Seymour labels Ardern authoritarian at ECE announcement

Associate Education Minister David Seymour speaks to media about cutting regulations in the...
Associate Education Minister David Seymour speaks to media about cutting regulations in the sector. Photo: RNZ
The government has announced changes to the early childhood education sector, which it says will make it easier for new centres to be set up.

ACT leader David Seymour has announced the moves at a Wellington ECE centre, where he read to children while sitting next to a book featuring Jacinda Ardern, before telling reporters the former prime minister was an authoritarian.

He has also signalled plans to introduce mandatory child abuse reporting, while noting the government has not yet made a firm decision on that fraught debate.

The changes will revoke legislative changes allowing the government to decide where early learning services should be, and requirements for ECE centres to have a highly-trained teacher in charge before being allowed to open.

Announcing the changes, Seymour - the Minister for Regulation and Associate Education - said the decision about where services should be located should lie with parents and providers.

"Any other business, the test of whether there's demand is 'do people come and give you their money in return for your services', not 'can you satisfy a government department that people might want to do that if you're allowed to open'.

"Ultimately you can't make someone open a centre, and you can't make a parent send their kid to a centre - all you can do with network approval is restrict centres from opening where the parents might have actually wanted one."

The second change cancels a change that would have taken effect in August, requiring any ECE centre to have a more highly qualified teacher to be in charge to be permitted to open.

Seymour reads "Oi Frog!" to children at an Early Childhood Education centre in Wellington before...
Seymour reads "Oi Frog!" to children at an Early Childhood Education centre in Wellington before speaking to reporters. Photo: RNZ
It would have meant at least one teacher with a Full Practising Certificate (category one or two) would need to be on site. Seymour said the current setting - requiring any registered teacher - would now remain.

"The requirement had the potential to result in increased fees, reduced operating hours, or even closure for some services, due to a lack of fully certificated teachers," Seymour said.

"When parents go to work every day they need you to be open, so this rule for no benefit - you're still going to have a registered teacher in charge at all times - would have put enormous cost."

He said the government would also be doing a funding review, including of the pay parity rules "which are creating enormous cost and inflexibility for the sector".

"Theoretically you would have to close while that one person went to the bathroom, if that one person you might have was sick you would have to pay a very expensive reliever in order to open.

He signalled the government could look to make child abuse reporting mandatory at ECEs - something many advocates have been calling for - but said it was a "very difficult dilemma" they would need to work through.

"I think we will, but that is something that will come into quite a wide sweep of review. I would expect that if there was any sense of abuse that people would be using the Ministry of Education, they'd be using ERO and they'd be using Oranga Tamariki already. If somebody hasn't reported then I think they've done a great neglect to that kid.

"I'd just make the point that once you make it mandatory to report something you also put a lot of pressure on people to say 'if I tell anyone then it's going to be reported and I could end up getting retribution for reporting it'."

Ahead of his announcement at the Co Kids centre in Thorndon, Wellington, Seymour read Oi Frog! to the children there. Another book,Taking the Lead: How Jacinda Ardern wowed the world had been placed prominently alongside him.

Seymour said he would "absolutely" have read the Jacinda Ardern book to the children, but "Oi Frog! was a lot more entertaining and ironically Oi Frog! seemed to be a warning to children about authoritarian people that tell you what to do all the time.

"Maybe that's why they have the Jacinda book - for a similar purpose - who knows?"

He defended his characterisation of Ardern as authoritarian.

"I think the way that she used power through the Covid era was excessive, it didn't properly balance New Zeaalnders rights and their welfare and in some cases it actually was found to be illegal."

He said early childhood education centre managers had told him they were "actually fearful of calling the Ministry of Education or ERO because they're worried about what will happen if the inspectors come around ... to find something wrong that will cost".

While the legislation is repealed, Seymour is proposing to speed up granting approvals for new services by revoking the national statement on the network of licensed early childhood services. Consultation on this proposal is now open and runs until 5 May 2024.