If rather crudely: she questioned that perhaps we should be worrying more about whether every four-year-old in Kaikohe is attending an early childhood centre rather than whether the bottoms of the children in Remuera are being wiped by someone with a degree.
While some may share the thoughts of this correspondent, her views fly in the face of new research conducted by Te Tari Puna Ora o Aotearoa/New Zealand Childcare Association (NZCA). The study confirms what many have suspected for some time: that children in early childhood education benefit more from qualified teachers than unqualified teachers.
The research publication, Early Childhood Teachers’ Work in Education and Care Centres: Profiles, patterns and purposes, shows marked differences in children’s experiences and learning when all of their teachers are qualified.
The research looked at teachers’ work in 10 randomly selected ECE centres. In half of these centres, all teachers were qualified (referred to as 100 per cent centres), while in the other half, between 50 and 79 per cent of teachers were qualified (referred to as 50 per cent centres).
“Children in ‘100 per cent qualified’ centres are more likely to have learning conversations with teachers, to partake in shared sustained thinking with teachers, and to engage in complex play,” says lead researcher, Dr Anne Meade.
“Under-2s in 100 per cent qualified centres experienced quality caregiving but this was considerably less likely in ‘50 per cent centres’,” she says.
Dr Meade says teachers in ‘100 per cent centres’ were more intentional about children’s learning, evidenced through planning, talking with parents, and exchanging information about child learning and development. They were better at explaining the theories that supported their practice and their planning was more systematic. The ‘100 per cent centres’ explicitly deployed teachers to ensure continuity of caregiving for infants and toddlers.
The research also showed similarities between centres with 100 per cent and 50 per cent qualified teachers and highlighted some areas of weakness across the board. Children across all centres were found to be similarly socially competent, but all centres were found to perform poorly on recognising and representing diverse cultures. Inclusion of te reo Māori and Māori cultural knowledge appeared to be related to teachers’ cultural knowledge rather than qualifications.
In response to the research, NZCA Chief Executive Nancy Bell is calling for the Government to regulate for at least 80 per cent qualified teachers in early childhood education services. The current requirement is 50 per cent, meaning only half the teachers in a centre must hold a three-year teaching qualification.
“The findings show that under-2s in ‘50 per cent centres’ may be experiencing poor quality education and care, and this should be addressed with urgency. In addition, children of all ages in ‘50 per cent centres’ are experiencing far fewer of the teacher practices that are predictive of later academic achievement,” says Bell.
“Government is currently considering recommendations of two working groups it established to advise on quality improvement across the early childhood education sector. While the majority of services now have 80 per cent of their teachers qualified, there are still a significant number at 50–79 per cent. Some under-2s will be taught only by unqualified teachers. Our study suggests this will enhance learning disparities.
“We’d ultimately like to see 100 per cent of early childhood teachers qualified. However, the next step is to regulate to 80 per cent.”
The findings of the research are unlikely to come as a surprise to many. The study echoes the findings of a number of other research projects. The calls to regulate to at least 80 per cent qualified staff will also be familiar. New Zealand Kindergartens Inc is also a strong proponent for qualified staff. A literature survey undertaken by the organisation emphasised that positive outcomes for children and families participating in early childhood provision depended on the following features: the quality of staff-child interactions, the learning resources available, programmes that engage children, and a supportive environment for children to work together.
There has been some suggestion that the private for-profit early childhood education sector welcome the lower thresholds for qualified staff, as they stand to gain from the reduction in qualified staff from community-based ECE service. High-income families will be able to afford the fees to send their children to early childhood centres with 100 per cent qualified staff, but low income families will not, thus allowing educational inequity to seep in at the earliest possible instance. In a 2009 paper entitled Strengthening Community-based Early Childhood Education in Aotearoa New Zealand, Helen May and Linda Mitchell discuss some of the consequences for quality early childhood education of this rise in corporate and for-profit childcare services in New Zealand.
It all boils down to funding. Despite what the research confirms, qualified teachers cost more. And let’s not forget, New Zealand is still in the throes of economic recovery. With hands out from every cranny of the education sector for a share of the budget, it is understandable that compromises will be made. But the question is: can we afford to compromise on early childhood education?