‘Child-farming’: Office of Early Childhood Education survey’s bleak results

Early childhood educators say the state of the sector is going downhill and have little faith in where the Government is taking them.

“Child farming,” a sector “heading backwards”, and “ECE is a train wreck” are some of the comments that have come out of the annual Office of Early Childhood Education (OECE) survey today.

The survey, which spoke to 1000 people working in centres, kindergartens, home-based care, and other areas in ECE, showed many respondents had little faith in the Government to steer the sector in the right direction.

Respondents also had little confidence Minister for Education Chris Hipkins would deliver pay parity, and felt the quality of care for children has worsened in the past four or five years.

Hipkins, however, claims the Government was making “making positive changes” in early childhood education and indicated “there is more to come” in this year’s Budget.

“I have never felt so spent and used like this before,” said one teacher of 12 years. “I feel I am grossly underpaid and undervalued. I am at breaking point.”

Two-thirds of respondents felt things would only get worse over the next 12 months. Results from previous surveys show the bleak outlook has steadily worsened since 2018, when 38 per cent of respondents expected the state of the sector to go downhill.

Qualified teachers were hard to come by, and centres were struggling to afford anything but the minimum staff numbers, they said.

“Everyone wants to leave. I am now seeing students that don’t even want to finish their degrees because they can already see how hard it is going to be for them to be a teacher with all that is expected of them,” one person said.

Pay parity was also a sore topic, with nearly 80 per cent of respondents saying they did not have confidence Hipkins would deliver.

The opt-in scheme was promised to begin in January, but the survey revealed many felt the money wasn’t coming, or that they personally wouldn’t benefit from it.

“It doesn’t look like it is coming for those of us with many years of experience and in positions of responsibility,” said one person.

Meanwhile, only 6 per cent of respondents believed the state of the sector had improved over the last four or five years.

“NZ was once a leader in ECE. We should be ashamed of the care now being offered to our children,” one comment said.

“It has become child farming not child care,” said another.

Common concerns included poor ratios of teachers to children, an overload of paperwork preventing teachers from supporting, loving and educating the children, and kids being seen as dollar signs.

There were also concerns about the quality of teaching staff, with “many centres taking on more unqualified staff with no training in child development”.

Chief advisor of the OECE Dr Sarah Alexander was not surprised at the negative results of the survey.

“The results are consistent with previous surveys and other evidence from the Ministry of Education and other sources. There are significant policy and funding issues and a lack of oversight for the sector such that the quality of ECE for children is now being severely impacted,” she said.

“What this latest survey shows that is new is that it would appear there is a real danger that the rot has set in. Can things get any worse? I would hope not.

“If the public were aware of what is happening to and in the ECE sector, then they could think about how these issues impact the standard of education and care provided to children and the costs to our society of not having an effective high-quality early education system. The ECE sector is in desperate need of better support”.

Hipkins said early childhood education was a passion of his and believed the Government was “making positive changes” and moving the sector in the right direction.

“Much of the criticism in the survey is aimed at staffing, ratios and pay in the for-profit part of the sector, which grew massively under National and is now embedded,” Hipkins said.

“We have no plans to nationalise the sector, but instead we are strongly focused on lifting pay and quality across the board.”

Hipkins added a pay gap has built up over time and blamed the previous National government for stopping the practice of passing on increased kindergarten funding rates that met the cost of pay settlements to education and care services.

“We are focused on lifting pay rates for teachers, and are making progress. We have been clear all along that the problem will take multiple budgets to fix,” he said.

“Budget 2020 provided $151.1 million over four years for early learning services to improve the pay of up to 17,000 qualified ECE teachers and Budget 2021 provided another $170 million over four years for pay parity. There is more to come.”

So far, an estimated 79 per cent of education and care services have opted in to parity funding rates, Hipkins said.

“Covid-19 hit the sector hard and I acknowledge that. I would like to thank providers for their service.”

At the time of the 2020 ECE Census, 190,348 children were enrolled in New Zealand early learning services.

The total proportion of all children in New Zealand aged 0-4 years old who attended a licensed early learning service during the 2020 ECE Census week was 60.7 per cent.

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