More Qualified Teachers and Tighter Ratios Ahead
“We need a system where teachers and managers focus on delivering high quality service and partnerships with parents.”
Peter Reynolds, CEO, Early Childhood Council (New Zealand)
A draft strategy plan for the early learning sector is out for public comment in New Zealand and it’s proving ambitious in its time frame – a whole decade.
Released in November 2018, the plan, He taonga te tamaiti, is the work of a Ministerial Advisory Group and a reference group that worked with stakeholders.
Education minister Chris Hipkins said the plan aimed to set out a “path to develop and strengthen the early learning sector over the next 10 years to meet the needs of all children and their families.”
It will do this by:
• moving towards 100% qualified teachers
• improving adult:child ratios
• boosting and standardising teacher salaries and conditions and
• increasing monitoring and support in planning for setting up new services.
The ministry has issued a three-page overview document (you can view it here), which sets out key principles of:
• Te reo Maori
• Innovation and
The plan packs a punch or two
“Ambitious” is how Peter Reynolds, CEO of New Zealand’s Early Childhood Council, sees the draft strategic plan.
“It is good to see continued focus on quality for the sector, and the fact early childhood education (ECE) is being recognised for the significant contribution it makes to education as a whole, and our society,” he says.
“But, it’s like most of the ideas that are here in the plan, if you peel away each idea on its own, there are positives and negatives associated with each.
“The key in the report is that in certain places it’s trying to generally appease the teachers’ union at the expense of those who operate successful child care services in New Zealand and there needs to be a balance. You can’t go out of your way to favour one side of the community and not expect it to impact upon others,” says Reynolds.
Making sense of the dollars
For instance, Reynolds says he was concerned the plan doesn’t spell out a review of the sector’s funding model which he paints as “outdated and overly complex”. Nor does the plan cost the proposals or discuss the significant teacher shortage.
“The funding system is one most complex. People consistently make mistakes and the ministry has a great industry sending auditors out to find mistakes people have made so they can claw funding back. That’s nothing to do with kids’ learning outcomes.
“We need to look at the funding system – is it incentivising the right behaviour?
“The focus has to be on the child. We need to make sure we have a system that enables teachers to be awesome every day and makes sure our managers are focused on delivering high quality service and have a partnership with parents. But, the current policy levers don’t point to these at all,” says Reynolds.
Government a competitor not a partner
The plan lacks detail about how it will fund changes and impact upon the subsidy to services. An interesting move would have the government set up services “effectively in competition” to existing service providers.
“That’s rather than work alongside these services in partnership in order to achieve a better result for preschool-age kids,” says Reynolds.
While local government authorities in Australia often own and run early learning services, the local government sector in New Zealand would “run a mile before getting involved in this”.
“The fundamental issue is we’re not quite sure what problem it is the government is trying to solve by opening up its own services.
“96% of pre-school age children are already engaged in education, so where’s the need?,” he says.
Need to forge links with schools
In New Zealand, the early learning sector had operated “pretty successfully” for the past 50 or so years with no state-controlled services. In the school sector, there were some private schools. Reynolds takes issues that the ministry has called for a separate strategic review of schools “by school people”.
“Early learning delivers a product to primary school and we can make it work for you or if we fail, work against you. But there’s no consideration of that at all in either strategic review,” says Reynolds.
“They need to be looking at it and thinking about it in the context of how do we align the two up so children and parents experience a seamless tradition.”
Chronic teacher shortage
Currently, early learning services can take up to 100 days to fill vacancies, an increase of 30 days from a year ago, according to the Early Childhood Council. The strategic plan seeks to “incentivise for 100% and regulate for 80% qualified teachers in teacher-led centres, leading to regulation for 100%”. However, it’s not clear how it will do that.
Reynolds says: “We wonder how attainable in ten-years it will be to increase staff numbers that will be needed to support the proposed new three age group adult-to-child ratios. We wonder where the increased teaching staff will come from given there is currently a significant shortage of teachers.”
Pay rates and funding perennial issues
Good teachers are pivotal to the sector so we need to ensure they are being paid fairly.
Russell Ballantyne, Early Childhood Male Educators (ECMENZ) president
Meanwhile, Early Childhood Male Educators (ECMENZ) president, Russell Ballantyne, a teacher and service owner based in Dunedin, said it was “brilliant” the government was moving to return the higher funding rate for having 100% qualified teachers in the sector.
That would obviously raise expectations about lifting pay rates to compensate for this.
“We’re a wee stand-alone centre and lost about 12% of our budget almost overnight [in February 2011 when the then National Government removed the top tier of the funding formula which paid a higher rate for having all trained teachers] and we have struggled ever since. We had 100 per cent qualified staff – all degree level. They won’t leave here. Over the past six or seven years under the prior government, there were minor funding increases. We have still been paying the 100% salary rate,” he says.
The Labour government set targets in 2002 for 100% qualified educators in teacher-led, centre-based services. Eight years later, the Nationals cut it to 80% and the funding.
“If we were business people, we would have made staff redundant. There’s a lot of variation in pay rates in early education across the country. Good teachers are pivotal to the sector so we need to ensure they are being paid fairly.”
Ballantyne echoed Peter’s question about the plan being separate to the strategic work for the schools sector.
“There needs to be a workforce strategies going across the whole education sector,” he said and he wonders how the two plans will intersect.
Male educators forgotten in the strategic plan
One glaring omission of the plan was the lack of mention of male educators who make up 2.6% of the workforce.
Ballantyne said: “The sector is one of the most gendered occupations in New Zealand. There’s a violent gender skew. I commend the report for saying the sector needs more Maori and Pacifica teachers, but omits saying there needs to be more male as well. What is that all about? There’s a need to respond to the community, and our teaching force should reflect its community which is half male. The absence of this being clearly stated in this part of the plan makes it “a huge elephant in the room.”
Make spaces for children
Speaking of room, Ballantyne took issue with the lack of discussion about outdoor spaces.
“Children are less mobile, less active, and we are, in a lot of ways, encouraging passive education. There’s very little open space for kids to run around in. Services usually have no hills, there’s no topography so little thought given to creating uneven ground for children. These mobility challenges improve learning at a later time. We know the benefits of moving and how it creates brain growth and reduces stress. Our buildings are huge and outdoor play seems to be less important.
“New Zealand is a country that markets itself as a beautiful space for adventure tourism, but we’re not creating outdoor spaces in services that are interesting to children. We still have a lot of work here to really compliment indoor learning spaces with challenging and exciting outdoor spaces,” he says.
Where to from here
Ballantyne applauds the government for trying to shape the sector’s development over the next decade “rather than leave it to market forces”.
“The draft tends to suggest they were looking strongly at addressing some of the overarching problems that we’re experiencing today. We all have a collective responsibility to make it work as best as we can.
“It’s not a crystal ball, but it may be a good roadmap,” he says.
However, Reynolds calls for a dose of realism. He says New Zealand may well need more than a decade to deliver on the plan.
The deadline for submissions is mid March and the final report is due out in December 2019.
Ministerial media release about the draft plan including links to relevant documents
Overview of the draft strategic plan – PDF