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Unsafe as a Parent to Complain to Centre Owners

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Unsafe to Complain: Parents Not Supported to Have a Voice in Commercially Operated Early Childhood Centres.

This opinion article is published as part of our ‘Speaking-up‘ series
October 21, 2021.
By Camille

I want to share an example with you from my own experience of how early childhood centres that are simply financial investments for their owners/shareholders engage with parents, their communication style and their disputes and complaints process. My experience was with an education and care centre that is owned by a small group of businessmen who also have shareholdings in a range of industries around the country.

My daughter, age 3, was attending one of their Wellington ECE centres. After a while, she became scared of a teacher’s child.  The teacher’s child had bitten her several times, including bites that broke her skin through her clothing.  This was not the first time we had to deal with a teacher’s child biting and hurting my child on more than one occasion.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that my child being harmed in their care was a regular occurrence. As a result of the stress, she began to wet her pants multiple times during the day both in their care and at home.  

Fortunately, the headteacher of the preschool room was easy to engage with and she had genuine empathy towards my child, so I was comfortable I was being listened to about the biting.

Unfortunately, she left to work in a community-run ECE centre as she was seeking “better employment conditions” and said that “teachers are not supported in private ECE like they are in public”.  Before she left, she said the owners had labelled me “a force to be reckoned with” and I should watch my back.

Following this, I had meetings and emails with the centre manager. But my child’s wetting continued, and I witnessed this same child bite and attack other children when I was at the centre.

I made a phone call to the owner licensee followed by further emails and was then invited to a meeting with two of the businessmen owners and the centre manager. I was shut in a small room and put behind a table in the corner, while one of the owners sat in front of the door. I mentioned to them the warning the headteacher who’d left had given me and they labelled her unprofessional and told me they didn’t want me engaging with her further.  There was no acknowledgement that they had spoken about me with staff as being unprofessional and just plain rude.

They read me a report written by a young stand-in headteacher downplaying the wetting and accusing my child of making up the biting attacks. The report was full of inaccuracies and read as a piece simply defending her own part in the situation. The businessmen went into much detail about the money they were spending from their own pockets managing the child who was biting. They said they had an additional teacher shadowing the child. However, the only evidence I saw of this was a foreign teacher with a low level of English holding the child by their clothing when they went near others.  

The report also indicated they had inspected my child’s genitals two weeks earlier. This was the first I had heard of this and it had not been done with my permission and knowledge. When I started questioning their report, asking for more details, and generally advocating for my child’s safety, the owner who was sat in front of the door called me an “emo”. He said that all children regress in toileting, and I was making a big deal out of nothing. Suddenly I found myself trapped in a room by a man slinging insults at me and completely downplaying the trauma my child had experienced in the care of his centre. It was scary!

We were invited to remove our child from the centre roll the following day. We felt powerless and left with no choice. The fact that they had shut me in a room and abused me the day before rang massive alarm bells for me about what goes on behind closed doors at the centre. I still have no clarity from them around the inspection of my child’s genitals, only excuses that contradict each other.

When we first enrolled at this centre we were so taken with their toys, fresh white walls and sugar-free meals. But I now realise that my child never did anything messy. We got no art home. When I questioned this they sent me an email blaming her lack of interest in art, something I now realise is another lie as my daughter is frequently doing art at her new centre. The teachers were young, often foreign and came and went and seemed like the type who wouldn’t question things. Now I realise that a lack of activities and stimulation breeds boredom which leads children to turn on each other. I realise now how wrong my first impressions were and how looks can be deceiving.

Further correspondence with the service providers directly and through the Ministry of Education (MoE) has resulted in me being ignored and told they would no longer engage with me. I have engaged with the MoE for months following this experience and my correspondence and meetings are always met with the same answer. The responses I got from the MOE include:

I am sorry you feel your concerns have not been addressed or resolved with the service. All early learning services operate independently of the government, either as commercial businesses or one of the various types of not-for-profit organisations. This independence means that services are responsible for customer engagement and the style in which they communicate with you.

I appreciate that your interaction with the management at this service was not satisfactory and you found this experience upsetting.  Many early learning services are private businesses, which means they determine the way in which they communicate with families.

But isn’t it the Ministry’s job to enforce regulations? Regulation 43 requires early services to:

  • make all reasonable efforts to ensure that the service provider collaborates with the parents and, where appropriate, the family or whānau of the enrolled children in relation to the learning and development of, and decision making about, those children; and
  • obtain information and guidance from agencies with expertise in early childhood learning and development, to the extent necessary, to— (i) support the learning and development of enrolled children; and (ii) work effectively with parents and, where appropriate, family or whānau.

Whether the provision of such poor early learning and care is intentional by service providers because they simply don’t care about the children or out of ignorance doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Ministry of Education allows service providers to provide children with an experience that is not by any definition positive. By doing nothing is the Ministry of Education implicitly endorsing private investor interests over children’s wellbeing? I think it is.

And here is the kicker. Despite being privately owned the ECEs are still receiving taxpayer funding. In fact, it is widely reported in the news that they are asking for funding provided to them to be increased. I struggle to think of another type of government-funded organisation that is allowed to get away with such an appalling style of engagement, that includes dishing out abuse to their customers and clients. 

I would have thought that children and parents are the key stakeholders in ECE for the Ministry of Education when it comes to ECE provision, but keeping the commercial operators happy seems to be more important to them. To hell with a parent that complains about the safety of their child, they can be kicked to the curb, abused and ignored, and the Ministry shows a lack of spine to do anything about this.

We shifted my daughter to a parent-run co-operative education and care centre and it was a breath of fresh air.  She has been there a year and she has not once been hurt by another child.  It is a comfortable, well lived-in environment where they engage in art, messy play, regular outings and they have visitors doing Zumba and puppet shows for the kids.  The teachers have been there forever and look after the kids like they are their own.  They always remember things about us like they genuinely care for our family.  They have an open-door policy regarding any concerns, feedback or disputes and they manage these in a caring and professional manner.  I wish my child had been there right from the start.  

I am sure a lot of private centre owners are in it for the right reasons, to provide quality and safe care for our children in a nurturing environment. However, on the flip side of this some owners seem to be in it to simply line their own pockets and the pockets of shareholders. Why would these people be respectful and why should they care about collaborating with parents to support the learning and development of their child when there is always another family willing to pay through the nose who has no idea what the centre and management is really like under the façade it puts up?

As parents we are silenced by the system when things go wrong for our child. It is unsafe to complain. I am speaking up and I am sharing my experience because this silencing needs to be challenged. 

The care and learning my daughter experienced fell below the bar of what can be considered acceptable. The treatment I received when making a complaint was frightening.  The responses I received from the Ministry show serious gaps in their management of ECE. 

I do not want any child or parent to have to experience what we have been put through in the care of a taxpayer-funded ECE service ever again.

What’s your experience as a parent, caregiver or family member with an early childhood service been like?

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