Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The art of political deception: government plans for ECEC

Elections are depressing spectacles. We get the candyfloss coated greed from one side and apathy and knee-jerk ignorance from the other. Such is 'democracy'. The resulting tragedy will be a National-led government – there really is no point dreaming otherwise. Childforum has done the homework in pining down each party's policies for the early childhood sector. The full summary is here if you need to feel good about what your fav party is proposing. However, this is what we (most likely) face from National:
  • Sector advisory groups will be set up to work with the Government on:
    • Identifying and improving the practice of low-quality services
    • Developing new and improved policies for ECE for children under two years old
    • Improving the transition for children from ECE to primary school
  • A national evaluation of Te Whariki will be carried out
  • Develop web-based tools to help parents choose the right ECE service
  • A new funding system to be developed in consultation with the sector
  • 20 hours scheme will remain in place
  • No decisions about Kohanga Reo will be made without consulting the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust Board.

They don't sound too bad eh? Nothing too radical for the core of National voters really and I'm sure at face-value this will please the voters. While it does mention a look at funding - which usually means budget cuts, it's almost a bit touchy-feely in a way with all this 'consultation' about to happen. I especially love the neoliberal rhetoric about 'choice' – we love our freedom of choice in Aotearoa. Hell I could almost vote for this :)

There is however more to this picture. These proposals are the product of the final report of the ECE Taskforce, entitled 'An Agenda for Amazing Children', which was released in June 2011. The Taskforce's brief was to undertake a “full review of the value gained from the government investment in early childhood education in New Zealand” (p.176). Principal concerns cited by the Minister of Education, Anne Tolley, were the rising cost of ECE, no guarantee of improved outcomes for learners in return, and the low participation rates among some groups.

The majority of the recommendations made by the Taskforce are centred around notions of quality and the implement of a new funding system to target specific groups with low participation rates. Other recommendations included the endorsement of 80% qualified staff, the removal of compliance costs, mandatory performance reports, transferring more costs onto parents, the need to provide professional development, and promote leadership from within the sector. So while some of it was just rubber-stamping what they were already doing, there were plans afoot.

The Taskforce was set up by the Minister of Education, Anne Tolley, who also framed the Terms of Reference without the knowledge or input of the wider ECE sector. There were nine members on the ECE Taskforce and despite the premise of independence all the members were selected directly by the Minister of Education. Despite the brief that members “should not represent any particular organisation or voice” (p.177), their were representatives from teacher-led centre based interests. Overall, membership of the group was biased toward people with managerial experience. Not represented were small community-based services, children’s interests, parents, home-based ECE providers, Playcentre, Nga Kohanga Reo, and Pacific Island Language Nests. Who actually wrote the report is not stated and critics raise the question about the unusual practice of seeking endorsement from 'three foreign academics' and education ministry officials (Childforum, 2011) as opposed to opening the document up for wider peer review. Understandably there were widespread concerns that the Taskforce was “a thinly veiled cost cutting exercise” (Te Tari Puna Ora o Aotearoa, 2010).

Concerns such as those raised above express the vulnerability being experienced by the ECEC sector following significant cuts to funding, policy changes, and the impression that with Government debt at a critical level, further cuts were likely: the Taskforces' primary mandate was to expand ECE services while maintaining existing funding levels. This bit is not particularly clear in the election policy brief - buried in the fine-print perhaps?

Public 'consultation' took place in the period leading up to Christmas and the January break when all the teachers were on holiday and this limitation was reflected in only 439 submissions being made of which 72% “appeared to originate from the New Zealand Educational Institute” (p.180). Significant effort is made to differentiate submissions on a standardised union form and other individuals/groups in a manner that implies a value on the concerns raised. Political bias? F'sure.

Among the many recommendations, some of which are extremely positive, the more contentious ones include a new performance measure for the sector, a view that home-based services are of low quality and in need of urgent review, ratification of recent policy changes that saw the level of qualified staff cut back to 80%. However, a proposal to change existing funding structures and extend subsidies to include two-year-olds and target groups with low participation rates while maintaining fiscal neutrality is widely condemned. These proposals shape the government's election policies for ECEC but, significantly, they fail to reveal that in extending services to include two-year-olds and those assessed as being 'at-risk', they will be shifting the money about rather than increasing the ECEC budget to cater for this expansion.

Here's what some say about this tinkering with the funding system:

Taskforce member Anne Smith, in distancing herself from a funding system linked to specific children, discusses how it is already possible for children from disadvantaged groups to attend ECE free with the current subsidies and questions the risks of introducing a new funding system whereby remaining fiscally neutral “seriously disadvantages some families, which is unjust and inequitable” (Smith, 2011).

Labour Party candidate David Clark (2011) argues that the proposed funding mechanisms will see service providers responsible for deciding just which child qualifies for which subsidy, a judgemental position which will seriously damage teacher-parent relationships. Can you imagine having to approach a parent with your check-list of poor attendance = poverty? Hmmm.

Opposition to targeted funding while maintaining fiscal neutrality is also voiced by a group of Waikato University academics who claim it “will inevitably undermine the 20 hours ECE policy that provides free or very affordable early childhood education for 3 to 5 year-old children” (2011). They express further concerns around the outcomes of targeted funding such as the setting of criteria, the pressure on teachers to assess families, those who just fail to meet criteria, and the potential 'ghettoising' of identified children and communities.

That the principle of universal access to ECE is potentially under threat with the likelihood of further costs being passed onto parents of 3-to-5 year old children that may prove to be a barrier to access, is raised by several commentators. According to the Kindergarten Association (2011), “maintaining universal funding to services will be important. We know the benefits of high quality ECE extend all the way up the income ladder and for all socio-economic groups” (p.1).

I find myself agreeing with the prognosis offered by Childforum (2011) in that the report really offers no more than propaganda to “provide ‘independent’ backing of current government policy directions” (2011). The trend towards a corporate user-pays system with neoliberal interpretations of quality in the educational context that focus on homogenised economic-orientated outcomes are, in my opinion, reflected in the report. And now they're back.

The admission by the Taskforce that,

“In New Zealand, we do not undertake any research that considers the differential effects of different types of initiatives in early childhood education. We do not collect data on outcomes in a considered or systematic way, and we do not have a strong understanding of the effects of our early childhood education system. Instead, we rely on generalisations from international literature” (p. 54).

is pretty damming really and indicates that the ECEC sector is unfortunately at the mercy of political ideology rather than evidence-based practice and that as a country we have a long way to go if we are serious about early childhood education. 

On the surface what they propose reads well: extend the services, review those struggling, and most importantly – consult with the sector, just like last time.

Wow, some people are going to have a nasty surprise eh?

Edit: The question of reviewing Te Whāriki concerns me. It concerned me at 2am for quite a while - so I'm going to look into this a bit. If you have any relevant info/thoughts then please get in touch!

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