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The Heart Of The Issue: An Underfunded Early Learning Sector That Can’t Meet Demand

Erin Maloney

 

The Government recently announced a new cost of living package that will expand childcare assistance, making childcare more affordable for over half of all New Zealand families with pre-school children. The additional support for families will mean over 10,000 additional children are eligible for support, however, there are fears that the sector will be unable to meet an increased demand for child places. This is mainly due to constraints on funding that, in some cases, have seen services fail to meet quality standards, down-size or close completely.

The Early Learning Action Plan introduced by Government in 2019 as a part of the broader Education Conversation outlined a plan and vision for early learning over ten years. The most significant actions in the plan relate to lifting quality in our early learning services. This includes reviewing adult:child ratios, moving towards a fully qualified workforce and improving the consistency and levels of teacher salaries and conditions. While work has been started on some of these actions, there is a long way to go to ensure all children benefit from high quality early learning experiences and all teachers are adequately supported and remunerated. Surely before funding greater levels of access to early childhood care and education, we must first have confidence in the service that we are able to deliver to New Zealand families? How do we know that we will even be able to meet an increased demand, let alone ensure that children and families can benefit from positive and enriching early learning experiences?

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In Prime Minister Ardern’s announcement of extended childcare support for families, she talked about the difference that participation in high quality early learning services can make, particularly for disadvantaged children. The clincher here is that participation in formal early childhood care and education only makes a difference if it is high quality. If there are enough teachers and services aren’t struggling with adult:child ratios, if working conditions support the best possible outcomes and if services are funded adequality to remain open and meet the cost of delivering high quality.

2022 now represents the greatest number of early childhood service closures in more than two decades. Many services closing their doors have cited their struggles to meet increasing compliance requirements, initial pay parity thresholds for teachers and the ongoing demands of running a quality service. So, while any funding that supports families to access early learning is welcome, it doesn’t actually solve the problem when it comes to an underfunded early learning sector that is already struggling to maintain quality standards and meet demand.

What our sector needs is some brave decision making from Government around the importance of the early years and the difference that an increase in funding can make for service providers when it comes to delivering quality. Increasing accessibility for families means nothing if we can’t back it up with positive early learning experiences and opportunities where children can thrive. Over 70% of a child’s brain develops in the first three years of life and the relationships and connections they form during this time are critical when it comes to laying the foundations for who they will become. Research has shown that, for every dollar invested in quality early childhood provision, the Government saves eight dollars’ worth of cost in the justice, social service and health sectors later on in life. We have the opportunity to re-shape an early learning sector that’s struggling so that we can support every child to live into their full potential.

Our national service currently has over 120 families waitlisted for care. As a quality-only provider, we pride ourselves on recruiting qualified educators who almost always have long wait lists. We desperately need more educators and teachers to open new services in order to meet this demand. The challenge we have as a sector is under-funding that, in conjunction with current labour market conditions, contributes to a dire workforce shortage.

Expanding childcare assistance for families is just one part of the solution. To truly enable our early learning sector to meet demand and deliver on high quality, providers must also be funded in a way that supports our sector to grow and flourish.

Our children and teachers are worth it.

Erin Maloney is the Managing Director of Tiny Nation, one of the largest home-based early learning providers licensed by the Ministry of Education. With 12 services operating nationally, Tiny Nation partners with qualified and experienced educators to ensure high quality outcomes for children and families.

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