Open letter to the Prime Minister: five-point call to action from Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood New Zealand. 

25 January 2023 

Tēnā koe Prime Minister Hipkins,  

Warm congratulations on your endorsement as Labour Party Leader and Prime Minister. With your background, we hope and trust you will continue your focus on education and in particular early childhood.  

Recently you told the Early Childhood Advisory Committee that your vision for ECE was to ensure “every child in Aotearoa New Zealand gets the best start to their education and a sector that focuses on quality and has diversity for parent choice.” 

With that in mind, I am writing with an urgent call to action and five key points to address on behalf of early childhood education and the members of Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood New Zealand that will enable your vision for our youngest people.  

High costs to parents and whānau, over-stretched teachers, and ECE services facing debt or closure because of teacher shortages and funding shortfalls are symptoms of a sector in crisis. Below I have outlined: 

  • why ECE is a bread and butter issue for Kiwi families, deserving priority public investment
  • multiple, inter-connected issues threatening ECE and some of the impacts on our sector
  • impacts on whānau and tamariki
  • action and commitment needed from political leaders and Government.

    Quality early childhood education is a bread and butter issue for kiwi families

    Public investment in quality early childhood education has significant economic and social payoffs, generating future benefits for individuals and the economy and society as a whole.

    The early years are the most important developmental years of any child’s life. Quality ECE builds the foundation for future success in learning, social engagement and employment, and it particularly benefits disadvantaged children.

    Quality ECE supports working parents and whānau, mothers in particular, to contribute in the workforce and grow skills and careers, supporting employers and the economy. Parents and whānau need high quality ECE so that they can go to work with the confidence that their tamariki are well cared for. For the children’s sake, it is important they spend those hours in a high quality environment, with qualified kaiako and appropriate child-teacher ratios and group sizes.

    Early childhood education requires a social investment approach enabling all young tamariki to easily access quality early childhood education during the most important developmental years of their lives.

    Multiple issues threaten quality services and ECE for tamariki and whānau

    The current ECE landscape is a domino-board of issues, each impacting the other. Although the Government’s much-welcomed Early Learning Action Plan recognised many of these issues, the bite-sized approach to addressing them has failed to make sufficient progress and in some cases, is doing more harm than good.

    Standards and regulations which undermine quality and over-burden services
    Aotearoa New Zealand’s ECE child-teacher ratios are among the worst in the OECD, undermining quality education and environments for tamariki, and creating unacceptable workloads and stressful conditions for teachers | kaiako. The ratios are particularly bad for two-year-olds. Although recognised in the Early Learning Action Plan, little to no progress has been made.

    Layers of complex, bureaucratic, repetitive and labour-intensive paperwork required by multiple agencies (MoE, ERO, MSD, Oranga Tamariki, health and safety) have created a heavy administrative burden, taking staff away from teaching, especially in smaller and community-based services without the scale to employ dedicated administration staff.

    Chronic under-funding
    The previous National Government’s decade-long funding freeze for early childhood education set the scene for the current crisis. But, although welcome, the current Government’s new funding for ECE teacher pay parity is complex and does not cover the actual cost, creating an unsustainable situation for many services, especially community services in lower socio-economic areas.

    Centres without the scale or profit margins to absorb the extra costs are being forced to make untenable choices. Less than 40% of eligible services have been able to afford to opt-in to the new pay parity rates. Many of our members have told us that even though they can barely afford it, they felt compelled to opt in to pay parity, both morally and to compete for staff against larger corporate centres. To do so, they’re going into debt, cutting staff to minimum ratios and increasing whānau fees. In other words – the choices are lower quality ECE for children, more expensive fees for parents and whānau, or no access to ECE at all, ultimately setting up future generations to fail.

    How does this promote and advance the rights of tamariki in their education, well-being within the context of their whānau and communities and the Aotearoa New Zealand’s overall greater good social and economic outcomes?

    Critical teacher shortages and no long-term education workforce strategy

    Driven in large part by funding issues creating low pay, high workloads, stressful working conditions and low job satisfaction, many services are struggling to recruit or retain qualified ECE teachers | kaiako.

    Some of our member centres are so short of qualified teachers | kaiako they’re failing to gain enough funding to remain viable. Several long-standing member services have indicated they will be forced to close this year because they cannot recruit qualified teachers | kaiako.

    The teacher shortage is not new, yet there remains no clear strategy or vision from Government to grow and sustain the domestic teaching workforce in Aotearoa New Zealand. Such a strategy needs to address attraction to initial teacher education, recruitment, retention, succession planning and ongoing, defined and accredited professional development, linked to Teaching Council Leadership Strategy, Professional Growth Cycle, Initial Teacher Education etc.

    A highly dysfunctional funding model 
    The ECE funding model is dysfunctional, out-dated and does not align with the needs of today’s working parents and whānau, ECE services or teachers | kaiako. Riddled with anomalies, it is based on some of the worst quality child-teacher ratios in the OECD and policies dating back to a time when it was expected women could stay home with their children until they were at least three years old. It does not meet the needs of children, whānau, the economy and society, or centres trying to maintain quality services and a stable, qualified teaching staff. Progress to review and address these issues has been negligible.

    Covid-19, while adding to the burden, has only exacerbated existing problems with staffing, funding and bureaucracy. 

    The impact on whānau and tamariki

    At the heart of it, the impact is felt by all parents and whānau with tamariki, but especially poorer or disadvantaged whānau, Māori and Pacific Islanders.

    High fees: Aotearoa New Zealanders already pay some of the highest childcare costs in the world. An average couple with two preschool children spends a third of their income on childcare according to the latest data from the OECD, from 2018.  With centres increasing fees to cover the costs of pay parity, inflation, and to make up for ongoing underfunding in general, all whānau will be affected, but lower income whānau will be hardest hit.

    Loss of employment and opportunity: Parents and whānau who cannot afford high childcare costs are forced to make other choices, such as a parent (usually a mother) leaving work, cutting hours, or accepting lower-skilled work.

    Low quality care and education for tamariki: Parents and whānau who cannot afford high childcare costs may also be compelled to find informal, low quality childcare options that deprive children of quality learning experiences.

    Urgent and comprehensive action is needed from Government

    Our organisation has been advocating to governments for quality early childhood education for 60 years. Historically there has been a pattern of Labour Governments committing to progress and National Governments reversing it (1990 and 2008). 

    The foundations for the current critical situation in ECE were laid under the previous National Government with policies such as the decade-long ECE funding freeze and dis-incentivising fully qualified teaching staff.

    But even after two terms, many of the Labour Government’s commitments to address problems through the Early Learning Action Plan remain largely un-progressed or, in the case of pay parity, delivered in such a way that is complicated and not viable for many services, or delivered in a bite-sized way that drives more harm than good.

    Early childhood education should not be a political football – it crosses political boundaries and benefits individuals, society, and the economy – tamariki, whānau, communities, the labour market, employers and business.

    All young tamariki need barrier-free access to quality ECE where they can learn and thrive.

    Early childhood education requires a social investment approach enabling all young tamariki to access quality early childhood education during the most important developmental years of their lives.

    It requires fit-for-purpose standards and regulations supporting quality learning environments and removing repetitive, labour-intensive administration.

    It requires a stable, professional and qualified teaching workforce – enabling quality early childhood education for tamariki. This needs to be reinforced by an education workforce strategy that addresses recruitment, retention, succession planning and ongoing, defined and accredited professional development.

    And, underpinning it all, sufficient and fit-for purpose funding from Government to resource centres and pay full parity to teachers | kaiako – enabling affordable access for all parents and whānau with young tamariki.

    Five key action points

    In 2023 we urge all political leaders to pay the highest attention to the critical threats facing the ECE sector and place five key points at the heart of their commitments and policies:

    1. Improve child-teacher ratios – currently among the worst in the OECD – so that tamariki can thrive, learn and be safe with quality education and attention from teachers.

    2. Create and implement a meaningful strategic workforce plan to attract, retain and develop a professional, culturally responsive ECE teaching workforce from within Aotearoa New Zealand.

    3. Fund ECE services sufficiently to deliver quality education to tamariki and pay kaiako what they are worth, fairly and equitably without charging high fees to parents.

    4. Urgently replace the outdated, dysfunctional ECE funding model to meet the real needs of today’s working whānau, tamariki and ECE services.

    5. Simplify regulations to support quality education delivery without over-burdening ECE services with repetitive, labour-intensive paperwork from multiple government agencies.

    With an election on the horizon, we urge you to take a genuine social investment approach, break the moulds of the past, urgently invest and take action for early childhood education for all young tamariki and the success of future New Zealand.

    Ngā mihi nui,

    Kathy Wolfe 
    Chief Executive | Pou Whakahaere