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Open Letter on Changes to Kindergarten

2 June 2017

Do you see the free public kindergarten as having had its day or as being important to retain?

Whatever your opinion is on this matter, we hope you continue reading this letter as it contains discussion and perspectives that everyone with an interest in young children’s care and education needs to know and consider.

This open letter has been prompted by news of the Heretaunga Kindergarten Association in the Hawke’s Bay being among the latest associations to make changes to the way it offers kindergarten services.

Auckland Kindergarten Association also announced recently that it was considering a serious restructure including scrapping term breaks and extending the 6-hour day attendance for children at many of its kindergartens to 7 hours.

Today there remains only one kindergarten in the country out of more than 500 formerly that has not been changed from 2 sessions a day of less than 4 hours per group of children to an all-day licence.

The changes raise questions concerning:

1. How to manage the risk to children of institutionalisation - spending more hours in non-parental care at a young age than is necessary for children’s learning and for their care and protection.

2. Whether kindergartens can provide support that will help to make changes in the home that any vulnerable child goes back to at the end of the day when teachers have less or no non-contact time for work with parents, planning, and liaison with support agencies.

3. How far kindergarten will assimilate into being a childcare service and therefore also be affected by the economy and parent ability to pay fees, and by the politics of childcare such as when the Government dropped funding from covering 100% qualified and certificated teachers to 80% because having all-qualified teachers was not considered necessary for children in childcare.

The free kindergarten is a model that is highly suited to the needs of children. It has served generations of kiwi children and families well. Its structural quality has provided a robust basis for effective teaching and learning.

As with the school system, it may be argued that NZ should retain a public system of early childhood education that takes in all children, is funded fully by the taxpayer with donations only from families, is run transparently, and staffed with the best teachers it can recruit.

There is a perception that kindergarten will die if kindergarten associations do not change how kindergartens operate to compete with services that provide year-round long day childcare.

However changing to 6- or 7-hour days as most associations have done, or are doing, falls short on what most full-time working parents need for childcare. To have more chance of surviving long-term in the strongly competitive childcare market and to properly support the childcare needs of full-time working parents, a kindergarten would need to offer 8- or 9-hour days of care (something we do not advocate), or be changed back by its association to being a sessional-licence and offer morning or afternoon preschool sessions for the children of working parents using home-based ECE (which would be an intelligent approach supporting both the needs of children and parent choice).

The erasure of kindergarten as a unique choice for families is unfortunately getting closer to becoming a reality. The consequences of kindergarten as a unique service disappearing are grim.

• When the last remaining sessional kindergarten in New Zealand, Ponsonby Kindergarten, is changed by the Auckland Kindergarten Association to an all-day licence then (a) there will be no free kindergartens left in NZ that still meet the definition of a free kindergarten under the Education Act, and (b) the funding rate for sessional kindergarten with 100% certificated teachers will cease to show in the Ministry of Education funding table.

• Kindergartens will no longer feature as a distinctive choice in our early childhood system alongside childcare centres, playcentres, kohanga reo, home-based ECE, and hospital-based services. The Ministry of Education will no longer need to collect separate statistics on kindergartens. For all statistical and funding purposes kindergartens under kindergarten associations would be counted and treated as ‘education and care centres’, a classification that for example includes community kindergartens run under the BestStart private family trust childcare agency brand.

• Any Government would be justified in removing kindergarten teachers from the State Sector Act and not have responsibility for teacher wages and conditions any longer. Labour would not have a case as it did once before when National removed kindergarten teachers from the Act, to restore kindergarten teachers to the State Sector Act.

• Any possibility of early childhood teachers in the childcare sector gaining pay parity with kindergarten, and kindergarten teachers with primary teachers, would go when/if kindergarten teachers are removed from the State Sector Act.

• It could be argued that associations no longer have a right to free or taxpayer subsidised use of public land and buildings not available to other ECE services. This could result in the cost of rent or purchase being passed onto parents through fee charges. Kindergartens provided on public grounds could be forced to close and buildings that the taxpayer has contributed to could be claimed back by the State and/or put out to tender to other ECE service operators for market rents.

• Kindergartens will no longer be about children and meeting children's needs first and foremost. Teachers working in childcare services say that 6 hours or more a day of institutionalised education is too long for young children.

We hope this open letter raises awareness and gives an opportunity for discussion about where kindergarten is heading.

Kindergarten is a unique and much loved part of our education system, serving many generations of children and families and it will be a sad day when it is fully assimilated into being not unlike any childcare service, and communities and parents are locked out of running and having a say over their local kindy for their children.

It is hoped that the NZEI teachers’ union will come out strongly in support of retaining the high quality kindergarten education model - it is still not too late to show support.

The government has so far provided no indication that it will intervene in the decisions associations make, however government intervention is needed to secure the future of kindergarten.

Kindergarten association boards and managers must stop kindergarten as it is known in our society from being erased. Kindergarten associations need to show greater responsibility as a community service to children, families and to the quality of early childhood education in Aotearoa New Zealand, and focus on retaining kindergartens' distinctive point of difference in the early childhood system.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Sarah Alexander and 128 signatories


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