Early Childhood SymposiumEducation
Thank you for inviting me to speak here this evening. And thank you for being here as part of your professional development.
Your conference has a theme “The Politics of Early Childhood Education”.
It’s an ironic theme. I often think that there is more politics in early childhood education than there is in the Beehive.
Your sector is diverse. It is what makes it special. It is also what makes it one of the most complex areas of policy development.
One of the big steps forward in early childhood education over the last few years is the growing recognition outside the sector of how important quality early childhood education is to a child’s success later in life.
That has been helped a lot by emerging local and overseas research that continues to underline the vital importance of the ECE sector in building strong foundations for future success. In particular, I want to mention here the world-renowned Competent Children study.
When the Competent Children at Ten results were made public last year, the report received a lot of public attention for telling us that children watch too much television. I know that’s a view that many parents around the country share and I am sure that’s a research result that was put to good use in some households.
But to me, the most important aspect of that study is the affirmation it gives to early childhood education. It shows that the benefits of ECE can still be seen in 10-year-old children – a full five years after they leave early childhood education.
The government is committed to this valuable and unique longitudinal study. That’s why I have agreed to a further half a million dollars to continue the good work. I would bet that in a few years time we will be seeing the resulting research “Competent Children at 14” that also shows the benefits of quality early childhood education.
I also want to mention briefly the early childhood primary links work that was part of the SEMO project in Mangere and Otara.
It’s research that I find really exciting. Those of you who attended the presentation from Corinne Hansell and Fa’asaulala Tagoilelagi-Leota this afternoon will probably understand why.
It shows children from disadvantaged backgrounds can achieve academically if they have access to the right support. It shows what an important role ECE has in that achievement.
That’s why I am committed to having programmes like this extended to other parts of the country.
In the new term of government, we will continue to focus on quality and participation in early childhood education. For the early childhood education system in this country to be a success quality and participation must go hand in hand. What use to us is the highest quality system in the world if its use is limited to the most privileged? At the other end of the scale, a policy programme that boosts numbers at the expense of quality will fail to produce necessary benefits.
I say this with the acknowledgement that the ECE in this country has a lot to be proud of. We do have high participation rates and with high quality services. We are an acknowledged world leader in providing integrated care and education under one curriculum, Te Whariki.
At the same time, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
I want to outline some of the work government is doing to raise quality and lift participation in early childhood education (ECE). To build on our strengths and achieve more and better ECE.
To do this effectively we need to do some serious thinking about what our goals are and how we can best achieve them.
As you will no doubt know, I asked Dr Anne Meade to lead a group of 31 sector representatives to design a 10 year strategic plan for the sector. Their final report has been the springboard for the government’s strategic plan for ECE to be launched next month.
In the meantime we have not been standing still. For example, this year is the first year that early childhood centres have received equity funding to recognise the barriers that centres serving poorer communities face in order to provide quality early childhood education. This translates into an additional $30 million for eligible community-based ECE services over the next four years.
It was one of the promises made by Labour as part of our 1999 election manifesto. As you know, we are a government that keeps our word.
Elsewhere, we have looked at where the strategic plan is heading and have taken some early steps to ensure that its foundations are embedded.
Regulatory and funding systems for ECE have been built up over many years. Over time a number of ad hoc changes have been made.
It is now time to take a long hard look at the way we regulate and fund services to ensure we are meeting current and future goals.
This exercise gives the sector a chance to have its say about how systems will work in the future.
I am determined that it will help raise quality in the sector and also reduce compliance costs.
Importantly, it will help build the foundations of the strategic plan.
A lot of research has been carried out into what makes for quality ECE.
We now know that where the education is the responsibility of professional teachers rather than parents, teacher qualifications are equally important to ratios and group size.
The government has therefore started programmes to improve the qualification level of teachers in the sector.
Our first step was to require, by 1 January 2005 at the latest, those designated as “persons responsible” in centres and co-ordinators in home-based care networks to hold a qualification recognised by the Teachers Council.
To help people meet this change, we have put in place incentive grants to meet some of the costs that are incurred as staff upgrade their qualifications.
We also put in place contracts to deliver Recognition of Prior Learning Assessment and Flexible Programmes for those wanting to upgrade to the Diploma for Teaching (ECE).
This is only the start.
It provides the foundations for continual increase in the number of teachers who hold qualifications recognised by the Teachers Council over the next decade.
I know that this increase will challenge some parts of the sector, especially in Auckland.
I know that government will need to work closely with the early childhood education sector, teacher education providers and the Teachers Council to manage this change.
One way to manage change is to make an early start. That’s why as part of this year’s budget, we allocated an additional $10.5 million of new funding over the next four years into a range of initiatives to increase the numbers of qualified ECE teachers.
As well as working to improve quality through increasing the numbers of qualified teachers, we are looking at ways to lift participation.
We do so with the recognition that certain groups in our society have lower ECE participation rates.
The Promoting ECE Participation project is one way to increase participation.
The main focus is concentrated in Auckland, but work is also underway in the Waikato, Wellington and Canterbury regions.
Under this new project organisations are working closely with targeted local communities, to help them develop ‘grass roots’ solutions to barriers to ECE participation.
Feedback from the project so far is highlighting the importance of access.
In line with this, government is taking a more active role in facilitating access to quality community-based services in places where participation is low.
We plan to do this in two stages.
The first stage begins this year.
It involves looking at the current network of services and establishing new community-based ones where gaps are apparent.
Solutions that could be put in place include identifying groups as a priority for the Discretionary Grants Scheme.
Solutions could also involve the government directly providing property for community-based services where people are struggling to do this themselves.
But we know that property is not always the solution.
The second stage is about working with community-based services where participation is low to identify services that need help and find ways to do this.
This work will start from the middle of next year.
In providing assistance to targeted groups the Ministry is going to need to work closely with existing providers of support to the ECE sector.
I believe the Ministry’s future role is more likely to be a co-ordinating one, where it helps link services into the appropriate provider of that support.
I know that a lot of the changes that we have made have not been greeted with wild enthusiasm in some parts of the sector.
In particular, there is a degree of resistance from the Early Childhood Council against what they see as interference in the running of a private business.
Within the Early Childhood Council there are individuals who have a high commitment to quality early childhood education and to quality training for staff. In particular, I have visited its former president Raewyn Rammage in Christchurch and seen the work that she is doing both in early childhood provision and in training.
But our motivation to be involved in early childhood education is different. Government has a responsibility for widespread provision of quality education whereas private providers are there for financial gain. Our different motivations do not necessarily clash – but nor do they always complement each other.
I think that when huge amounts of government funding is directed towards these ‘private businesses’, then government has not only a ‘right’ but a responsibility to set standards that we require for our investment.
We also have a responsibility, which we have exercised through policies like equity funding for the sector, to look at ways in which all children have access to quality early childhood education. Private providers do not have that wider commitment.
I think it is appropriate to finish here by remembering the combination of Peter Fraser and Clarence Beeby – a powerful duo who espoused the right of New Zealanders to quality education regardless of their personal circumstances. In the compulsory sector, that philosophy is fairly ingrained, although there is plenty to do still to make it a reality.
In the early childhood sector, we still have someway to go before we, as a society, demonstrate the same attitude towards early childhood education. During my time as Minister of Education, I am working towards New Zealand moving significantly forward down that road.