Parents cannot rely on the current early childhood education system to ensure adequate quality of care and education, a pair of researchers have claimed.

University of Otago public health researcher Mike Bedford made the statement during a recent seminar, alongside early childhood teacher Susan Bates.

Bedford, who has just completed doctoral research into early childhood environments, said New Zealand had “demonstrably poor quality” early childhood education services.

He said the Ministry of Education needed to urgently address the “serious” health, quality of care, and education standards within the sector.

“This is not about embarrassing the Ministry, but about being honest about the state that we’re in. Then we can get the resources and support needed to fix this in there.”

He said the current education system did not serve quality-based providers, either commercial or not-for-profit.

“It only serves poor quality commercial operations.”

However, Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said while the seminar had “some gems”, it lacked balance.

“The sector is not fundamentally as broken as the seminar suggested, and it’s disappointing that that is the picture that they want to paint.”

He said the researchers had some “interesting” observations about the definition of quality.

“On the one side of ‘quality’ you have compliance which was the focus of the seminar. But on the other you have parent expectations. That wasn’t included.”

It was also disappointing to see a focus on childcare centres in the seminar, he said.

“It totally ignored home-based care, Playcentre, kōhanga, free Kindy. We’re a diverse sector.”

Bedford suggested a solution during the seminar, including making the Ministry the national provider of early care and education, with provision contracted from existing services.

“The Ministry would be required to contract with high quality providers where there is a choice, and avoid contracts of poor quality.”

Services that were struggling would not necessarily close, but all services would be supported to improve, Bedford said.

Reynolds said he supported the idea that childcare services were in a constant state of improvement.

“Struggling centres do need extra support, they need mechanisms to identify that, and in certain cases they need the Ministry to manage that process, which it has been must more proactive at recently.”

Bedford also called for significant improvements in the minimum standards, as well as adequate checks on quality.

Ministry of Education associate deputy secretary education system policy Damian Edwards said it wanted all young New Zealanders to have access to high-quality early learning experiences.

“That is why we have been developing a Strategic Plan for Early Learning, which will set the direction for early learning for the next ten years.”

The draft plan contained a number of recommendations which aimed to lift the quality of early learning, and ensure regulatory settings are in line with best practice, he said.

“It seeks to address many of the issues Mr Bedford has raised, including teacher qualifications, group size, physical environments, and environmental factors.”

Edwards said the Ministry is currently working with the sector to build a “more comprehensive” workforce demand and supply picture.

The Government aims to release the final plan before the end of the year.

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