By Paul Goulter, General Secretary, NZEI
New Zealand’s education unions and allies who care about quality public education have been on a bit of a high for the past few months.
After nine years of a market-driven, privatising right-wing government, the first six months of our new centre-left coalition government have given us something we hadn’t really felt in a long time – hope.
Within the first 100 days the government moved to scrap charter schools, drop curriculum-stifling standardised assessments and enable teachers to vote their own representatives onto their professional council.
Change is coming in early childhood education as well, with the release of terms of reference for developing a 10-year Strategic Plan for Early Learning.
ECE is an interesting sector, increasingly dominated by private operators, including multi-service operators listed on the stock exchange. Some profit-driven players have survived and even thrived thanks largely to their economies of scale, large group sizes and staff ratios of as low as 50% qualified teaching staff.
Quality-focussed community and non-profit services have struggled in a sector run according to market forces, and the previous government’s disinterest in planned provision. The biggest strains were a nine-year per-child funding freeze and reduced government funding for services that hire only qualified teaching staff.
So, what did the government’s terms of reference for the plan say on the issue of profit-focussed private operators in ECE? It’ll warm your heart: “The Government is committed to investing in and backing our world class, public education system for all students. This involves turning the tide away from a privatised, profit-focused education system. In the context of early learning, this includes working to ensure that community-based early childhood education services have well maintained facilities and are able to expand to meet growing demand.”
It goes on: “The Government is committed to breaking down the barriers to participation at all levels, with a particular focus on breaking down financial barriers by returning to the principle of a free public education that is available to all New Zealanders throughout their lives. In the context of early learning, this includes putting the “free” back into the policy of 20 Hours Free early learning for all three and four year olds, and those five-year-olds who aren’t yet in school.”
The government also plans to reverse the previous government’s focus of participation over quality, improve equitable access to services, and ultimately aims to achieve 100% qualified teachers in all centre-based teacher-led early learning services. Improvements to group sizes and teacher-to-child ratios for infants and toddlers are also on the agenda.
These are all things we have been battling over for many years and this is a huge win for NZEI Te Riu Roa and our members. Most of all, it’s great for children and the quality of their early education.
It won’t happen overnight – nine years of “balanced books” at the expense of essential public services have left massive problems and unmet need not just in education, but in healthcare, public housing and other services.
However, we remain optimistic that this is a government that will not just say the right things, but will do what needs to be done, because it puts people first – including our smallest Kiwis.