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Nick Smith Speech To Early Childhood Convention

Opening Address to
7th Early Childhood Convention
Nelson College, Nelson
Monday 27 September 1999, 1.30pm

Kia Ora Hui Hui Tatou Katoa

Good afternoon and thank you for the welcome. Can I acknowledge Lennane Kent and the organising team.

This afternoon I address you as the Minister of Education, the Member of Parliament for Nelson, but most importantly as father of one 20-month-old daughter. And yes, I will confess right up front – I am a doting Dad.

I've been the Minister in charge of Early Childhood Education for only 4 months. I've been after the job for years. I first sought the job when I was Associate Minister of Education three years ago. I again tried when I was appointed as Minister in January. In the meantime I did a 16 month sentence as Minister of Corrections – you won't find a better job to learn the importance of early childhood education. Finally in June, I took up responsibility for this coveted job.

Why do I feel so strongly about Early Childhood Education? Yes, I confess to having a vested interest with my own pre-schooler, and also my wife, Cyndy, working in the sector. But it is more than this. There is no sector in which we can make as positive a difference for New Zealand than in early childhood education. For all the rhetoric about more police, more prisons, about people being unskilled and unmotivated, about unemployment – in no area can we make as much of a difference as in early childhood education. I want the very best for Hazel and her generation.

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I want to talk about what we have done and why we've done it. I want to tell you what we are doing now and most importantly, I want to focus on the future.

Particular matters I wish to cover are standards and quality in early childhood education, the burden of compliance costs and what we can do about it. I wish also to address issues of strength in diversity, improving participation rates and better integrating policy for our youngsters across health, education and welfare.

But before I get into all this detail, I want to say thank you to you all for making a difference for New Zealand. We have so much we can be proud of in our early childhood sector. We have innovation. We have commitment. We have standards. We have diversity. And our children are the winners.

This doesn't happen by accident. It happens because people, people like those of you gathered here in Nelson, want our children to have the very best. So my first message to you today is a positive one. Be proud of what you are doing – take a bow for a job well done.

Some of you might be saying right now – that's enough. You can sit down now, Minister. If it's all pretty good, let's just carry on doing what we're doing. Well, it's not quite like that. If you're not going forward, you're going backwards. New Zealand Early Childhood Education has a one hundred year history of innovation. It is a proud heritage of leadership and we betray that by standing still. We must look forward, we must challenge ourselves to set new standards and we must grow with the times.

Yours is not an audience that I have to convince of the importance of early childhood education. What I probably have to convince you of is that Government thinks it's important.

Words are easy. It's dollars that count. Over the past decade, the Government has made early childhood the largest benefactor of increased spending. You may be interested to note that over the course of the 1990's, spending on ECE has grown from $139 million to $310 million. That's an increase of 123%. By comparison, primary education spending has gone up by 65%, secondary by 20%, and tertiary by 19%. Even compensating for inflation, Early Childhood expenditure has increased 92%, primary by 42%.

It is no coincidence that the largest growth is in primary and early childhood education. When National says the early years are the most important, we mean it.

Before I get into some of the nitty gritty of current policy issues, I do want to draw your Convention's attention to some of the latest research on child development.

The Competent Children Project (an awful name – I don't think there is such a thing as an incompetent child but rather a poorly supported and educated child) – but anyway – it is a longitudinal study of Wellington and Wairarapa children conducted by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research and funded by the Ministry of Education, and is to be released at this convention.

The project aims to give us more concrete information on what influences a child's cognitive, social, communication and problem solving competencies. It looks at family circumstances, early childhood education, home activities and school resources. The report on age 8 has just been completed and raises some important questions for us in early childhood education.

It is noteworthy that at age 8, the benefits of early childhood education were still evident. The earlier the age at which children started their early childhood education the better, the greater the length of their early childhood education the better and the quality of the early childhood education was also a determining factor. These characteristics were consistent regardless of family income or ethnicity.

A further telling finding is on the issue of Television. The jury has been out for several years on its educational merits. The verdict is now clear – Guilty. The study shows an irrefutable link between increased television viewing and lower cognitive skills. What we all thought by gut instinct – too much television rots the brain – is true. The challenge for us collectively is to install a culture of learning in New Zealand families. It is time to switch off the Simpsons, lose the Lion King videos, put away the playstation and open a book.

The research was also noteworthy in that it showed family resources was one of the strongest positive factors. It is also interesting in the context of other research that boys were more volatile than girls in their progress in relation to factors of disadvantage. In short, when things go wrong, they go really wrong for boys.

The research confirms many of our own experiences, and while totally unscientific can I advise you of a home-experimental trial involving a sample size of one, my daughter, Hazel.

Several weekends ago I was doing some work in my backyard with the shovel during which I had an unfortunate and painful accident. Out came an unrepeatable expletive. Only hours later, Hazel tripped over one of her toys inside and out it came. I'm pleased for my own sake that she hasn't learnt the "f" consonant or my wife Cyndy would have my guts for garters. The lesson – young minds are like sponges and we must give them quality!

Today I wish to announce the development of a new resource- the Quality Journey, He Hoerenga Whai Hua –Implementing a Quality System in New Zealand Early Childhood Services. The resource is being developed by Dr Anne Meade and Anne Kerslake-Hendricks and I want to thank them for their efforts.

The resource kit is quite deliberately being developed as a journey and not a destination. It is about continuously refining our systems and teaching to improve the quality of our early childhood work. The resource will be distributed to all your centres in November, with the exception of home based services and Te Kohanga Reo Trust, for which there is still work to resolve on the final product.

A resource kit alone is insufficient. It must be backed up by professional development. That is why from February next year we will be backing up the paper resource with people resource.

The resource is divided into two parts. The first focuses on quality improvement systems, the second on teaching, learning and development processes. The document will set the new benchmark of quality in the early childhood sector. I am confident the sector can rise to the challenge as we raise the bar and expect the very best for our children.

You can't raise the issues of standards without the issue of funding. The new resource is not mandatory, but I must flag with you our future direction. You will be aware of the quite different funding levels for different providers of early childhood education. These different levels have more to do with history than quality and over time we need to address this.

To be able to make clear linkages between quality and funding we need robust quality measures. This new resource is the beginnings of such a system. Ultimately, we want to ensure that those early childhood providers that commit to increased quality reap the financial benefits. To do this fairly and robustly it must be reliable. We want to work with you to ensure it addresses this.

In short, National is committed to increasing resources in the early childhood sector to increase quality. But this investment must be made on the basis of clear and credible quality benchmarks and not on arbitrary distinctions between service types.

I can't resist this opportunity to highlight some of the key political differences in early childhood education policy given the poll due on the 27th of November.

National is committed to two key objectives in early childhood education consistent with the research findings I have spoken of. Our goals are about increasing participation rates and increasing the quality of early childhood education. That is where we will focus future resources.

Where we differ is on whether different early childhood providers should be discriminated on the basis as to whether they are "state" or not. Labour has promised to put kindergartens back into the state sector and give them a privileged position relative to the rest of your sector. I say this has far more to do with politics than children.

I defy anybody at this convention to explain to me why a child at the Green Street Early Childhood Centre, where my daughter Hazel goes, should get less funding than another arbitrarily defined state provider. The issues are quality, the issues are staff qualifications, the issues are good facilities but the issues should not be whether they were ever in or out of the State Sector Act. This is just legalistic mumbo-jumbo.

Were Labour to nationalise the whole of the early childhood sector that might have some logic to it, but to put one provider on a different basis to the rest is unfair. The issue is standards and quality and those early childhood providers that can match the same standards should receive the same funding.

National takes the same approach with respect to the issue of pay parity for kindergarten teachers. It is not fair to promise 1,800 kindergarten teachers a huge windfall and leave the thousands of other equivalently qualified early childhood educators out in the cold. However, I note with some cynicism that Labour says that kindergarten teachers will not receive parity inside the next term of Government and so it seems it is more of a teaser than a genuine commitment.

National's commitment is that we will discriminate in our funding on the basis of quality including qualifications of staff, but we won't discriminate on the basis of service type or union membership. This is not critical at all of kindergartens - they do an excellent job. But rather to say that we are not prepared to put them on a pedestal that does not allow other early childhood providers of the same quality the same resources for excellence.

A further issue I want to address is that of bureaucracy in the sector. This issue was brought into harsh focus during the 5 Steps Ahead process in which the Government was focusing on how to raise business performance in New Zealand. Inevitably the issues of compliance cost and red tape were raised.

A well respected Christchurch businessman made the point that while there were issues in his business about unnecessary bureaucracy, they paled into insignificance compared to that he experienced in his voluntary involvement in the early childhood sector.

As we seek to drive standards higher, we must not bury early childhood providers in red tape. Every hour spent filling out forms is an hour less spent with a child. We must focus on how we can reduce compliance costs.

This brings me to the thorny issue of the WINZ childcare subsidy. Ministers are so often advised, never admit a mistake. I disagree. We should say it the way it is - then we can get on and fix it. It has been a bureaucratic nightmare. I sympathise with those who have struggled to make the system work. Yes, it is working far better than earlier in the year, but I believe we need a whole rethink of our approach.

I have been sorely tempted to just revert to the old system, but that was hardly efficient either. I am also very conscious of the need to properly consult with your sector before making radical changes. If that had been done better in the first place, I think we could have avoided this current difficulty.

I wish to advise you today of two specific initiatives to address these issues of excessive bureaucracy.

The first on a tighter timetable is that of the WINZ childcare subsidy. The Government is to establish a joint Ministry/WINZ team to explore whether we can integrate the funding mechanisms of the WINZ childcare subsidy and the Ministry Early Childhood Education funding. While the key policy parameters around the two funding streams are not up for review, it seems to me that we must be able to bring the streams of funding together and get away from this mad system of the same information being collected several times. The aim is a single funding return from centres, and a single regular payment from the Government. We want to work with you on this to see whether a system that will reduce your compliance costs and those of parents. I am particularly determined to find a way that reduces stresses for parents receiving the WINZ childcare subsidy. Many of those families are already under stress and the last thing they need is these sorts of hassles.

The second is a wider question of compliance costs in the early childhood sector. We have recently established the system of test panels to try and reduce the paper war. I think there is the same potential in the early childhood sector as there is in other sectors – most recently the Minister of ACC, made an announcement regarding GP's. The aim is to identify these requirements and focus on those that add to the paper war without adding to the quality of early childhood provision. In short, we are on about more quality, less bureaucracy.

The last substantive issue I want to make mention of is a longer term vision – the better integration of our education, health and welfare programmes.

The needs of pre-schoolers and their families do not fit into neat little departmental buckets. We must design our social programmes around families needs not departmental structures. As we look to the future we need to be looking at how we can bring these services together to better meet family needs.

The Family Start programme is just such a programme, but the challenge for us is far bigger than this. We need to get existing services thinking this way as well as new initiatives. The Strengthening Families initiative is along these channels. The thinking along these lines is quite new. Each of you as providers need to be thinking about how you can work more closely with health and welfare services. This is the way of the future.

Can I conclude where I started - by being positive. We have achieved a huge amount together.

We have increased investment in early childhood education by $150 million per year.

We have 45,500 more children participating in early childhood education.

We have 1,800 more qualified early childhood educators.

We have over 1,150 new early childhood centres.

It is a record of which we can all be proud.

It is an honour to serve as your Minister for these brief few months. If I am privileged to continue in this role in a future Government, these will be my priorities.

Firstly, developing robust and reliable quality indicators that enable funding to be based on quality not prejudice.

Secondly, a focus on increasing participation rates with innovative community partnerships to get a higher proportion of three year olds, and 100% of four year olds into early childhood education.

Thirdly, a drive to reduce compliance costs and bureaucracy starting with combining the payment system for the WINZ subsidy and MOE grants.

Fourthly, a vision of getting better integration of health, education and welfare services for our under fives, particularly for those families at risk.

Can I conclude by wishing you well for your convention. Enjoy your work. Enjoy Nelson.

Take the time to enjoy our spectacular parks, our vibrant artists, our acclaimed wines and our delicate seafoods.

Most of all, remain committed. Our future as a nation depends on your success.


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