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Mallard: Going ahead with quality for our children

15 July 2005

Going ahead with quality for our children

Hon Trevor Mallard Speech to the New Zealand Childcare Association (Te Tari Puna Ora o Aotearoa) Annual Conference, Millennium Hotel, Rotorua

Good afternoon everyone. Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the loss of the founder of the New Zealand Childcare Association, Sonja Davies who was a tireless campaigner for our under-fives. Sonja knew the importance of giving our youngest children the best possible start in education through lifting the quality of education they received before they got to school.

I am sure you will all find it incredibly hard to believe that quality - which Labour sees as the cornerstone of early childhood education and which has been now widely supported for decades - is suddenly under attack by my political opponents. Research here and overseas continually shows us that children who have been involved in quality early childhood education do much better in terms of educational achievement in later years.

The language being used by the leader of the opposition is very instructive and tells us a lot about where he is coming from.

Not only has he admitted to doing his shopping according to the "marginal utility" of groceries, he regards children as a "tax deductible business expense", and has said as much. I have yet to see him utter the words "quality and education" or even "children" in the same breath.

He is not at all interested in making sure our children get a solid and high quality educational grounding before they get to school. Why else would you allow unlicensed and unregistered childcare settings - and even backyard set-ups would be okay - to attract taxpayer funding via a measly and complicated tax rebate system. Why else would you turn your back on the gains that have been made in driving up the quality of education that our under-fives are increasingly receiving.

Many of you would have taken part in the debate in the seventies which saw the focus move from the childcare approach to the quality early childhood education approach. We all thought we had moved onwards and upwards. There is no doubt that National's policy is a great leap backwards.

Some of us may have nostalgia for the eighties, but I really don't think many of us want to go back and live there like National does. As you will be aware we have committed to providing 20 hours free early childhood education per week for three and four-year olds in teacher-led community-based centres from 2007. Under National this will be scrapped, and they would make non-working parents and families miss out altogether, even if the breadwinner, normally the dad, is working two or three jobs.

This is because these children's education do not matter to his party. Based on current rolls and the funding we have set aside which they plan to use for a small once-a-year rebate, this means around 86,000 children and their families will miss out - some by as much as $5000 a year. We recognise not enough community early childhood centres are available yet – that is why we are undertaking a big investment and training programme. This will ensure centres with trained staff in all communities.

Labour’s priority is to provide quality public education freely available to all. We respect peoples right to choose but it shouldn’t be the responsibility of a private market place to provide what we regard as such an essential service.

Just as the state pays a proportion of funding to private schools, so we support parents who choose to use private centres - both through the childcare subsidy (which we've extended to 40 per cent more children) and through the new funding system for early childhood education.

Under this new system, private centres will get more than half the $546 million in the budget that is set aside to also pay for the free 20 hours up until 2008-09.

But we do not think it is appropriate to use taxpayers' money to fund profit-making services, as this does not guarantee that families get the benefits. In fact, there is a clear quality versus profit trade-off.

That is why we prioritise our spending, supporting public services.

National's policy gives with one hand and takes with the other. Not only will the 20 hours free be cut, but we also suspect they intend to stop the expansion of services that we have committed to help funding, and that they would also scrap the other support we give services to drive up quality.

You will see professional development, exemplars, ICT and other resources gone by lunchtime, you will probably see the 900 scholarships we are giving for teacher trainees in early childhood education gone also.

Research tells us that quality early childhood education is an important first stepping-stone and can help our children do better in education later in life.

That is why our government is concentrating our investment in ensuring all our families - not just the working ones - have access to high quality and affordable early childhood education.

Why should the children of the poor miss out? Why should they miss out because their Mum chooses to stay home with them?

The early childhood education strategic plan is changing the face of early childhood education in New Zealand and since it was launched three years ago significant achievements have already been made.

Participation in quality early childhood education has grown considerably, services have improved and become more flexible, and people throughout the sector are working together to share information and experiences.

Our commitment to early childhood education continued in this year’s Budget with an additional allocation of $152 million. This means government will be spending $694 million on early childhood education by 2008-2009, an increase of 140 per cent since 1999.

As a result of the new funding system, more than 3000 early childhood education services last week started to benefit from a $33 million funding boost for the sector, provided for in this year’s budget, with services receiving an average increase in funding of about 15.8 percent.

This extra funding makes sure services are compensated for the costs of hiring registered teachers, so they do not pass them onto parents. Your sector is making good progress towards the 2007 requirement that services must have half their staff registered as teachers. So far 56 percent of services are already meeting that requirement which is great to see. I am really pleased to see great gains in early childhood education participation continue – enrolments have increased by nearly 10,000 in the past two years. To build on these gains last year we announced new establishment funding to help fledgling services employ the qualified and registered staff required before they open, and for other set-up costs like good quality teaching materials and equipment. We have also topped up the Discretionary Grants Scheme so yet another 55 to 65 community-based centres can be built in areas of shortage. Labour's manifesto is still being finalised, but I'd like to signal some of our current thinking.

On the quality side, there has been consultation on three options to improve adult: child ratios last year, and also separately on proposals to improve group sizes in services.

We know that good adult: child ratios are associated with better outcomes for children, and the feedback of course supported improvements. Feedback on group sizes told us that, at this stage, change through regulation could lead to negative outcomes for levels of participation.

There is more work being done on both proposals, so I will be consulting with you further before I make a decision on ratios. I have deferred a decision on group sizes until 2009 to allow for more information to be gathered. However, we are working towards improvements in both these areas for the future.

Another important focus is further improvements to access.

We will be working with existing early childhood providers to extend services, by either growing their centres where appropriate or establishing additional centres on other sites. Employers, particularly in the state sector, will be encouraged to establish early childhood education and care facilities on work sites.

Greater family and whanau involvement will be encouraged through targeted education programmes and improved co-ordination with health and social service agencies.

We will also move toward requiring parental and staff involvement in the governance of early childhood services. We all know the involvement of parents and whanau can work wonders on how children learn.

The research also tells us that if used well information communications technology (ICT) can be a big help to a child’s learning.

Children can use this technology to observe, explain, record and review their world in different ways and it can also help to develop those early literacy, maths and communication skills.

I would urge you all - if you haven't already - to check out the information, communications and technology framework for early childhood education – Foundations for Discovery.

The CD-Rom showcases how some services are using this technology to improve both teaching and learning.

We recognise the need to strengthen professional development so we can support quality educational outcomes for our youngsters. The exemplars we released earlier in the year are another tool to help teachers lift the quality.

What is really exciting about the exemplars is they include the voices of parents and whânau, alongside teachers and children.

This is a ground breaking and innovative move for early childhood education in New Zealand and I believe for the rest of the world, and it will be good to see the new ones next year.

But let me say again - this sort of support is easy meat for National as it cuts funding to pay for tax cuts.

National has already signalled it will scrap the centrally funded professional development training and resources from the schools sector, and I would not be surprised if they plan to scrap the same from early childhood education.

They have refused so far to come clean about how they will pay for the tax rebate, and you can only wonder why.

Earlier this year we also announced a significant education information programme Team-Up; this programme is all about parents and families getting involved in their children's education.

I believe this programme will make a major difference in helping our kids to learn, get ahead and get the most out of their education – from early childhood on – so they can achieve to their full potential.

Team-Up, fronted by Tana Umaga who is the Ministry of Education's educational ambassador, is aimed at encouraging, supporting and empowering parents to support their own children’s learning.

We are serious about what we are after here and this is reflected by our investment of $15.9 million over the next five years.

Research clearly tells us that parents who are involved in their children’s learning and who encourage their children to be the best they can be, make a real and positive difference to how children learn.

Already we have had positive feedback on this programme which gets officially underway in October this year.

Finally, we need to celebrate the progress we have made in delivering quality early childhood education to children. Participation in licensed centres is up by 7 per cent since we came to government and quality provision is becoming much more accessible and affordable throughout the country as a result of our government's commitment to what I regard as the most critical area of education.

The gains we have made for our youngest children would not have happened without the hard work and commitment from all of you.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you today.


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