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How important are our youngest children?

27 November 2009

NZEI Opinion Piece

Early childhood education and care centre head teacher Meg Moss asks how important are our youngest children?

A major change of policy direction in education occurred earlier this month but conveniently from the Government’s point of view, it managed to slip well under the radar. Perhaps that’s because it’s a change which affects our youngest learners, some of whom cannot speak for themselves.

I’m referring to a world leading New Zealand early childhood education initiative. That is the plan to have 100 per cent qualified teachers in early childhood centres from 2012. It’s been in place since 2002 – more than seven years - and services around the country have been, slowly and steadily, working towards it. Yet the government has now moved unceremoniously, to dump it.

Dropping this commitment is a step back from quality. We know that quality services, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, improve educational outcomes. We know that poor quality services are associated with worse outcomes. And we know that quality is associated with several factors. One of the strongest associations is with qualified teachers.

The Government knows this. Even in the press release which announced the abandonment of plans for a fully qualified teaching workforce, it said ``qualified and registered staff are more likely than unqualified staff to drive high standards in ECE and establish effective learning environments’’.

So why discriminate against our youngest learners? Is teaching a three year old as important as teaching a nine year old, or a 17 year old? Research suggests that it is. The most critical period in the brain development of a child occurs in the early years, when positive stimulation lays the foundation for social skills, language skills and future learning.

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No-one is suggesting that primary or secondary schools be staffed with unqualified teachers; yet early childhood education is arguably the most important education of all. We know that children who miss out have difficulty catching up once they go to school. Why compromise on quality at the most important learning stage?

At a time when more and more of our young children are enrolling in early childhood services for longer and longer hours, quality has never been more important.

Research by the Los Angeles-based Rand Corporation suggests that children in quality early education programmes have higher IQs and increased emotional and cognitive development.

This is supported by the long running New Zealand Competent Children project. This study, by the NZ Council for Educational Research, has tracked 500 children since 1993, assessing them in ten areas linked with successful education.

In contrast, research from the United States and elsewhere shows that poor quality programmes can have a detrimental effect. The New Zealand study also links the quality of early education with how well children perform in school. It also found that quality ratings in services were directly related to the proportion of qualified staff.

So research confirms the importance of children receiving quality early childhood education because it enables a child to perform better at school and on into adult life.

New Zealand was the first country in the world to introduce a national early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki. Teachers set goals based on the learning outcomes and then assess and document children’s work so they can map their progress and report to their parents.

New Zealand early childhood teachers are required to carry out the same work on a professional level as their primary and secondary colleagues. They follow a national curriculum, they are required to plan, assess and evaluate children’s learning, and report to parents. Services are assessed by the Education Review Office, just as schools are. It would seem to be self evident that teachers have to be qualified to be effective in this work.

Of course, just being qualified is not enough. Early childhood teachers need a many other qualities and attributes as well as qualifications. But qualifications are an essential start.


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