Opinion: Nicola Willis

A shiver went down my spine as I read Deborah Hill Cone’s opinion piece demonising early childhood education. Has she been into an early learning centre lately? Has she talked to families about the choices we make for the care of our kids?

If we are to believe her, all daycare is soul-destroying and parents who choose to use it are selfish and uncaring. Cue the eye-rolling of thousands of parents and teachers.

I’m a mum to four kids aged 8,7, 5 and 2. Each attended a so-called “factory farm” for a period of their early years, or as we choose to see it: they attended an early childhood education centre. We continue to drop off our youngest daughter at one each day.

So I’m familiar with the knot of worry that accompanies families’ choices about childcare arrangements. Believe me I’ve sweated this stuff in the small hours. Am I a bad mother for returning to work? Will my children be scarred by being cared for by people who are initially strangers?

I think many working parents will have faced these demons. Ill-informed tut-tutting from others doesn’t help.

Mums and dads who stay at home to care for their children should be applauded, they are doing vital work. But our praise for them shouldn’t come at the expense of others who make other just as well-considered choices to suit their family’s circumstances.

Not all families can afford to have a parent at home. Not all have grandparents or other family members nearby to help out. Not all mums and dads are able to care for their children 24/7. All parents want what’s best for their kids.

In my role as National’s Early Childhood Education spokesperson I’ve had the privilege of visiting plenty of childcare centres and talking to lots of parents, teachers and experts about the choices families make about care for children under 6.

Quality early childhood education won’t damage your child’s psyche. Years of research and experience have given us clear evidence about this. What kids need is warm, responsive relationships with their caregivers – whether at home or elsewhere.

If you visit a good early childcare centre in New Zealand, you will observe teachers working hard to provide that. If you are a mum or a dad, chances are you can tell some heart-warming stories about some magnificent educators who formed special bonds with your young one and made daycare a lovely place to be. If you are my daughter, you ask to see your early childcare teachers over the weekend!

In most centres in New Zealand, at least 80 per cent of the staff will be trained teachers. All staff are required to follow the early learning curriculum – Te Whāriki – which is all about preparing kids to be confident, resilient and happy learners. The Ministry of Education has regulations in place governing everything from how much space a centre needs and how many teachers there are, to how they document each child’s progress.

Most centres do a great job. I’ve observed teachers in all-day care services, home-based services and kindergartens going above and beyond to make kids feel cared for and safe. Anyone you speak to will tell you about the social skills, messy play and the sanity that having their child at daycare provided.

Of course, like in all things, there will be poor performers.

National’s view is that we need to do a much better job of weeding out any sub-par services, because no parent should be left with a stab of worry when they close the gate. The Education Review Office checks in on centres between every one and four years. We think this watchdog needs to be beefed up. If centres are failing, the Government should close them.

Above all, we should remember that parents are doing some of the hardest and most thankless work in our community.

Most of us are doing what we have to do to get by. We love our kids and make choices based on what we think will provide the best future for them. The evidence is clear that using quality early childhood education can support kids and families to thrive. So leave your judgment at the door.

• MP Nicola Willis is National’s spokesperson for Early Childhood Education.

Source: NZ Herald

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