acentre near their home or work.
Nor is it easy to pick the right centre, or meetcosts of $300 or more a week. That’s not to say thatthe system is in crisis: after all, 95% of children getsome form of early childhood education, standardsare rising, and national waiting lists are falling. Butthat’s little comfort for the parents who find the taskof selecting the right centre to be, as one puts it, “acomplete nightmare”.
There are just over 500 early childhood centresunevenly spread across the Wellington region. Perhapssurprisingly, poorer and more rural areas are wellserved:Porirua has one centre for every 760 people,the Wairarapa one per 910. In contrast, WellingtonCity itself has one for every 1060 citizens – a total of187 centres.
But the real problem is that even within Wellington,some suburbs are starved of places (see chart on page41). Analysis of government data shows that whilewealthy or well-established suburbs such as Karoriand Tawa have dozens of centres, and the areas aroundthe central city (Newtown, Thornton) are well-served,others make do with just a handfull of ECE providers.In particular, the fast-growing southern suburbshave all but missed out. Island Bay’s population hit8,250 in the 2006 Census and has kept rising since,as young middle-class couples have flooded the area.“Island Bay and Owhiro Bay and Southgate are likea breeding colony at the moment,” says local Labourcouncillor Paul Eagle.
“You can drive down there [the Island Bay Parade]in the late afternoon or early evening, and there is asort of a 2-5 lane highway going down each side withpeople pushing prams.”
But despite this baby boom, Island Bay has just threeregistered childcare centres, although other informalones exist. Nearby Owhiro Bay has only one centre.Lyall Bay has one for its 2,600 residents; likewise thenextdoor suburbs of Southgate and Houghton Bay.Although other nearby suburbs, such as Kilbirnie, arebetter served, the pressure for places remains.Sharon Mountford-Gibbs, who runs the Owhiro14 leaving a year, [so] obviously the majorityof those children are not going to get intoour centre,” she says. “There’s just notenough centres.”
The result? Parents have to go “wherevertheir kids can get in”, says Heaphy. Nor is itjust the southern suburbs that suffer: she’sheard of shortages in Porirua and elsewhereas well. (One quirk of this situation is that,despite such strong local demand, the IslandBay pre-school that Heaphy helps run includeskids from Hataitai, Mount Victoria and evenLower Hutt.)
Joanne Aitken, an Owhiro Bay parent whowas lucky enough to get her child into thelocal kindy, says finding somewhere is “acomplete nightmare. For me and all of myfriends with kids, it is just a major issue …We were all on multiple waiting lists.” Otherpeople she knows commute “huge distances”to get their children into a centre.
So why have these shortages arisen?Because, quite simply, there has never beenany control over where centres are set up.Since the childcare revolution began in 2005,centres have been funded wherever they wereestablished, regardless of whether they wouldplug a gap or compete with existing centres.The National government is filling someof the holes, spending $90 million tofund 3,500 childcare places in poor, oftenpredominantly Maori/Pasifika communities.But those projects, while vital, don’t helpparents in wealthier but still optionsstarvedcommunities.
In last year’s election, Labour campaignedon a promise not to fund new centres thatwould compete with existing ones. ClaireJohnstone, a member of the governmentappointedECE Taskforce, which delivered amajor report to the government last year, saysshe can’t see “any reason for the governmentto continue to subsidise centres in areas whereit is simply not needed and it’s becoming acommercial enterprise”.
But regardless of those views, and thetrials faced by many parents, the Ministryof Education sees no need to act. KarinDalgleish, the ministry’s early childhoodeducation manager, says measures such aswaiting lists “can be misleading” as parentsoften put children on several different lists.The ministry “does not have plans” to controlwhere centres are set up, she says.
Nor will it necessarily act on the task force’scall for more centres in so-called communityhubs – existing places like schools, GP clinicsand community centres. Johnstone argues themove would increase the number of centresand allow the government to help familiesbetter: “If you had a hub, where you had earlychildhood education, a medical centre, youthcounselling all in the same area, you wouldstart to see some better outcomes.” Daglieshsays the ministry is still considering the idea,but there are no community hub centrescurrently planned.
Whatever the government does, privateenterprise will provide the answers for someparents. Peter Reynolds, the head of theEarly Childhood Council, says the post-2005surge in new centres has seen waiting listsfall nationwide, even if poorly served pocketsremain. Last year 270 new licences weregranted, he says, and more are on the way.In the southern suburbs alone, the 56-placeIsland Bay Childcare Centre will open on theParade, and a 100-place Little Wonders centrehas just sprung up in the old Athletic Parkcomplex in Berhampore.
Life remains tough, however, especially forthe not-for-profits. Mountford-Gibbs says thekindergartens movement would love to openmore centres, but there’s no money, especiallyafter the government’s funding cuts. In amuch-debated move, ministers decided in 2010to stop funding centres to have all their staffqualify as teachers, instead covering only thecost of having 80% of staff qualified.
Sue Cherrington, an associate deanof education at Victoria University, saysinternational research shows that the qualityof teachers’ interaction with children is thesingle biggest factor in determining thestandard of care. Qualified teachers, she adds,can draw on a wide repertoire of techniquesto deal with different children, rather thanrelying on their own intuition or experience.“You have got a better chance of having highqualityearly childhood education if you have100% qualified teachers.”
The government argued that the movewas needed to contain “spiralling andunsustainable” costs and allows centres toemploy other professionals, such as nursesor Maori and Pasifika experts, who may notbe qualified teachers. It also claimed to begenerously funding early childhood education,pointing out that spending has increased bymore than $1 billion over the last six years.Reynolds, however, says that increase wasneeded simply to keep up with populationgrowth and the rising number of centres.Funding per centre has definitely dropped inrecent years, he says. And there’s no doubtthat the policy change on 100% qualifiedteachers, on top of funding cuts for teachers’professional development, has hit some centreshard. Most have lost $40,000-$50,000 a year,Reynolds says. “That’s essentially one teacher’ssalary that’s walked out the door.”
Mountford-Gibbs says times are so toughthat the Owhiro Bay kindergarten “is aboutto go back to fundraising for toilet paper”.Whereas under Labour it only had to askfor help with major investments, “what’shappened is that with cuts to funding,we have all had our operating allowancescut, so our fundraising now has to go intothose essentials.”
The kindergarten, which charges just $4 anhour for non-subsidised care, is asking parentsfor a voluntary donation of 50c an hour forthe supposedly free 20 hours of subsidisedchildcare. Since the funding cuts took effectlast year, private centres, which typicallycharge $200-300 a week, have raised theirfees, many by around $40 a week.
Some fear fees could rise even more, sincethe ECE Taskforce report last year urgedministers to consider removing the controlsthat prevent centres from charging fees for the20 hours of subsidised care. The report alsoargued that the government should considertargeting funding to the poorest groupsrather than subsidising ECE even for thewealthiest parents.
The government’s response has sent mixedsignals. National’s election manifesto last yearpromised to “maintain 20 hours ECE fundingand the current fee controls for 20 hours ofECE”. But the Ministry of Education has saidit will set up a new funding system by 2015 inresponse to the taskforce’s report.
The funding review will be “approachedcarefully to make sure no families aredisadvantaged”, Dalgleish says. But academicsare already warning of the dangers oftargeting funding too closely. Cherringtonsays the international research shows thatuniversal funding is best for improvingparticipation rates among the poorest families,“because targeting tends to stigmatise familiesand children, who then tend to pull back frombeing involved”.
Rising costs – allied to a shortage ofplaces – also make it hard for mothers to getback into the workforce, despite this being akey part of the twenty-first century welfaresystem. Joanne Aitken says parents forced togo private by a shortage of kindy places canface “horrifically expensive” fees.
“If you are paying exorbitant amounts,” sheadds, “the margins are tight: by the time youdrop them off and you pay whatever you need to for the week, you wouldn’t be getting muchextra on top [from being at work].”
The ECE taskforce also recommended thatparents receive more help choosing an earlychildhood centre, rather than having to relyon social networks. It’s an important point,given the variable standard of care on offer.Johnstone says she saw one centre where“children as young as six months are left tofeed themselves because [staff] don’t have timeto feed them. They are sitting there trying toget a banana into their mouths with limitedmotor skills.” Similarly, submissions to theECE Taskforce raised concerns that “poorquality services operate with little being doneabout them”.
But it’s hard for parents to find out thisinformation beforehand. They can look atEducation Review Office (ERO) reports, butas the taskforce put it, the reports’ languageand style “is not always helpful to parents”.Nor does ERO use any standard measureof performance that would allow parents tocompare centres.
The taskforce said standardised summariesof each centre’s performance should beavailable on a central website to allow easycomparisons. In its election manifesto,National responded by promising parents“more information” about services, thoughwithout giving any details about howperformance would be assessed.
Johnstone says she’d also like to see parentssurveyed about the quality of care theirchildren receive. “If parents were given theopportunity to be surveyed about what theythink on some basic principles and what isbeing offered, that would at least give otherparents a view.”
In response, Dalgleish says ministers willwork with ERO “to establish what informationwill be [made] available and to develop thetools”. She hopes this information will allowparents to choose a service “based on what isimportant to them”.
In the meantime, Cherrington recommendsparents ask about group sizes and teacherchildrenratios, which the international research suggests are key factors – althoughgood teacher-children ratios are less use ifthe teachers aren’t qualified. Other importantpoints are the relationship between teachersand parents, which helps ensure a consistentapproach at home and at the centre, and a“literacy-rich environment” – which can simplymean having plenty of books around, as wellas formal reading programmes.
But Toni Christie, who runs five ChildspaceECE centres in the northern suburbs, saysthere’s no substitute for parents doing handsonresearch – and trusting their feelings.“Parents have to go with their instinct, theirgut feeling,” she says. “It’s a matter of goingin and spending some time in the centre. Ifthey they get a good feeling, those underlyingquality indicators will be in place.”
As long as they can actually get their childinto a centre, that is.