Early childhood education concerns

Disquieting survey comments were aired last week from some teaching staff in early childhood education centres about the quality of the places where they worked.

The online survey, conducted by the Child Forum Office of Pre-Primary Education, involved self-selected participants, which might be expected to attract the disgruntled more than the content.

But even so, 4000 teaching staff responded (there are about 30,000 teachers working in the sector). The highest percentage (26) was understandably from Auckland with 7% of respondents from Otago, Southland, and Stewart Island.

One of the shocking results was that about a quarter of the respondents would not be happy to enroll their own children at the service where they worked or one of a comparable quality.

The reasons cited for this varied but included poor treatment of children, cutting corners on quality and one respondent describing a centre as being like a "crazy over-filled zoo of kids".

There were other concerning issues raised by respondents involving the effects of short-staffing and cost-cutting, cramped conditions, flouting of the child/adult ratio requirements, and staff undertaking cleaning tasks when they were supposed to be engaging with children.

Nearly a third of respondents said they did not have time to form relationships with the children in their care. This proportion has increased from previous surveys in 2014 and 2017 which, incidentally, attracted considerably fewer participants than the latest one.

Some of those commenting on the survey results considered poor conditions at some centres were driving teachers out of the sector.

Poor pay, particularly for those who are not working in kindergartens, is a major issue, and the Labour Party has promised to spend an extra $600 million over the next four years to boost pay. Some already got a rise in July.

The party fell short of promising to achieve pay parity with kindergarten teachers within the next term, but Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government would ensure all 17,000 teachers working in education and care centres were paid what they deserve.

Almost all pre-schoolers participate in early childhood education at some point, so while the concerns aired in the survey may affect a minority of our more than 5400 early learning services, they should not be ignored.

Another concern raised recently related to the poor oral skills of new entrants in some low-decile schools in Christchurch, with a study showing 60% struggling to express themselves in words.

Too much screen-time, time-poor households and poverty were all seen as part of the problem, but it is worth noting that the Education Review Office found three years ago that nearly a third of services had limited or no focus on supporting children's oral language learning.

As the Government's Early Learning Action Plan 2019-2029 says, "for all children to benefit, the early learning system must provide high quality experiences across the range of provision types valued by parents and whanau’’.

As well as improving the consistency and levels of teacher salaries and conditions, the plan includes improving adult-child ratios and moving towards a fully qualified teacher workforce in teacher-led centres through incentives and regulation, something which seems to have been a political football for far too long.

In his foreword to the action plan, Mr Hipkins acknowledged there was work to be done to ensure every child could experience high-quality learning and that some of the changes would be challenging.

Challenging or not, we can understand the impatience of those in the sector who have been calling for comprehensive improvements in the services for years.

There is still some way to go before the sector can move from being education's poor relation to truly living up to the promise in the name of the action plan — "He taonga te tamaiti — every child a taonga".







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