Education Aotearoa 1 Oct 2014
The current boom in large-scale for-profit early childhood centres is shaping up as a disastrous experiment in the care of the very young. Jane Blaikie investigates.
- A boom in industrial- scale childcare centres is pushing high-quality, small-scale centres to the brink.
- Reports are emerging of vulnerable children being subject to poor quality care and education in large, for- profit centres.
- Hundreds of millions of dollars of public money is going to private-sector operators who put profit first.
It’s like kiwifruit,” says Peter Monteith of the Tauranga Kindergarten Association. “Everyone thought there was big money in it and lots of people got into it.”
From Auckland to Invercargill, early childhood teachers report the same thing – glitzy, industrial- scale childcare centres springing up in their area or large operators making aggressive offers to buy struggling, small-scale centres, which are then rebranded in corporate colours, employing fewer qualified staff.
Some 43 percent more children are attending early childhood services than a decade ago, according to the latest Ministry of Education figures. But more striking is that all this growth has been in for- profit, all-day services.
A total of 91,207 children now attend for-profit services, while the number of children in kindergartens run by non-profit associations has fallen slightly to 24,949. Since 2011, when regulations that limited the size of centres to 50 children were changed, 124 centres have been licensed to cater for up to 150 children. One for- profit operator owns 28 of these large centres…
Teachers raise the prospect of a social time bomb as children in their most critical years of brain development spend long hours in care that is little more than “crowd control”…
In South Auckland, two former professional rugby players are opening centres. A parent visited one and found that each year-age room features a big screen TV. A teacher later visited to confirm the report and found there were relatively few other resources or activities for children.
To entice parents to enrol in the new centres, the operators ran events outside a supermarket offering free food to families and large free toys to the children. Parents at the new centres pay no fees and their children get free nappies, formula and lunches. A door-to-door pick up service for children means parents do not have to go to the centres – breaking a cardinal rule of good practice in the sector: positive, ongoing, daily relationships with parents…
But even with no fees, government funding means the new centres are very profitable, says Monteith, who’s done some back-of-the-envelope calculations – if you employ a minimum of qualified teachers and plenty of low-paid, unqualified relievers.“These centres are like supermarket chains,” says Monteith, who many years ago worked in retail. “You have a core of professional staff and they’re usually reasonably well paid because you’re exploiting them severely, and outside of that is
a casualised, unskilled workforce, working on what are essentially ‘zero hours’ contracts.” These contracts are just one way that operators “extract value” from centres (see copy below).
But that’s just money. What about the children? NZEI surveyed 22 staff working in large, for-profit centres and their comments are stark:
• “I have heard children and babies being denied food because the budget is going over.”
• “The manager expects all children to get themselves to sleep. ‘They have to get used to it’ – this was said about an infant four months old and used to being nursed to sleep – there’s no allowing for a nurturing practice.”
• “Never enough teachers to effectively take care of the children.”
• “We end up spending the day more as a glorified babysitter and cleaner, and don’t really get time to do any meaningful teaching.”
• “Blindspots on the floor.”
• “Lack of bicultural competencies.”
• “I really worry for little babies in with 25 other little babies, with one teacher to five babies. Ratios are worked out to bare minimum staffing. You have to consider who can change nappies, prepare meals, be inside, be outside, be able to go to the loo. Children are at risk.”
A long-time teacher, Dixon worked for Victoria University in Wellington delivering professional development to early childhood centres, but when the funding was cut, she lost her job. She now facilitates Professional Networks, for groups of non- profit centres. “Most teachers find it hard to get PD – it’s quite scattered and it’s often watered down primary stuff.”
She says, “We are having a big social experiment without considering the possible outcomes. Why are we not taking any notice of the reliable research which is very clear about the need for strong ongoing attachments and trusting relationships for healthy brains?”
“And if you get families in by offering free stuff and a pick-up service, how do you prove that your childcare is a quality service? Are parents ever going to know that – if they use the pick-up service? You can’t see their staffing levels. You can’t see interactions between children. To my way of thinking, they’re actually short-changing those families.”
“There may be two people with 12 toddlers or infants, stressed out and they can’t get breaks and they can’t provide any quality for the children. I get so upset thinking of them working like that and thinking of the children and what their days are like.”
These are children, too, who need the best quality, says Brice. They are often behind in oral language, as is well recorded in research on children living
in poor communities – and in desperate need of quality, small-group interactions in ECE.
“Those teachers [in large, for-profit centres] turn themselves inside out trying but there aren’t enough of them on the floor to provide any of those small group interactions. They feel like they’re just policing.”
They also fear losing their jobs if they speak up. So what about ERO then – isn’t the Education Review Office able to weed out poor quality? Apparently not. ERO looks at how “well- placed” a service is to deliver learning – it doesn’t actually monitor whether the learning is going on. There are no spot checks, and it seems easy enough to wing an ERO review as centres are given plenty of notice of a visit. “You make sure your paperwork is in order, all your resources are tidy and out, and you’ve got your staff ratios there on the day,” according to one practitioner.
How then has this situation has been allowed to develop? For most of last century, progressive groups promoted ECE while conservatives tended to resist the idea of ECE, preferring a more traditional model of at-home mothers. However, when the Labour government introduced the 20 hours free policy, with the intention of not offering the funding to for-profit services, it came under immediate and intense pressure to do so, and it succumbed.
In turn, the National-led government elected in 2008 swallowed any remaining doubts it might have had about mothers in paid work and now appears to see the sector as a good business opportunity.
Read the whole article here…
From the Smiths:
Updated 1 October 2014: Three years on (Craig Smith’s Health) page 7 click here
Needing help for your home schooling journey:
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