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Mallard Speech to the Early Childhood Council


Hon Trevor Mallard
Minister of Education

Speech to the Early Childhood Council

Auckland

Friday 28 April 2000


Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.

About six months ago when it looked likely that I would be given the privilege of becoming Minister of Education, I made a key decision. That was to keep hold of early childhood education.

Over the last decade, I've watched Ministers of Education hand over responsibility for your sector to their associates.

As a result, early childhood education has had a rapid succession of Ministers who have not had the background or the time to properly come to grips with the relevant issues. It's been seen as a sidebar to the education sector rather than an integral part of it. In the last six years there have been five Ministers with responsibility for early childhood education. I want to make sure that that kind of stop and start approach does not continue.

Because early childhood education is too important. And the policy and funding issues are some of the most complex and difficult within the education portfolio. The most difficult is probably recognising the crossover between education and care - the intersection between education and labour market policy - as one contemplates the shape of the State's contribution towards the costs of early childhood provision.

In a Dream World, we would pay for everything. But my job is to sift through the dreams and find the reality.

In the dying days of the fourth Labour Government, behind the very public turmoil, some important work took place in this area. The result was the "Before Five" report which was a plan setting out how to increase participation in quality early childhood education. In the public eye it was largely overshadowed by 'Tomorrow's Schools' which dominated educational change in the late eighties.

When National took over the reins in 1990, they embraced the concept of Tomorrow's Schools and put their own stamp on the school system. I strongly disagree with many of the school policies of the previous Government. I abhor their attacks on teachers, especially as they stripped away the systems necessary for supporting quality teachers. But they did have direction – even if they were going the wrong way.

By contrast, early childhood education has been dogged by an ad hoc approach. When it abandoned the 'Before Five' approach, National abandoned the only real overall strategic plan that the early childhood sector has ever had in this country.

The number of children in early childhood education has grown. That's largely due to the labour market and to an economic climate that forces many parents back into work. There is a desperate need in many parts of the country for quality, affordable early childhood education, but there is no strategy to meet this need.

It is time to reintroduce some coherency to the sector.

That is why the Budget this year will include funding for a long-term strategy for the sector. $100,000 will be set aside in the first year to produce a discussion document, and run a nationwide consultation process. A further $50,000 will be available in next year's Budget for a working group to do further work on the proposed strategic plan.

That working group will include about 30 people from the early childhood sector. Your sector is diverse and that is one of its strengths. It allows you to be responsive to the different needs of children and families in New Zealand.

If that diversity is not encompassed in this process, we will all be the losers.

The strategic plan is a priority for us. The result will provide a focus as all other ECE policy is developed. It will fill the directional gap that has existed since 'Before Five' was abandoned. It will include goals developed by the sector and it will set out how those goals will be achieved.

I will also be making sure that the early childhood sector is represented on the proposed Education Council. The council will be an expansion of the Teacher Registration Board. It will have a major input into ensuring quality teaching in schools and early childhood centres. Establishing the council will be included in legislation to be introduced later this year and passed next year. I hope to have it up and running by the middle of next year.

ECE sector representation will be essential on the council, particularly as we move towards mandatory registration of early childhood teachers.

I place high importance on teacher registration. In 1996, an Act that I sponsored was passed by Parliament. It reinstated compulsory teacher registration for the schools sector. It always seemed mad to me that the National Government abolished teacher registration in the first place. Ironically, they did it the same night that they made it compulsory for veterinarians to be registered. That was a strange message to send to the electorate!

I know registration for the early childhood sector is not quite as straightforward as it is for the school sector. However, to leave this sector out is to imply that early childhood teachers are not the professional equals of teachers in schools. It also implies that the learning and safety of children in early childhood centres can be compromised. Registration for the early childhood sector is a complex policy issue, but it is not insurmountable and we can work together to make the transition as smooth as possible. And as well as requiring all teachers to be registered, the Government’s view is that all staff employed regularly in schools and early childhood education services should undergo police and general character checks.

I want to make it clear that a teacher currently working in the system who is not fully qualified will not lose their job or be expected to gain registration overnight. It will be a process phased in over time.

Registration will also be linked to ongoing professional development. That puts the onus on government to co-ordinate access to professional development. It's a responsibility I will take seriously. I'm conscious that staff professional development does not just benefit the centre that the teacher works in - it benefits the entire sector.

Teacher registration is empowering. It gives employers a means through which they can make sure the teachers they employ are suitable. It gives teachers recognition of their professional status. It gives parents the comfort of knowing that safety checks have been made on the people looking after their children.

It is a way of monitoring quality. That quality is linked to qualifications.

Research has shown that one of the strongest predictors of quality in an early childhood education service, is the qualification level of its staff.

Ultimately the Government would like to see the Diploma of Teaching (ECE) as the benchmark qualification for all early childhood teachers. This is a big task and is likely to take some time.

In the meantime, we're working on requirements for 'persons responsible' in centre-based services to hold at least a Diploma of Teaching (ECE). Co-ordinators in home-based care networks will have the same requirements. This level of qualification reflects the importance of the role that 'persons responsible' play.

They are the leaders in their workplaces. They have to see that the programmes developed by staff are of the highest possible quality.

Let me make it clear here that the transition will recognise prior learning through the licensing points system. Licensing points are gained from a variety of diverse sources. The result of this approach is that 'persons responsible' who have gained 100 licensing points will have areas of real strength but may also have real and important gaps in their knowledge.

I'm also aware that we will need to work with colleges of education and other training providers to look at some changes needed. For example, we need to make sure there is adequate focus on work with very young children in the diploma qualification, and programmes for upgrading to the Diploma of Teaching (ECE).

Along with quality, increasing participation is the other main priority for the Government in early childhood education. It is particularly relevant to our overall objective of closing the social and economic gaps that have developed between Maori, Pacific peoples, and other New Zealanders.

In some communities the lack of a suitable facility has been a major barrier to establishing a licensed early childhood centre. The discretionary grants scheme has provided some capital to help boost communities' chances. The new Government supports this scheme and we want to enhance it.

So I had great pleasure in announcing this week that there will be an immediate injection of funds to the discretionary grants scheme. It will cater for some of the applicants that passed the eligibility criteria last year but still missed out on funds. New grants will total more than $3 million and are expected to help the establishment of about 20 centres.

Half the funds will be in the Pacific pool and half in the general pool. I know many Pacific communities that have all the will in the world but just don't have the means to raise funds for buildings. They meet in garages. They meet in basements. They meet in community halls that they need to vacate when another group books in. What is really frustrating is that many of them have qualified staff who they cannot pay properly because they do not meet funding criteria. I am particularly pleased to be able to offer support to those communities.

I also announced this week, funding of $60,000 towards an equity funding working party. This is the start of the Government's proposal to introduce some form of equity funding for the early childhood sector.

In the school sector we recognise that the playing field is not even. A child's family background impacts greatly on how well they do in education. The State has a role to make up some of that difference in opportunity through the education system. The school decile system may not be totally appropriate in the early childhood sector. I will be asking the working group to develop a more appropriate model for early childhood.

We have a huge challenge ahead of us with our 'closing the gaps' objective. I see these announcements as a positive start.

All communities in New Zealand must realise that quality early childhood education is vital for their children. It will give them a solid start in life and help them to make the most out of their future educational opportunities.

And society as a whole will gain from increased participation in quality early childhood education.

We will all benefit through better social, educational and economic outcomes. I look forward to working with you to achieve this aim.

Ends.

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