Early childhood education (ECE) plays an important role in a child’s learning journey. Yet the parameters for Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako (CoL) set out by the Ministry of Education did not initially include ECE services. Many now do – but what’s in it for them?
When Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako were first introduced in 2014, early learning services were not given equal participation rights. The initial name, Communities of Schools, set the tone.
Specifically, the paid roles for teachers and principals in Communities of Learning are not open to ECE teachers, as the funding is delivered through the collective employment agreements in the schooling sector.
However since then, the Ministry of Education has encouraged ECE services to join their local CoL, recognising the importance of strong early foundations to a child’s learning journey.
In particular, the role of ECE in helping facilitate smooth transitions into primary school has been touted as an important reason for them to participate.
“The knowledge and understanding services have of how children learn and develop can support Kāhui Ako to better meet the needs of children transitioning to school and influence positive education outcomes from an earlier age,” says a Ministry information sheet.
Cashmere High School principal Mark Wilson is also lead principal of Te Mana Raupō, a Community of Learning in Christchurch that includes six primary schools along with Cashmere High, and an unusually high number of early learning services.
“We’re a CoL that is made up of seven schools and 22 ECE centres, and we have a couple more who will join early next year,” he says.
Local ECE services were keen to be part of the project from its inception and the CoL’s achievement challenges were written to include them.
“Working together, we recognised that there was a significant number of students not transitioning well from ECE into primary school. So that became our first achievement challenge,” says Wilson.
“It’s very important to us as a CoL that we create continuity of learning through positive pathways between our schools.
“One of our key focuses is to define these transitions. We found quite quickly that different ECE have different concepts about what these look like. So it’s important we establish common language and understanding around it.”
Wilson says the diverse group of ECE services in the CoL included several leaders who have been enthusiastic about their involvement and joined the CoL’s steering committee.
While genuine collaboration and the sharing of best practice is encouraged between all CoL members, the funding mechanism still does not allow ECE members to hold paid roles.
“We have a really engaged and positive group, led by some proactive ECE leaders. But the model as it currently operates does not include funding for ECE teachers to be CoL leaders, so primary sector leaders are working closely with them.”
“There could be some more flexibility from the new government when it comes to funding and the rules around how CoLs are managed,” he says.
“But it would have to be more money, rather than a redistribution of existing funding, and it would be good to encourage more ECE-based achievement challenges for all CoLs.
“I think early childhood, primary and secondary schools all operate from quite a different philosophical approach – and we appreciate the new perspective that working with ECE brings us.”
Gwenda Jones is the senior teacher at Marlborough Kindergarten Association, which is part of the Piritahi Community of Learning | Kāhui Ako.
She believes that ECE involvement in the group is important for several reasons.
“From our involvement, I see that schools are understanding more about what children are learning at kindergarten. So when they start school, that cultural capital they already have is being recognised, and this supports their learning journey.
“We’re working on making that transition a lot smoother, and we’ve already got primary and ECE teachers visiting each other’s classrooms and sharing information and best practice.
Gwenda says this collaboration has also extended to the secondary schools involved.
“We’re working with the secondary teachers too – especially in the area of cultural responsiveness and environmental education. There’s a real sense of ‘we’re all professional teachers and we’re sharing our professional practice,’” she says.
“Our understanding of what happens in schools has increased as well, especially around the assessments the children will face. This doesn’t change the way we teach, but gives us an insight into why teachers have the expectations they do on children.
“But financially it’s a big burden. It is work on top of what we’re already doing. The schools involved get release time, but I do this on top of my usual work.
“I do think this is something the Ministry of Education needs to look at, because it needs to be equitable for everybody if we are to be a community of learning. It’s definitely worth it, but until you get into that situation of understanding the benefits, the financial issue weighs over everything else.
“But we’re looking at the big picture of improving outcomes for children and we’re all on the same page,” says Gwenda.
Virginia Oakly is ECE representative on the NZ Educational Institute (NZEI) National Executive and says the union’s position on ECE services joining CoLs is the same as it is for schools.
“We strongly encourage members to put the needs of learners first and to push strongly to ‘stretch’ the CoL resourcing and roles currently on offer to ensure they go where children’s learning needs are greatest,” she says.
“Equally, we believe that forming or joining Communities must be voluntary and that it is the right of every school or service to decide what is best for their students.”
NZEI has always believed that a lack of funding is the main barrier to ECE services getting involved, and would like to see that change to better enable services to participate if they want to.
An NZEI Te Riu Roa Early Childhood Advisory Council subgroup focused on Communities of Learning has been gathering data about the experiences of ECE services in six CoLs, and perspectives on engagement with those services from Kāhui Ako Leads and principals.
“We wanted to identify the challenges and opportunities for services that participated in Kāhui Ako and the benefits of their engagement for the Kāhui Ako,” says Virgina.
A paper with findings and recommendations is being prepared to send to the Minister of Education.