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20-Hours Free ECE a Broken Promise

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20-hours free ECE – It is time for Labour to make good on its promise
Opinion-Editorial.
Dr Sarah Alexander.
January 19, 2018.

20 Hours Free ECE

“All 3, 4 and 5-year-olds can get free early childhood education for up to six hours a day, up to 20 hours a week” — this is what is stated on the NZ Government’s website.

But 20 hours of early childhood education is not fees-free for all eligible children.

Why because the scheme allows service operators to require families to enrol in more than 20 hours a week or 6 hours a day, and what services charge for the hours above is up to the service. The Ministry of Education has no influence over fees.

Services are also permitted to set an “optional charge”.  It may be as a low as a couple of extra dollars a week or up to $80 or more. Parents may be told that if they don’t agree to pay up, their child will miss out on things like going for walks, and even lunches and snacks.

For home-based education, the educator’s hourly rate may be higher than the 20-hour funding rate that the agency receives. Parents may be asked to help make up the difference.

Families can end up paying more to access their 20-hours free

This is concerning because families who are paying for access to 20-hours early childhood education have been questioning why they should pay. It’s a discussion that’s surfaced on the My ECE website and among visitors to the My ECE Facebook page.

One person commented, “I am in the process of enrolling my 4-year-old with a home-based provider who offers 20 hours. She will be attending 18 hours a week (six hours a day, three days a week). But I have been told her fees will be $90 a week, because the provider charges $10 an hour?”

Another person said, “One centre charged $220 if your child attended fulltime but that cost only dropped to $190 once they turned 3 and received 20 hours. The small print stated the extra fees were to cover such things as the council rates on the building and insurance. So the 20 hour ECE only saved you $30!!”

Optional charges tend to be treated as fees.

As one person explained, “We put ‘we do not charge an optional donation’ on our fees schedule and enrolment form because it is not optional. It is a fee and must be paid.”

But wait, is relief on the way?

Labour promised in its 2017 election manifesto that it would “put the ‘free’ back into the policy of 20 hours free early childhood education”. But although it moved quickly to introduce fees-free tertiary study for the first year, it appears in no rush to follow through on its commitment to 20 free hours of early education.

There is concern Labour won’t move to close the loopholes in the 20 hours funding scheme.

It was Labour back in 2005 that first put forward the 20 hours free policy to enable universal access in high quality community-based services for 3- and 4-year-olds regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

But Labour gave in to political opposition from business lobbyists – namely the Early Childhood Council. So, when the policy came to be implemented in July 2007 commercial and for-profit services could access the funding, services were permitted to set their own top-up fees and require families to enrol in additional hours above the 20 hours.

So, in practice 20-Hours Free ECE never existed

To be true to their 2017 pre-election promise to put the “free” back into the 20 hours policy, Labour will have to first backtrack on its decision to allow optional charges and instruct that no service claiming 20 Hour funding can deny a child who is not enrolled in more than 20 hours a place.

But in the face of opposition from operators to enforce completely fees-free, will it do so? When will Labour (or any government) be strong enough to resist opposition and require services that want access to the funding to abide by rules to ensure free access for children?

It’s time for Labour to make good on its promise of 20-hours free.

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