We are now all too familiar with the stagnant funding for early childhood services during most of National’s tenure as majority government. The funding freeze has been detrimental to the survival of smaller ECE services and smaller not-for-profit community centres that put everything back into their services, investing in resources, developing their environments and in developing their staff – not to mention ensuring their teachers receive remuneration commensurate with their experience and qualifications.
What has not been focused on very much is the multitude of branded, multi-service businesses either entering the New Zealand ECE scene or expanding their empire. Although the national government placed a ceiling on the per child per hour funding that early childhood services received, they also introduced initiatives that further motivated big companies to become bigger and smaller private or not-for-profit centres to struggle even more.
The participation projects as well as targeted funding for building or extending centres in low socio-economic areas have become the catalyst for profiteers, investors and those with deep pockets looking to receive a fairly tidy profit from as little effort as possible to rush into ECE and buy or lease as many centres as they are able to. It has become a mass cash grab, a childcare boom where the quality of care and learning provided to children has seemed to take a backseat to licensing as many centres as possible and as big as possible to maximise profits and take advantage of the lack of movement with government funding.
Now we are faced with a climate where services are using vans and buses to pick up and drop off children, sometimes right next door to a competing centre. Bigger companies and organisations are often operating on government funding because they have the financial means to weather the loss of revenue as long as they fill their centre without any regard given to the smaller service down the road who is unable to afford to match the promotions being offered by their corporate neighbour, and will eventually face closure because of it.
This has all had some unintended consequences. A lack of leadership due to the rapid growth of early childhood centres over the past eight years and a teacher shortage has meant that centres are now operating closer to the 80% registered funding mark then they have ever before with some services operating below 80% and employing more unqualified staff in an effort to cut costs. The participation target and the projects associated with raising participation in ECE services has had an impact on the relationships between teachers and centres and with parents and families of children accessing a centre through pick up and drop off vehicles.
This has become a priority issue that needs to be addressed immediately by a Labour-led government that has already committed to moving toward a 100% qualified sector, re-establishing annual funding increases and moving toward pay equity for early childhood education in line with male-dominated professions of comparative skills and qualifications. Early Childhood Education should not be an area where profit margins take precedence over ensuring the care, safety and well-being of our youngest children is of the highest quality. It’s time to put children first.