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Judge Gives Lifeline to the Early Childhood Sector

Education sector: Judge Throws a Lifeline to the Early Childhood Sector

The Secretary of Education is obliged to issue a licence to an early childhood centre, where it is unable to comply with new stringent staffing requirements, but it is likely to do so within 12 months.

This decision, handed down by Justice Young in the Hamilton High Court today, may prevent the Ministry of Education from permanently closing early childhood centres that cannot recruit staff with the new qualifications.

The Early Childhood Council¹s survey data indicates up to 400 centres around New Zealand are at risk of not being able to comply with the 1 January 2005 qualification's changes.

"This crisis has come about because the Ministry, who are charged with enforcing the regulations, have not ensured an adequate supply of qualified staff in all regions" said Mrs Thorne, Chief Executive Officer of the Early Childhood Council.

The tiny Kawhia Preschool sought a ruling from the Court that the Ministry was, in the circumstances, acting unreasonably and unlawfully in trying to cancel their licence. In a reserved judgment released today, Justice Young ruled that the part of the Regulations, which in practice is used for newly established centres, can be applied to existing centres and should be used to give the embattled Kawhia Centre a reprieve.

Kawhia Educational Trust employs a highly competent, experienced and qualified primary teacher. Under her management the centre has achieved rave reviews from parents and the Education Review Office. Despite the high quality of education being delivered to children at the Kawhia Preschool, the Ministry of Education have insisted that the licence be cancelled. Further they required the management to re-advertise the teacher's position, as the incumbent did not have a specific early childhood qualification.

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"It is a ludicrous situation that up to 60% of new primary school graduates are unemployed, whilst preschools have a staffing crisis, short by some 2500 staff" said Mrs Thorne.

According to the High Court ruling, centres which are under threat of closure can simply apply for a Probationary Licence under the current Education (Early Childhood Centre) Regulations 1998, and under most circumstances the Ministry may be obliged to grant these Probationary Licences for 12 months.

This will mean centres in regions affected by staffing shortages may stay open and continue to operate. It also seems possible, that if the probationary 12 months expire and the same circumstances continue to apply, subsequent probationary licences would have to be granted.

Whilst the Court refused to agree with the plaintiff's contention that the Secretary of Education has a useful degree of discretion in apply regulations specified in statutes, this may not be a win for the Ministry of Education. Up until now they have refused to grant a licence until the applicant can demonstrate they first comply with specified staffing and management practices, the curriculum and the standard of care and education. Now it seems an applicant must be given up to 12 months to prove they will comply.

"We believe that this direction by the High Court to the Ministry of Education should give early childhood centres in hard to staff regions some breathing space," said Mrs Thorne.

Unfortunately it does not change the flawed essence of the Minister¹s policy which enforces more restrictive staffing practices, when it is well known that the Ministry of Education had not first ensured there is a sufficient supply of staff with the new qualifications in all regions.

The Early Childhood Council represents the managers and owners of over 800 community owned and privately owned services throughout New Zealand.

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