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20-Hours Free ECE Funding – Analysis of the Policy

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Analysis of 20-Hour Free ECE Funding Policy.
By Sarah Alexander.  
June 6, 2007.

On 1 July 2007 the Government introduces up to 20 hours free early childhood education a week for three and four-year-old children.

20 Hours Free ECE

The policy is designed to make services increase the number of hours children attend to over four hours a day. It has been argued (within numerous political press releases) that quality ECE (to regulatable level with qualified teachers) is better for children than other choices parents might make for their child’s care and learning.

The government is also telling services it is okay to charge for extras ordinarily provided as part of looking after children, such as food and outings, and to ask parents to agree to pay for these extras. Once agreed parents have to pay (services can ask a debt collector to collect). 

Enrolment policy is up to individual services. Therefore, children whose parents do not agree to pay the extra or top-up charges may perpetually stay on the waiting list or be tossed out when another family enrols that can afford to pay the service what is asking for.

Some service providers in the sector are arguing that setting the funding rate to cover the average cost of providing care and education to basic regulation level will mean that standards in many centres will fall dangerously (below regulation level) unless parents can be persuaded to pay top-up charges. What they are in effect saying to parents is that their child will get substandard care and education and they will be the cause of this for not paying whatever ‘optional’ charge their service sets.

Is the 20-Hour Free ECE funding policy in the best interests of children?

The interests of children are being pushed to one side in the argument over money. Services are in danger of becoming battlegrounds as teaching have to explain to parents wanting “free” early childhood education that they have to pay extra charges.  Yet, positive parent-teacher relationships are vitally important for children to feel relaxed in, and to benefit from, being in the early childhood setting.

Teaching staff are in the difficult position of having to tell parents they must pay for something the government repeatedly tells them is free.

Families who will be hit the hardest by not getting access to truly free ECE will be those experiencing poverty or on low incomes. It will create a two-tier early childhood system of centres catering for families barely able to pay top-up charges and those with financially well-off families.

Education minister Steve Maharey says this move is about making early childhood services more like the compulsory education sector.  But, contrary to what the Government has claimed the 20-hour policy won’t lead to higher quality services or better learning. Being in ECE 20 Hours a week or more won’t make children any wiser than being in ECE for 15 hours a week. More hours of non-parental childcare is associated with increased behaviour and emotional problems for young children, and so if the government wants to improve child outcomes why is it pushing for child attendance to be raised above the traditional three-hour day, five days a week session at kindergartens?

There are no benefits of the 20-Hour Free ECE funding policy for children

  1. It will reduce flexibility for parents to determine the hours they want to use, as service providers will be able to require children to be enrolled in more than 20 hours to access at least 20 hours.
  2. It will likely lead to kindergartens across the country changing their licences from sessional to all-day licenses so they can get the higher 20-hour funding payment and maximise revenue.
  3. It will likely lead to an explosion of the private childcare market in the ECE sector, because the 20-Hour funding policy with its lack of rules around charges and enrolment presents a goldmine for anyone wishing to provide childcare for the purpose of making profit.

A Dominion Post Editorial (3 July 2007) suggests “Education Minister Steve Maharey would better serve his party and the public by acknowledging the considerable hurdles still to be overcome and ensuring government funding does not, over time, become a subsidy for early childhood centres rather than for parents and children. 

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