Early education best investment we can make

David Clark argues that the Government's early education cuts will hit Dunedin families and children especially hard.

Yesterday, $400 million in cuts came into effect in the early childhood sector.

These cuts will affect Otago disproportionately.

A survey found that 54 centres across Otago will lose an average of $48,500 each per annum.

Fees will be raised by between $5 and $40 per child per week.

In Dunedin alone, 2900 children currently enrolled in high-quality early childhood education will be immediately affected by the cuts.

This is because Dunedin city has the largest proportion of children enrolled in centres employing 100% tertiary-qualified teaching staff.

In overwhelming numbers, Otago's early childhood centres have committed to a high-quality model.

And, until now, they have been able to provide 20 hours of teaching with qualified teachers to all 3 and 4-year-old children free.

Some parents will be able to cope with the price rises that centres are introducing to make ends meet.

Others will struggle, particularly at a time when costs are rising faster than wages.

The GST rise has hit, and inflation is at a 21-year high.

Family stress levels will rise.

For some people, the cuts imposed by the Government will be too much.

It will be easier for them to quit part-time jobs to spend day and night with the kids.

They will end up drawing a benefit, and lose the opportunity to have their children engage with trained teachers for four hours each day.

So why has the Kindergarten Association, many of the community-based child-care providers and even many of the for-profit centres committed to the qualified teacher model of education and care?Longitudinal studies have documented the significant relationship between the quality of early childhood education and a child's literacy and numeracy scores once they reach school.

The early years are the most important for a child's brain development. Quality early childhood education improves cognitive ability in school-aged children: full stop.

For me, the big question is: what do we value most as a society?Early childhood experts argue that because brain development is happening at its fastest rate during the pre-school years, there is a strong argument for as many qualified teachers as possible.

Why would you expect unqualified teachers in the preschool years when you wouldn't tolerate unqualified teachers in your primary and secondary schools? Anecdotally, it seems, centres with some unqualified staff tend to put them with younger rather than older preschool children.

The science suggests it should be the other way around.

Either way, the literature consistently identifies higher proportions of qualified teachers as one of the persistent structural features of quality centres that lead to higher literacy and numeracy scores.

In this case, more seems to be better.

Providing more, quality early education is a smart thing for any government to do.

Until this Government's cuts, New Zealand was moving towards 20 hours' free childhood education by 100% qualified teachers, available for everyone.

So is it worthwhile for the Government to invest in quality? Demonstrating the benefit of investing early has earned a Nobel Prize for at least one economist.

The Government's chief science adviser has argued for it.

Evidence suggests parents also learn important parenting skills from the regular and non-threatening interaction with qualified staff.

Invest at the start of a child's life, and that child, their family and the country reap rewards over a lifetime.

Economic analysis supports quality early education for all. The return is generally strongest for those from poorer backgrounds.

Wider analyses of the provision of good-quality early childhood education generally indicate a healthy positive return to society on its investment.

Overseas studies show decreases in unemployment, antisocial behaviour and imprisonment.

For children from difficult backgrounds, the benefit to society of free, quality early childhood education is the most significant.

That these children are the ones most likely to be excluded as a result of the cuts is perhaps the most bitter pill.

Investment in quality early education for children from difficult backgrounds is paid back to taxpayers many, many times over in the years that follow.

It is not just a child's access to high-quality preschooling that shapes a child's preschool development.

Research shows that their parents' abilities, education and socio-economic situation also have an effect.

Yet those things are harder to change.

This makes the argument for making change where we can even stronger.

Improving the quality of available early childhood education may be the easiest and most profound investment a society can make.

In Dunedin, the true number of those affected is much greater.

The families of these 2900 children directly affected are involved too.

Some won't be able to afford fees.

And - to widen the circle further still - those centres aspiring to employ 100% qualified teachers in the future can no longer afford to.

Dr David Clark is warden at Selwyn College and the Dunedin North Labour Party candidate for the 2011 general election.


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