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Flaws in 20 Free Hours Further Exposed

14 June 2007

Flaws in 20 Free Hours Further Exposed

The controversy over a Tauranga childcare centre's increased charges for some children and the imposition of an 'optional charge' by the Auckland Kindergarten Association has further exposed the flaws in the government's 20 free hours early childhood education (ECE) policy, according to Education Forum policy advisor Norman LaRocque.

These moves by centres to increase revenues are a necessary response to the government's poorly designed 20 free hours initiative, whose 'one price fits all' policy will require ECE centres in high cost areas to either find creative ways of increasing fees or 'dumb down' the quality of care in order to fit into the government's subsidy policy, said Mr LaRocque.

Although the government argues that ECE centres can overcome funding gaps in the policy by introducing voluntary 'optional charges', there are risks that parents may be unwilling to pay such fees - particularly given the policy was advertised as free, said Mr LaRocque.

Experience in the school sector suggests that increased fees for other groups of parents - as in the Tauranga case - may become more common over time if parents balk at paying optional charges. A 2003 New Zealand Council for Educational Research survey showed that, on average, only 70 percent of parents paid their school donation - a form of 'optional charges'. At the individual school level, the proportion of parents paying their school donation ranged from less than 30% to more than 90%.

If this experience is replicated in the ECE sector, centres will have no choice but to look for alternatives to voluntary optional charges, said Mr LaRocque.

The only way to provide centre owners with the budget certainty they need to operate and avoid smoke and mirrors in fee setting is for the government to admit that its 20 free hours policy is unworkable and allow ECE centres to charge top-up fees, concluded Mr LaRocque.


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