ECE isn’t free: How my family saves $8,000 a year

Spoiler alert: it’s by not having any kids in Early Childhood Education centres. Jai Breitnauer looks at whether 20 hours free in New Zealand is really free.

My youngest son went back to school today and, like many other parents, I breathed just a little sigh of relief. Not relief that my kids won’t be at home with me. No! I’m not a heartless witch, and I’ve quite enjoyed the summer break. The relief is that school is free.

Sure, you’ve got the ‘donation’, which is being phased out anyway. And you’ve got the cost of trips and stationery. But that will cost us well under $1000 for two children in full time education this year, while Early Childhood Education cost us over $5000 a year just for one. Read it and weep, people: five whole grand. That means we are approximately $8000 better off each year with both our kids in school – and thanking our lucky stars that both children didn’t go to kindy at the same time.

My older son was in ECE in Christchurch, and in the post-quake broken city, the lovely Kids First Kindergarten group decided to make childcare completely free for their three-to-five year olds, to take a load off the already stretched citizens of Canterbury. Ah! The joys of a Not For Profit! But when we moved to Auckland we were in for a shock. The 20 free hours we’d expected to enjoy despite a change of location simply didn’t exist, and although our younger son’s (excellent) kindy only charged $36 per day – an absolute pittance compared to other places – it still adds up.

When the 20 hours free ECE for children aged three to five was introduced in 2007, it was meant to offer parents who might be struggling to pay for care while working some breathing space. It was also meant to allow access to quality early childhood education to the children of families who might otherwise have been unable to afford it. But this model never materialised. Great as it sounds, under a National government it just wasn’t resourced properly, making it impossible for childcare centres to actually offer those ‘free’ hours for, well, free.

“The reimbursement for the free hours is about 12 bucks an hour, but we pay our five fully qualified staff more than twice as much,” said one ECE manager who did not want to be named. “Plus, you have central-Auckland rent, power, water, cleaning costs and supplies on top of that. With just 30 children at the centre, the income from the scheme doesn’t cover our costs.”

Maybe National anticipated this concern for central Auckland and Wellington kindys in particular, or perhaps they just foresaw the number of ECE providers with a firm business hat on, and of course they wrote in some ‘get out clauses’ to make sure no one was tied fully to the scheme – whether having to enrol for a minimum number of hours (always more than 20) or the introduction of an ‘optional charge’. This tricky little clause was allowed so that ECE’s and home-based carers didn’t have to fork out for big ticket items outside the norm, but more often than not it is just used to pay a basic wage.

Quality check

Another area in which ECEs can feel forced to cut corners is quality, and this is especially an issue for low-income families. Having just the bare minimum of staff being paid the lowest wage – many of whom may only have the most basic qualifications and little experience – are things that will affect the care and, ultimately, the level of stimulation your child receives.

“There is a qualified teacher shortage in ECEs and also primary schools, and the quality of many ECEs that low income families attend is a concern,” says Colleen Fakalogotoa, CEO of Family Start Manukau, an organisation designed to support struggling families. She says the literature is clear: children do well in quality ECEs where there is a good child to teacher ratio. Poor quality ECEs can impact children negatively.

“No matter how beautiful the place is like on the outside, it is the qualified teacher-child ratio that matters,” she says, noting that when she was helping to find an ECE for her own granddaughter they walked out of many places instantly due to the lack of smiles or too many children for the staff. They saw eight centres before they found the right one. But she also notes they were lucky to have a choice.

“For low income families, those kids deserve the best and these communities can be exploited by unscrupulous and poor quality ECE businesses. Parents need to check ECEs out and know what they are looking for, but what if you’re poor and there is nothing in walking distance that you feel safe with? There are some ECEs who supply transport to and from the ECE, but again always be sure about the place you are sending your child to.”

Fakalogotoa says it’s better not to send your child to an ECE than to send them to a poor quality one, but this isn’t always an option either. If you’re a single parent, or you need a second income, you may be relying on ECE care – and that ‘free’ 20 hours will be a vital selling point.

Will things improve?

In July 2017, at the height of the election campaign, Labour promised an extra $200m to resource ECEs should they be elected. They also said that under their governance, 80% of staff in ECEs would need to be qualified ECE teachers, and centres would require a full arsenal of qualified staff in order to receive full funding.

Implementing both these promises could resolve the issue of the fake ‘free’ hours, and also improve the quality of ECEs often accessed by low income families. It would be a total game changer and yet we haven’t seen any sort of announcement about it, despite schools and tertiary education having already experienced rollbacks on National policies.

Thankfully, it seems, we won’t have to wait too long.

“Early Childhood Education is one of the government’s biggest priorities in education,” education minister Chris Hipkins told me. “We intend to ensure it is properly funded. The provision of additional funding for the sector will be considered as part of Budget 2018, alongside other important initiatives.”

Perhaps with our own prime minister currently considering the financial impact childcare on household income, we can hope for a more sympathetic approach to policy around funding the 20 hours free ECE scheme on May 17th. I’d certainly urge everyone to consider what a difference an extra $5000 per child under six each year would make to almost every family. Whether it’s a holiday, those swimming lessons, or the ability to buy fresh fruit and vegetables in the weekly shop, more easily affordable rent and utilities, or the chance to save, the positive impact for all is undeniable.

That ‘free’ 20 hours of ECE really has been the elephant in the room for too long. It’s about time the policy was implemented properly, and not simply used as a way for the more capitalist-minded childcare providers to make extra money.

Jai Breitnauer has worked as a writer and editor for 18 years, and her passions include parenting, health, sustainability and vegan food. Social justice is at the core of her work. She lives in Kingsland, Auckland, with her architect husband and two ballet-mad boys, one of whom has additional needs.

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