The Ministry of Education in New Zealand regulates and funds early childhood education and care services.
A Short History of the Ministry of Education in Regard to Early Childhood Education
Previous to the formation of the Ministry of Education in 1989, kindergartens were supported by their regional kindergarten association and Department of Education Board.
Kindergartens were widely considered to be part of the state education system along with primary and secondary schools. The government partnered with Free Kindergarten Associations in the provision of kindergartens and teachers were part of the public sector.
Childcare centres, playgroups, nursery schools, crèches, family daycare and preschools were operated autonomously by their owners or community groups without interference by Government Departments. This was in the days when funding was not given to these services, they were funded through parent fees and donations and often supported by volunteers or staff who were willing to work often for no more than a minimum wage (note however, that it was still possible for privately-owned services to make a considerable profit if fee charges were high and the wage bill was low).
The Department of Social Welfare licensed early childhood service facilities. It also regularly carried out inspections (often surprise inspections without notice) for the purpose of making sure that services maintained full compliance with regulations.
But today, once a service is licensed the Ministry of Education may not visit the service again in its lifetime unless it receives a complaint about it or there is a serious incident involving a child that the Ministry believes could be related to deficiencies in the service.
Ministry of Education National Office
The national office is located in Wellington central, and is across the road from Parliament. It accommodates all of the Ministry of Education’s national office staff.
The Ministry refitted the building in 2017 at a cost of $20 million. It includes a 12-floor staircase ($2.5 million) which Labour’s education spokesperson Chis Hipkins called a “stairway to heaven”.
The Ministry of Education does not have on-site provision for childcare or an early childhood service for staff children.
The Ministry’s Stewardship of the ECE Sector
Beyond the Education (ECE Services) Regulations, the Ministry of Education has considerable power to set rules for operating an ECE service. These rules are called licensing criteria. The ‘criteria’ provide interpretations of the various regulations and extend on the regulations. It also has power to influence employment and staffing practices and other practices through the funding rules it sets.
A popular term in the public sector to describe the management of a private sector is ‘stewardship’. As stewards of the ECE sector and individual services, the Ministry of Education in many ways must defend the operation of services and do its utmost to support them even in the face of criticism. On the other hand, it also has a public responsibility to shut down services that are not operating within the bounds of the regulations or have potential to be dangerous or unsafe for children. This makes the job of the Ministry of Education quite tricky – it is engaging in a constant balancing act between protecting the interests of service providers and the interests of the NZ taxpayer. The interests of parents and children can be overlooked as they are users, and not service providers.
Early Childhood Education Policy
The Education Ministry advises Government ministers on early childhood education policy. It has a major responsibility for policy analysis, forecasting, and reporting of trends and threats.
It must follow the direction of the Minister who holds the portfolio for Education or is responsible specifically for early childhood education. Minister Chris Hipkins holds the Education Portfolio in 2021. The Labour Government has not appointed a minister responsible for early childhood education specifically.