Government has been pushing for years to encourage more children into ‘Early Childhood Education Centres’.
Not only does it free up the parents to be useful members of society and engage in more paid work, but it is also believed to be a key to closing the gap for disadvantaged children.
However, dissenting voices are beginning to be heard as Mark Stephenson found out at a recent Early Childhood Education conference in Wellington.
The Government is actively promoting early childhood education (ECE) and childcare by professionals, not parents. Not only that, but it sees ECE as a function of the state and is working towards expanding its role. Like school, it will become an expectation and be regulated by government.
But is this the best thing for our children?
What message does this send about the value of parenting?
According to Dr. Sarah Farquhar of Childforum Research Network, there is little evidence for the value of ECE in terms of long-term educational benefit. She feels the government’s motivation is based on economics rather than the needs of young children.
“The government wishes to integrate early childhood into the education sector, and increase participation by children for longer hours and from an early age.”
“The real agenda is not about what is best for children but about the marketisation of children’s care and early education so that both parents can fully participate in paid work because there is a labour shortage.”
At present, businesses that provide teacher-led ECE/ childcare are subsidised according to the number of children enrolled and the number of hours they attend.
As Sarah Farquhar points out, “Traditionally early childhood services operated in partnership with families. Services developed in response to parent and child needs. Today that partnership has largely been replaced by government control of the early childhood sector.”
The funding goes to the provider, not the family.
The government’s ECE development plan is called ‘Pathways to the Future’, and can be seen on the Ministry of Education website: www.minedu.govt.nz
It has three core goals:
- To increase participation in quality ECE services
- To improve quality of ECE services
- To promote collaborative relationships” (government – providers – educators etc).
Towards these goals their intentions include:
- Greater involvement by the Government in ECE, focusing particularly on communities where current participation in quality ECE is low.
- For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, participation in quality ECE is particularly important, as they may not be exposed to high quality early learning experiences in the home.
- Legislate (my italics) Te Whäriki as the curriculum for all ECE services.
Te Whariki is the Ministry of Education’s early childhood curriculum policy statement. It covers the education and care of children from birth to school entry age.
A similar approach, with market promotion and subsidies for providers, has been tried in the UK. According to Eva Lloyd of the University of East London, it was not a success.
Large childcare corporations took over the market, the actual cost of childcare increased, and profit driven services provided lower quality services. The services were seen to be for parents, not children.
So, what is best for a child under five?
Sarah Farquhar puts it simply: ‘to be with his/ her family most, if not all, of the time”. She feels the early years are the most important for building relationships and learning to be a parent.
“There is a mountain of research on infant attachment, brain development etc that points to the importance of familial care, stability in caregivers, and importance of minimising stress, and keeping infants healthy by not being in situations where there are lots of other children.”
“At home children generally have more space in which to move, they can more easily participate in the wider community and be part of adult activities like baking and gardening, and children are with people who love them. And that love is important.”
Another problem of institutionalised ECE for young children is the culture of childcare centres. Dr Farquhar comments: “Early childhood programmes are female dominated, and the curriculum and interactional approaches have a strong feminine bias.”
“Contact with men is reduced and opportunities to engage in a greater range of play and experiences are limited in and early childhood programmes.”
She is not against ECE per se but sees it as supplementary to parents, not as a replacement. However, she warns that “current policy is about ‘selling’ ECE to parents so they value their role in paid work more and come to regard the ECE environment at better than the care and teaching they can provide themselves.”
Parents may feel “at risk of under-educating their children.”
Statistics show that the main determinants of educational success are family background, parent education, and family income.
Children who have been to ECE “know how to behave in a group, they can sit on the mat, listen to teacher and are more likely to settle into school routines.” However, advantages kids have at school entry are lost by age twelve.
There are some exceptions, however.
Children in families ‘at risk’ have been shown to benefit from ECE/ pre-school care. Whether this is any better than ‘in home’ support and education is not known.
In the Families Commission report on family life, 2006, many parents wanted more time to be with their children. Here are two salient comments from respondents:
“I want to stay home and raise my children and run the house without being made to feel guilty or as though I’m not contributing to society…”
“[There should be a] shift in the national psyche, towards a culture that places more value on raising children.”
The main reason parents do not stay at home is economic. In the Families Commission report, money, or lack of it, was perceived as the cause of stress and reduced quality of family life.
It seems that the value of parents is being undermined, albeit unwittingly, by current early childhood policy. Worse still, some parents are taking this view on board and doubting their own vital role in their child’s life and education.
That’s very sad. The Families Commission is about to spend $500,000 on a publicity campaign telling us that parenting should be valued more. Let’s hope it is not just pissing in the wind.
Quoting Te Whariki
“The growth of full-day early childhood education services reflects social and economic changes in society as women increasingly move into employment while their children are young.”
“In the past, early childhood curriculum development assumed that early childhood education services would be providing sessional programmes.”
“Te Whàriki brings together the inseparable elements of care and education in a curriculum which can encompass the wider functions of full-day services.”
“In order to thrive and learn, an infant must establish an intimate, responsive, and trusting relationship with at least one other person. Infants are able to develop close attachments with several people but not with many people.”
“To develop a sense of their own identity and the strong sense of self-worth necessary for them to become confident in relationships and as learners, infants must experience physical and emotional security with at least one other person within each setting.”