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Sue Thorne ECC - annual conference speech

An extract from a speech by CEO of the Early Childhood Council (ECC), Sue Thorne. This speech was delivered yesterday (30 April) to the council's annual conference in Rotorua.

It outlines ECC's concerns that section 317 of the Education Amendment Bill will:

* Lead to the creation of thousand of micro-rules ('criteria'); * Create these rules beyond the powers of the Regulations Review Committee to act as a political check;

* See the Ministry of Education spending the next six years reregistering every early childhood centre in New Zealand on the basis of these rules;

* See the same set of detailed micro-rules applied in the same way to centres as different as Kohanga Reo, Pacific Island language nests, Steiner centres and Kindergartens - thus damaging seriously the unique characteristics of such centres.

* Therefore reduce substantially the ability of New Zealand parents to find a style of childcare that reflects their unique family values.


...We have a great system of early childhood care in NewZealand. Fantastically diverse. We have Te Kohanga Reo and Kindergartens and of course the vast rainbow array of education and care centres including Montessori,Pacific Island Language nests, Steiner and many more different philosophies.

If parents want education and care for 40 hours a week we deliver that. If they want nine hours on Monday and two on Friday we deliver that.

We have a great diversity of education and care from which parents can choose the style and hours that suit their family and their children.

This allows parents to go to work confident they can get childcare for the hours they need it. And delivered in a style consistent with their parenting. A style consistent with their particular family values.

I am sorry to say that the crucial ability of parents tochoose the sort of education and care they want is under attack. There is a piece of legislation called the Education Amendment Bill that is about to reach its Committee Stage in Parliament. Itmay well do so next week. Our concerns are with section 317, which has sneaked past its first and second readings with nothing in the way of journalistic attention.

This is what section 317 is going to do. It is going to allow for the creation of something called 'criteria'. These criteria are micro-rules. And there could be thousands of them. These rules will not be in legislation. These rules will not be in regulation. They will be created by either the Ministry or Minister and will exist beyond the normal powers Parliament, beyond the usual ability of the Regulations Review Committee to act as a check on unreasonable regulation.

Our sector does not object to the regulations we have currently. We grizzle a bit perhaps. But most of us know it is entirely right that there should be high standards that apply to all.

These new micro-rules, however, could be something else. They threaten to cover almost every conceivable aspect of running a centre. And to do so in the tiniest of detail.

We don't object to requirements that our centres be safe or of high quality – but we do object to being told there is only one way of doing that.

Worse, the intention is that this one very specificset of micro-rules will be applied to all the very different kinds of centres: Kohanga Reo, Montessori, Steiner, all the education and care centres, Kindergartens and the rest. The Minister's SOP (that is the amendments he is proposing) water this down a little. But not much. All,or almost all, the very different kinds of preschool in New Zealand could be forced to do things in the same way, or in a very similar way.

This is how it will work. The Ministry is being given the power to create as many rules as it likes. It will then spend six years stomping about New Zealand making sure that all centres are complying with these new rules.

That is the Ministry's documented intention. And those centres with even one micro-rule not implemented will be punishable with fines.

The result will be disaster for New Zealand families and communities.

They will face centres unable to innovate because they are bogged down in rules. Had 'criteria' applied at the time of their genesis Kindergarten, Steiner Centres and Kohanga Reo might have been fined out existence whilst still infants.

We believe criteria are a major threat to quality of care, and that standards are set to fall as micro-rules make common sense a thing of the past. We all have a story about the craziness of bureaucratic controls. Like the one about the childcare group that takes mobile laptop computers in vans around its different centres. And how the Ministry has deemed that children going into the vans are on 'field trips' and musthave written approval from all parents each time they step outside a centre's front door and into a van parked on the property. Or the one about the Ministry official who recently required a teacher to not carry a child over a barrier 450 millimetres high.

Micro-rules would prevent Ministry officials from interpreting the general regulations with common sense. Even if an official could see that the application of a specific rule would make a specific centre less efficient,less responsive to the particular needs of particular children or less innovative… that official would have no choice but to impose the compulsory micro-rule.

If section 317 of the Education Amendment Bill is passed one set of micro-rules will soon be applied to very different types of centre. As a result centres will be less able to meet the different needs of different children,different families, and different communities. Compliance with micro-rules will enforce sameness. And that sameness will rob New Zealand parents of their right to choose from a diverse range of early childhood services. Today many parents can go to work secure in the knowledge they have chosen childcare that reflects their unique family values. If section 317 passes unmodified this may not be the case tomorrow.

We heard from Tariana Turia earlier in our conference. And I am pleased to say that the Maori Party has understood this threat to New Zealand families very well. The amendment they are proposing for section 317 is spot on. It allows for compulsory general regulations. But it opposes compulsory 'criteria',and replaces them with voluntary 'guidelines' instead.

This is a brilliant solution because the specific 'guidelines' would make clear to centres what is meant by general regulations, but allow centres to implement these intentions in a manner that suited the particular families being served.

The Maori Party clearly understands the importance of parental choice. They understand that Maori parents have a right to choose Maori education for their children. But impressively, they understand that non-Maori parents have that right to choose also.

In opposing section 317 of the Education Amendment Bill the Maori Party has shown it is prepared to take action based on these principles – in the interests of both Maori and others. For this they should be applauded by us. And applauded loudly.

We urge all political parties that understand the importance of parental choice to follow their lead, and to support the Maori Party's amendments to section 317 of the Education Amendment Bill.

We seek also the support of all parties that know you cannot create quality anything with thousands of little rules that prevent those on the front line from responding flexibly to the particular communities they serve.

Most New Zealand parents currently take for granted that they can access the sort of childcare they want, the type that suits their particular family. We think these families should take a good look at section 317 of the Education Amendment Bill. And realise that their choices may be about to diminish. And to diminish substantially.


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