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How to have a sensible discussion about early childhood education

There’s been a lot of talk about the state of early childhood education in New Zealand over the last few days. Most of it has been shit. Here’s Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw doing what she does best – cutting through the crap so we can have a rational conversation.

I imagine a world where childcare is for all parents a place which meets their needs as a family, no matter what type of family they are. Where children feel safe, challenged at times, and connected to the world.  Where teachers are known to parents and happy in their work. Where tears (from everyone) were seen as a normal part of the development of both the children and parents. I imagine a world where childcare is a universal provision much like school, planned by policy makers because it actually matters for its own sake not just as an adjunct to ‘getting more workers’. A world where there is real choice for families (not some shitty version of choice that makes everyone think ‘have I missed something here?’)

In this world parenting is valued as one of the many roles we might play at different stages in our life and so everyone who parents is supported so it can be done well. 

I am tired of the narrative around early childhood education and most parents are tired of it too. They are sick of being manipulated by people with judgements they are holding on to or a profit to make. The commentary about ECE is polarising and over simplified; it focuses on individuals not systems, and often carries an undercurrent (occasionally turning into a proper tsunami) of gender stereotyping.

And while people who create these commentaries (or push them) want us point the finger of blame at each other, we can choose instead to focus on restructuring a system that isn’t working for all of us.

We need to start asking: what really matters here?

Here are three things that really matter when it comes to childcare and early childhood education:

  1. Are we letting families decide what work/childcare arrangement is best for them?
  2. Are we ensuring that the decision is made in the context of high quality early childhood education that meets the emotional, developmental, physical and financial needs of children and parents?
  3. There is no number 3. Because that’s it.

What does not matter in this conversation is anyone’s views on women (or men) in the workplace or home; nor whether children should cry about being separated from their parents; nor whether ECE are a blight on society.

And once we concentrate on what really matters, we can talk about what is going wrong and how to restructure the system to be better and more equitable.

So on that note, here are five things we should ask about early childhood education and childcare:

  1. What are the prime minister, the minister for education, and the minister for business development (that is, Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins, and David Parker) doing to ensure families living in communities with the fewest resources get the childcare centres they need? What are people in government going to do to ensure the “market” does not continue to ignore them and their needs?
  2. What is finance minister Grant Robertson doing to ensure unpaid labour makes it into the new well-being framework? When will the substantial value that caring for children brings to the economy be measured, forcing policy makers to focus on creating sound policy to support the people who do it?
  3. What is the minister for social development (Carmel Sepuloni) doing to ensure families on the lowest incomes, working precarious jobs, bouncing between paid employment and income support, know that the cost of their ECE and after-school care will be totally covered regardless, to give them the best chance to make employment work for them?
  4. What is the social welfare working group going to do about the draconian and ridiculous rule (one of many) that says parents in receipt of a benefit must put their children at age three (or in some cases at 12 months) into ECE? Why, when we know these children have a greater chance of being in a poor quality centre?
  5. What are managers across New Zealand workplaces doing to ensure that parenting is valued and supported as such? What policies do they have in place that show they understand people they employ have different needs – and that being flexible and responsive to those needs (i.e more time off to care for sick children, supporting men to be primary caregivers, rewarding people who return to work after having a child) is an investment in great staff? And this does not simply apply to parents: there are people caring for elderly parents, people running community organisations in their spare time, people with a disability…. all of them need responsive workplaces. What action on diversity, flexibility, and inclusion in the workplace is your manager or employer taking?

So those are some constructive things to talk about the next time the ECE issue is raised, things that really matter when it comes to caring for children and adults in this country. Let’s try talking about that sort of thing instead – it’s the only chance at real change that we have.

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is co-director of The Workshop, a research and policy collaborative, and a research associate at the Public Policy Institute at Auckland University.

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Follow the Spinoff Parents on Facebook and Twitter.


This content is entirely funded by Flick, New Zealand’s fairest power deal. They’re so confident you’ll save money this winter that they’re offering a Winter Savings Guarantee. So you can try, with no fixed contract – and if you don’t save, they’ll pay the difference. Support the Spinoff by switching to Flick now!

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