You are not permitted to download, save or email this image. Visit image gallery to purchase the image.
A new report about failings in the country's early childhood sector raises serious questions on several fronts.
The report, titled ''Infants and toddlers: competent and confident communicators and explorers'', was undertaken by the Education Review Office in response to others which had highlighted issues with some providers, and warnings from a sector advisory group that poor-quality education could undermine children's learning and development.
It was publicly released last week after it was leaked to media.
The review of 235 early childhood service providers found almost half were not doing enough in fundamental areas of the early childhood curriculum, particularly communication and exploration.
High-quality education was not consistent across facilities and was dependent on the leadership, culture and the professional learning and development of staff.
Consider the findings alongside our child poverty and child abuse statistics and they are a further nail in the coffin for a country which has long prided itself as being a leader in children's health and education.
View them in the context of the Government's drive to have almost all (98%) children enrolled in early childhood education facilities by next year
and more questions must be asked about the efficacy and legitimacy of that prescriptive approach.
The early childhood education policy is part of the Government's ambitious Better Public Services strategy, whose five key target areas are ''reducing long-term welfare dependence'', ''supporting vulnerable children'', ''boosting skills and employment'', ''reducing crime'', and ''improving interaction with government''.
Within the supporting vulnerable children plank, three results are sought: ''increasing participation in early childhood education'', ''increasing infant immunisation and reducing rheumatic fever'', and ''reducing assaults on children''.
The aims are laudable and show a commitment by the Government to try to address some big issues.
But the repeated emphasis on ''results'' is unsettling given it is difficult to find some of the specific rationale behind some of the targets.
Early education is vital; that is not in dispute.
It pays off in many ways in later life.
And given children learn through play, providing many and varied opportunities to do that during their formative years is necessary for them to learn, develop and make sense of their world.
Responsive interactions with adults are fundamental to help young children develop language, confidence, self-esteem and a range of physical and social skills.
Providing a safe, healthy and stress-free environment that enables learning to take place is equally important.
All the above requirements can certainly be provided by a quality early childhood facility, and there are many centres in the report clearly doing a great job on all or some of them.
A beneficial learning environment can of course also be provided by an engaged and committed parent - from any part of the socio-economic spectrum.
There is no doubt early childhood facilities have become increasingly important as an option for working families, and the universal access aims of the previous Labour government's 20-hours' free early childhood education policy were worthy (although there has been debate about how ''free'' the system actually is).
Enforced participation (even if it is ''free'') and a one-size-fits-all ethos has swung the pendulum too far, however.
Surely the most important work any parents can do is to raise their children - if they are willing and able?
That includes single parents and beneficiaries, who must now seek work before their children are school-aged.
Yet, surely any benefit savings are neutralised if the Government is effectively subsidising increased childcare?
In the wake of the review, the Ministry of Education is contacting providers to remind them of their obligations, but the Government must consider its own obligations, including to staff and early childhood providers.
The policy should be re-examined, and the decision to relax the ratios of qualified teachers within centres reviewed.
For if the money being pumped into the early childhood sector is not contributing to quality education, then children, parents and taxpayers are all paying a high price indeed.