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Brash - Address to the Early Childhood Council

Don Brash MP - National Party Leader

30 April 2006

Address to the Early Childhood Council Annual Conference
Grand Tiara Hotel, Rotorua

Thank you for the invitation to address your Early Childhood Council Conference today.

I'm delighted to take this opportunity to outline the key issues I see facing the early childhood sector from a National Party perspective.

I should start by saying that the National Party is strongly supportive of early childhood education.

We accept the need to properly resource the sector in order to ensure high quality early childhood education for all children.

I think it's fair to say that there is a high level of agreement between political parties on the fundamental aspects of early childhood education.

But we do differ on some important issues which impact on staff, parents and children. They perhaps highlight the quite different principles of the Labour and National Parties and I'll be expanding on these later.

I want to start, though, by acknowledging the importance of the early childhood sector. The people in this room work incredibly hard in a sector that makes a profound difference for young New Zealanders and their families.

The work can be interesting, challenging, fun, energizing and hugely important.

All the evidence we have suggests that quality early childhood education is vitally important for a child's development. It's a huge opportunity but also a massive responsibility. It builds on the years of parents being first teachers to their children.

Unfortunately, negative early childhood experiences can have the opposite effect - often long lasting.

International and domestic evidence summarised by the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research in their recent publication "Putting Children First" concluded that good quality early childhood education is associated with:
- Better lifetime economic and social outcomes for children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, through improved school readiness and long-term educational outcomes.
- Secondly, with improved opportunities for parents through providing time for employment, education and training, and child rearing support.
- Thirdly, with reduced costs of schooling and anti-social behaviour through better socialisation and improved economic prospects.

The report also makes the crucial point that children from low-income homes benefit more than others from high quality early childhood education.

These conclusions are supported by a number of studies, including the recently released "Competent Learners @ 14" report.

Their data demonstrates that students who had experienced high quality in specific aspects of early childhood education had higher scores for competencies at age 14 than others, particularly for the cognitive competencies.

At a macro level, recent OECD research stresses the importance of early childhood education to economic development. This importance is not always appreciated by policymakers - a point well made by the OECD in a recent country report on New Zealand.

In short, quality early childhood education provides gains for children, gains for families and gains for the nation.

The pre-school years are often described as a child's learning prime. As you know, at this stage of life children are eager to learn, can absorb huge amounts of information, and can make significant progress in a matter of days or weeks rather than years.

Quality early childhood education prepares young New Zealanders for school and for life beyond school.

Early childhood education builds the foundations for the adults the children will become.

In addition, quality early childhood education services play a vital role in strengthening New Zealand families - the backbone of our country.

Properly supported, quality early childhood education services provide real choices for families - particularly women.

As a party, we recognize that the costs of childcare are a serious burden for many families.

We recognize that childcare choices made by families vary according to where they live, the service they use, and the hours they work. No two families are exactly the same, or have the same expectations, needs or preferences.

We regard these costs as a legitimate work expense for second-income earners who would otherwise be engaged in childcare, and for employed sole parents.

So, at the last election, National promised to support families by providing them with real choices about how they balance and manage their own lives. This would have been done through a new tax deduction for childcare costs.

Providing a tax deduction for childcare costs would give parents - particularly mothers - much greater reward from work outside the home. Without tax deductibility, the income that second-income earners or sole parents can generate from work, after paying tax and childcare expenses, is often minimal. The National Party wants people to be able to get ahead from their own efforts.

The gains of early childhood education are not limited to children and families, however. The whole country can benefit.

Early childhood education reduces the need for remedial schooling later and reduces the incidence of anti-social behaviour both in school and society.

Clearly, this allows time and resources to be focused more positively. Disruption in the classroom is minimized and educational outcomes are improved for other children as well.

Indeed, there is a body of economic thought that suggests that when you look across the health, education, welfare and justice sectors, the point where an investment or intervention can make the greatest positive difference over a lifetime is in early childhood education.

A dollar invested in early childhood education at the start can potentially have substantially greater impact than a dollar invested later at school, at university, in a hospital, in providing a social worker, in increasing a benefit, or in paying for more police.

Over the long term, quality early childhood education is likely to contribute in a significant way to GDP growth.

And though GDP growth may not sound like something that motivates you, it is only through economic growth that we as a nation will be able to afford the social services we all value.

The opportunity of being there, helping a child develop his or her intellect and personality, cannot be underestimated.

But, as you know, you face a number of challenges in early childhood education, and not all of them from the children.

Some of them come from adults in Parliament or in the public service.

You face the challenges of funding systems, regulations and red tape, which sometimes threaten to strangle your creativity and drag you away from the front line.

And you face the challenge of people telling you that they know what is best for teachers, children and families when clearly they don't.

I want to discuss three particular early childhood issues where I see people in Wellington trying to overly prescribe what happens in your centres.

The issues are parental choice, compliance costs and employment relations.

I mentioned earlier our election promise to give parents a tax deduction for all forms of childcare costs. There would have been no losers under this policy, as we would have retained all existing and budgeted subsidies.

As I've noted, one principle underpinning the policy was that childcare costs are a legitimate work expense for second-income earners who would otherwise be engaged in childcare and for employed sole parents.

A second crucial principle was that of parental choice.

There are 180,000 children enrolled in early childhood education. It is patently untrue to assert that their needs are all the same.

We did not think it right that the Government should try to dictate what sort of childcare was best for every family.

We believe parents should be entrusted with that choice because they know their children best. They have been their children's first teachers from day one.

Parents can make the best decisions based on their children's needs and we stand wholeheartedly behind their right to make that decision.

Parents already have the ultimate responsibility for their children's upbringing and well-being. It is only logical that they can exercise choice here in a responsible way.

The uniqueness of every family means that a blanket approach to early childhood education is simply not possible. It is through being able to exercise choice that the full benefits of quality early childhood education can be realised for children and families.

By treating different provider types equally, we support a flexible funding system where parents choose the hours and the provider.

Through their choice of provider, they communicate their personal assessment of what quality in early childhood education is. To my way of thinking, a parent's definition of quality is much more important than a bureaucrat's definition of quality.

It shouldn't matter what type of provider Labour thinks is best.

It shouldn't matter what type of provider a union thinks is best.

It shouldn't matter what type of provider I think is best, either.

It should matter what type of provider individual families think is best for them. It is their judgment of quality that matters.

They are the best judges, because parents have the biggest emotional investment in the issue, they understand their own family needs best, and ultimately they have the final responsibility for their children.

That is why we trust them.

The real requirement for trust goes the other way. It is up to early childhood providers, up to bureaucrats and up to politicians, to earn the trust of parents.

I want to talk briefly about ownership issues in the sector.

When it comes to the delivery of social services like health and education, the Labour Government is overly pre-occupied with who owns those service providers.

National believes that the quality of early childhood education is not determined by who owns the centre. It does not matter whether a service is owned and operated by a community group, iwi, trust or private owner: in the end that centre must be accountable to the parents and families that it serves.

Ownership is not an indicator of success - the kids are the indicator of success. Our attention should be focused on them - not on the names on the property deed.

It's at this point I have to acknowledge the sterling work of the Early Childhood Council under the leadership of Sue Thorne in successfully lobbying the Government. During the election campaign, the Government was forced to publicly U-turn and extend their 20 free hours policy to private centres.

The Government grossly underestimated how important parents considered the issue of choice. Labour's ideological bias against private centres was out of step with the wishes of most New Zealand parents.

The Early Childhood Council ran a strong evidence-based campaign, which was ultimately successful in mitigating some of the worst aspects of the policy.

They have provided a benchmark for other lobbying efforts because this is a Government that does not admit its mistakes easily.

It is important not to underestimate the achievement of the Early Childhood Council lobbying.

Certainly, the Government's original free 20-hour policy was flawed. It would have created an unjust funding system, which would have been hard to manage.

The actual substance of the policy was poor - it was more of a slogan dressed up as educational reform.

Those policy flaws were well known and documented.

But this Government has developed any number of policies where the policy flaws are well known and documented, and has passed them into law regardless.

I congratulate the Early Childhood Council on their efforts: the National Party education team was proud to support the campaign in whatever ways we could.

I would like to move now to the issue of compliance costs.

The Government claims that compliance costs are coming down but I am not sure if even they believe that.

The root of the problem is that too many politicians and officials believe their decisions do not really create compliance costs for businesses. It is - they argue - just one piece of paper and it's for the greater good, after all.

Often, they justify it by saying that the human resources person or the administration person could fill in that particular form in just 10 minutes.

This ignores the fact that most New Zealand businesses don't have a human resources department or a dedicated administration person.

This ignores the fact that numerous government agencies are constantly churning out "just one piece of paper".

This does make a difference. The paperwork is a brake on business and the business of education. There are better things for you and your staff to be doing and it all costs time and money.

There is a need to strike a more realistic balance between the need to ensure standards (including safety) on the one hand and compliance costs on the other.

That balance is patently missing in the new early childhood funding system introduced in April last year. One of its main features is the requirement for a very high level of daily recording.

The percentage of trained teaching staff on the floor compared with the ratio required by regulation has to be recorded for every single hour.

But then what happens is that four months - four months! - of hourly data is used to calculate to what extent the ratios were maintained.

Hourly recording for a four-monthly calculation is bureaucratic overkill.

A system requiring a centre to account for every teacher and every hour they are open doesn't reflect the realities of a busy centre with kids coming and going during the day.

A system that doesn't count a teacher if they are off the floor for more than 10 minutes doesn't understand how much time staff spend on administration or working with children's portfolios.

This reporting system is supposed to be about quality but it really just involves people running around with clipboards and that doesn't benefit anyone.

I believe there should be a more flexible system, which places greater trust in the managers of early childhood centres. These are people who we already trust with our children, after all.

The reporting requirements seem to be based on a myth in the Ministry of Education that the kids all arrive at the same time, all leave at the same time and have a constant staffing level throughout the day.

I am not sure such a centre really exists. The policy certainly doesn't reflect the diversity of the sector, which is one of early childhood education's greatest strengths.

I also have to say that I am concerned that the new registration regime is a little too prescriptive. Quality is crucial but I worry that we have gone too far when many highly experienced staff no longer have their qualifications recognised.

National would work to recognise a broader range of qualifications and experience for early childhood education.

Child and staff numbers in the sector continue to grow and there are many young staff entering the profession. I was delighted to address a graduation for 163 of them earlier in the month.

As these new teachers enter the sector, it is important that we do not lose too much irreplaceable experience from the workforce. We need these experienced staff to be role models for those entering the sector.

The final issue I want to talk about is related to employment and employment relations.

I have already spoken about how the cost of childcare is a barrier to employment for some women. Our tax deduction policy is designed to help families make the best choices for them and to allow them to boost their family income if they choose to work outside the home.

There is another barrier to employment prevalent in the early childhood sector. Ironically, it is in the form of our employment laws.

These laws are written by people who have never employed anyone with their own money, and, to be honest, it shows.

Business groups like Business New Zealand tell us that many employers are reluctant to take on staff because of the risk and cost of hiring the wrong person.

This makes employers less likely to take a chance on an individual who does not have a positive or continuous record of employment. Because of this risk, many individuals, despite being skilled, remain unemployed. Their talents are being wasted.

Some of the groups worst affected by this are women, parents returning to the workforce, individuals returning to their profession after working in other fields, older workers, individuals with disabilities, migrants and refugees.

These are groups that either provide or could provide many talented early childhood education staff. We want to see their talents utilised where possible.

National's Industrial Relations spokesman Dr Wayne Mapp has recently introduced a private member's bill aiming to help more people find jobs.

The Employment Relations (Probationary Employment) Amendment Bill would establish a 90-day probation period for new workers and employers in order to break down barriers to employment.

If the relationship does not work out during that 90-day period, either party can walk away without personal grievance procedures applying. Of course, workers would still be protected from sexual harassment and the like.

New Zealand and Denmark are the only two countries in the OECD that do not have a probationary period for new employees. The most common length of probationary period in the OECD is three months, while in Britain, with a Labour Government, it is 12 months.

The Bill has passed its first reading and is being considered by a select committee, despite the opposition of Labour and the Greens.

Helen Clark is quite prepared to borrow ideas like the pledge card from Tony Blair. A probationary employment period is one of his policies she should embrace.

It would make a positive difference for people looking to join the workforce who just need a chance to show their skills, and it would make a positive difference for New Zealand employers looking for staff. This would, of course, include early childhood centres.

In closing, I want to see an early childhood system that does not attempt to unilaterally say one form of early childhood education is automatically and always the best.

That decision should be left to parents.

It would be a system that allows early childhood staff to take their talents and energy to the type of provider where they can make the biggest difference.

That decision should be left to you - the staff.

This is my vision for the early childhood sector:

One based on what is best for the child and the family.

One where teachers are free to unleash their full potential in a variety of settings.

One where we recognise and celebrate diversity as a real strength of the sector.

You will have my on-going support in putting children first.


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