Early childhood education could be back on the political agenda after nine cold years of inadequate government action. In 2002, the then Ministry of Education published the nation’s first strategic plan for early childhood. It included a ten-year strategy that, if implemented fully, would have played a leading role in developing a robust early childhood sector. This strategy built on a platform of quality early childhood and set out a range of initiatives, including 100% qualified teachers by 2012, increased funding to all teacher-led services, and a focus on increasing children’s participation in early childhood education. In the first few years of the new millennium there was general optimism about the future for early childhood education, but in its first term of office, the National government effectively doused this optimism, introducing changes to the sector that ultimately undermined the direction of the strategic plan. Since then, National’s legacy for ECE has been an increase in for-profit child care, a couple of reports and an update of the early childhood curriculum.
If the Labour Party’s election manifesto is anything to go by, early childhood may see a return to some earlier promises and a revitalisation of this rapidly growing sector. Labour campaigned on a platform that included a second strategic plan for early childhood, improved teacher/child ratios for infants and toddlers, reinstatement of the requirement for 100% qualified teachers, and a promise of public provision of early childhood education in areas of need. There appears to be a reasonable alignment of ECE policies between New Zealand First and the Labour Party – in some respects, New Zealand First is even more progressive than Labour in its vision for early childhood. The Greens’ ECE policies take us into a whole new dreamscape, but of the three parties, their voice is likely to hold the least sway. By comparison, Labour’s policies may be seen as somewhat conservative in terms of any commitment to a robust public education sector.
The verdict so far: We are not seeing lightning bolts of government action as we did in the first few weeks of National entering government in 2008, when ECE and public education were effectively banished to the naughty corner. There is now hope though, with the new Prime Minister’s opening address promising that the government “will grow the number of early childhood centres, and fund them to employ qualified and registered teachers,” and further, “this will be a government of aspiration….where children live surrounded by creativity and love, and are encouraged to reach their full potential”. In true managerial fashion, the new government is promising to develop a 30-year strategic plan for education, and to support quality teaching and education that equips students for the 21st century. Such aspiration is a little short on specifics, but it is clear that there will be less support for charter schools, and more for high quality public education, accessible to all.
Given these aspirations and in the spirit of Christmas almost upon us, I am hankering for an announcement of free public early childhood education, in which our children are taught in well-resourced, spacious centres, by qualified early childhood teachers who receive decent pay and are treated to fair and professional work conditions. All this was well overdue in the 1990s. The role that this sector of education plays in supporting the labour market and the economy, and the contribution it makes to families and the social fabric is vital. It is no longer acceptable for ECE to be subject to the vagaries of market forces and relegated to the bottom of the education barrel. ECE is central to any 21st century education strategy – let’s hope it is included in what the new Prime Minister had in mind for the future of her government, when she urged the willing to Let’s do this.
Dr Sandy Farquhar, University of Auckland
Dr Sandy Farquhar is Director, Early Childhood Education and Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. Sandy’s main research areas are philosophy of early childhood education, early childhood politics and policy, childhood studies and theories of narrative identity.