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Cause for concern: The rise and rise of corporate childcare

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.

Key points

  •   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).

Heartbreaking tales

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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Baby charter schools raise more questions

This is a real concern for home educators and many others in New Zealand. This appeared in the paper just a few days ago. Do you want to see babies and pre-schoolers in ECEs. Remember the Government targets of:

Early childhood education: In 2016, 98 per cent of children starting school will have participated in quality early childhood education…/supporting…/index.html

Baby charter schools raise more questions

27 June 2014

NZEI Te Riu Roa says concerns around the potential of new charter schools being extended to babies and pre-schoolers show that the government needs to come clean about the full extent of its plans for the education sector before the election.

NZEI President Judith Nowotarski said extending the charter school experiment to babies signalled a radical escalation of the privately-owned and taxpayer-funded schools that were supposedly a “trial” when the first five schools opened this year.

“How far and how quickly is the government planning to bring the private sector into the running of our schools? And how long will they continue to fund these charter schools at a far higher rate than public schools? Voters have a right to know before the election,” she said.

A preference for charter school models catering to 0-8-year-olds was one of six preferences listed for second round applicants, with successful applicants expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

Ms Nowotarski said since charter schools were outcomes-based, the threat of toddlers being tested and measured against each other was very real.

When asked about charter schools for pre-schoolers this week, Education Minister Hekia Parata told One News, “At the point that we decide on particular partnership schools, we then go into our contract negotiation, and it would be in that phase, against a specific proposal, that we would agree what the targets and measures are.”

Ms Nowotarski said most parents would be appalled at the thought of targets and measures being applied to their very young children.

“Children learn in different ways at their own individual pace. National standards for primary school students is bad enough, but the thought of applying a similar measure to toddlers and labelling their natural development is just appalling,” she said.

“Charter schools are not required to hire trained teachers, so even the current minimum requirement of 50% trained teachers in early childhood centres could possibly be side-stepped by charter school providers in pursuit of profits.”

Questions were raised in Parliament this week about whether the extra government funding that babies and pre-schoolers attract could instead be diverted to run the rest of the school or boost owners’ profits. Opposition parties also raised the mixed results of charter schools so far and the risk that taxpayer-funded assets may be lost if a school closes.

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School starting age: the evidence

In the Delivering Better Public Services supporting vulnerable children brochure there are some disturbing things afoot.The Ministries of Social Development, Education, and Health are working together, alongside the Police and the Social Sector Forum, on three results that will support vulnerable children.These results are:Result 2: Early childhood education: In 2016, 98 per cent of children starting school will have participated in quality early childhood education.

Result 3:
: Increase infant immunisation rates so that 95 per cent of eight month olds are fully immunised by December 2014 and this is maintained until 30 June 2017.
Rheumatic fever: Reduce the incidence of rheumatic fever by two thirds to 1.4 cases per 100,000 people by June 2017.

Result 4: Assaults on children: By 2017, we aim to halt the rise in children experiencing physical abuse and reduce current numbers by five per cent.

These are very disturbing figures.

Please read the news article below on the benefits of starting formal education later rather than earlier as our Government wants.
School starting age: the evidence

Earlier this month (Sept 2013) the “Too Much, Too Soon” campaign made headlines with a letter calling for a change to the start age for formal learning in schools. Here, one of the signatories, Cambridge researcher David Whitebread, from the Faculty of Education, explains why children may need more time to develop before their formal education begins in earnest.

In the interests of children’s academic achievements and their emotional well-being, the UK government should take this evidence seriously

David Whitebread

In England children now start formal schooling, and the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy at the age of four.  A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, including myself, published in the Daily Telegraph  (11 Sept 2013) advocated an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and a delay to the start of formal ‘schooling’ in England from the current effective start until the age of seven (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being).

This is a brief review of the relevant research evidence which overwhelmingly supports a later start to formal education. This evidence relates to the contribution of playful experiences to children’s development as learners, and the consequences of starting formal learning at the age of four to five years of age

There are several strands of evidence which all point towards the importance of play in young children’s development, and the value of an extended period of playful learning before the start of formal schooling. These arise from anthropological, psychological, neuroscientific and educational studies.  Anthropological studies of children’s play in extant hunter-gatherer societies, and evolutionary psychology studies of play in the young of other mammalian species, have identified play as an adaptation which evolved in early human social groups. It enabled humans to become powerful learners and problem-solvers. Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.

In my own area of experimental and developmental psychology, studies have also consistently demonstrated the superior learning and motivation arising from playful, as opposed to instructional, approaches to learning in children. Pretence play supports children’s early development of symbolic representational skills, including those of literacy, more powerfully than direct instruction. Physical, constructional and social play supports children in developing their skills of intellectual and emotional ‘self-regulation’, skills which have been shown to be crucial in early learning and development. Perhaps most worrying, a number of studies have documented the loss of play opportunities for children over the second half of the 20th century and demonstrated a clear link with increased indicators of stress and mental health problems.

Within educational research, a number of longitudinal studies have demonstrated superior academic, motivational and well-being outcomes for children who had attended child-initiated, play-based pre-school programmes. One particular study of 3,000 children across England, funded by the Department for Education themselves, showed that an extended period of high quality, play-based pre-school education was of particular advantage to children from disadvantaged households.

Studies have compared groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at ages 5 and 7. Their results show that the early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later. In a separate study of reading achievement in 15 year olds across 55 countries, researchers showed that there was no significant association between reading achievement and school entry age.

This body of evidence raises important and serious questions concerning the direction of travel of early childhood education policy currently in England. In the interests of children’s academic achievements and their emotional well-being, the UK government should take this evidence seriously. (HEF: As should the New Zealand Government)

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Day care bugs increase hospital risk

Another good reason to keep our children at home:

Day care bugs increase hospital risk

3News 29 March 2014
New Zealand children placed in day care are 48 percent more likely to be hospitalised with an infectious disease than those who aren’t in day care, a new study has found.

The research, presented at the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases (ASID) meeting in Adelaide this week, shows that New Zealand’s early childhood rates of streptococcal and staphylococcal disease are well above levels in other developed countries, with Maori and Pacific Island children particularly vulnerable.

The research Dr Mark Hobbs, of Auckland City Hospital and Auckland University, and colleagues also shows that the risk of infectious disease hospitalisation is:

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Is five too young to start school?

A groundswell of education experts are backing a British campaign to increase the starting age to seven.

More than 100 early childhood experts in Britain have signed an open letter calling for the formal schooling age to be changed from the current four or five to seven.

There is “overwhelming evidence”, write education experts David Whitebread and Sue Bingham in a supporting piece for New Scientist, “showing that starting school later is best”.

The early start in the UK and other countries such as New Zealand is inferior to the approach taken by the likes of Sweden and Finland, where it is seven, they argue.

“If we consider the contribution of play to children’s development as learners,” they write, “and the harm caused by starting formal learning at four to five years old, the evidence for a later start is persuasive”.

Which evidence? “Anthropological, psychological, neuroscientific and educational studies.”. All suggest “play as a central mechanism in learning”. And the school environment may be detrimental at an early age.

“There is an equally substantial body of research concerning the worrying increase in stress and mental health problems among children whose childhood education is being ‘schoolified’. It suggests strong links with loss of playful experiences and increased achievement pressures.”

Taken together, they argue, the “strands of evidence raise important and serious questions about the trajectory of early education policy in England”.

Kathryn Ryan conducted a couple of interviews on this question on Nine to Noon this morning, speaking to German academic Dr Sebastian Suggate, a backer of the UK Too Much Too Soon campaign, and a professor of education at Otago University, Helen May, on the New Zealand example.

Listen to Is formal education starting too young? – Radio New Zealand National – Nine To Noon (bottom of page)


From the Smiths:

Updated: 30 September 2013:  One year on (Craig Smith’s Health) page 7 click here


Needing help for your home schooling journey:


Here are a couple of links to get you started home schooling:


This link is motivational:

Exemption Form online:

Coming Events:




Please like & share:

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