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20 free hours should focus on disadvantaged

26 January 2006

New research says 20 free hours should focus on disadvantaged

New Zealand's most disadvantaged children will continue to miss out on early childhood education if Labour's '20 free hours a week' policy is not modified, says research released today. (26 January)

The research assesses Labour's election promise of free early childhood education for all three and four year olds at teacher-led centres.

It says disadvantaged children are most likely to benefit from early childhood education, but most likely also to miss out under current proposals. And it recommends the 20 free hours policy be modified to ensure disadvantaged children are able to access preschool education.

Commissioned by the Early Childhood Council (ECC) and undertaken by the NZIER, the report says substantial childcare assistance is already available to all, with participation by New Zealand's three and four year olds amongst the highest in the OECD. (Well ahead of countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia.)

The research says the 20 free hours policy will waste millions of dollars on those already in preschool, while continuing to fail 'the most disadvantaged' not currently participating.

It recommends altering the current policy by using the existing Work and Income childcare subsidy to fund 20 free hours for the most disadvantaged, and 'actively seeking out and recruiting' children not yet participating in early childhood education.

Releasing the report ECC chief executive Sue Thorne said 20 free hours was 'an historic opportunity'.

'Unmodified it will give more than $100 million dollars a year to children who for the most part already receive early childhood education, and very little to those in most need.

'But if we focus even a part of this money on ensuring disadvantaged children have access to preschool education we will change the lives of thousands.'

Mrs Thorne said low-income children benefited much more from early childhood education than the better off.

Children from low-income families who received quality early childhood education were more likely, later in life, to acquire higher education and be in high-skilled jobs, she said. And they were less likely to drop out of high school, be in special education, be arrested as a juvenile and be repeat offenders as adults.

'We need to spend money reaching at-risk families, discovering why their children are not participating and doing what it takes to get them into high-quality preschools,' Mrs Thorne said.

'If we succeed the result will be independent adults able to compete in a modern economy. If we fail the deprivation of many will begin with failure to access early childhood education and end in educational failure, unemployment and jail.'

As a result the taxpayer would pay, for the next 70 years, for the failure to reach the current generation of disadvantaged preschoolers, Mrs Thorne said.

The Government announced, as part of its 2004 Budget, the policy of free early childhood education for three and four year olds at teacher-led centres. The policy was intended originally for community-owned centres only, but extended to commercial centres in the run up to last year's General Election. Scheduled for introduction in 2007, the total cost of the policy is estimated to be $105 million a year.

ECC is the largest representative body of licensed early childhood centres in New Zealand. Our 860 member centres are both community-owned and commercially-owned, employ more than 5000 staff, and care for more than 45,000 children.


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