February 17, 2023
Dr Sarah Alexander
OPINION: The Ministry of Education appears to have done a better job with communications of the potential impact of Cyclone Gabrielle compared with the Auckland region flooding event on Jan 27.
Cyclone Gabrielle was very well predicted. Everyone had advance warning to get ready as it was about to hit the upper North Island. The Ministry worked on its communications and had early contact with ECE services.
Having said that it does not change the fact that the Ministry’s performance in the handling of a sudden event (i.e., the Auckland flooding event) was inadequate. This article isn’t about putting the foot into the Ministry on what it didn’t do right then, but an examination of where improvement still needs to be made.
The improvements the Ministry can make in its handling of the next sudden emergency or disaster event, are as follows.
1. Notify ECE services and teachers of potential actions to prepare for
It was through the media in the evening news on Jan 30, that service providers, managers, teaching staff and families learnt that the Ministry of Education had issued a directive for all schools and ECEs in the Auckland region to close for one week. This caught people by surprise. Service providers were left scrambling to make sense of the directive, work out what they should do, and trying to contact all teaching staff and families before the morning.
It would have been better for the Ministry to let everyone know over the weekend or at least by early Monday morning, that that it was waiting on further advice and direction (such as from Emergency Management) and that services should be prepared for possible closure the next day or potential restrictions such as on child numbers.
2. Show the ECE sector the same respect as schools
The Ministry’s second blunder was that when it directed all education entities in the Auckland region to close it added that “early learning services may allow the physical attendance of any child whose parent needs them to do so” – thereby promoting ECEs as places where children are babysat for parents who need them, whereas schools are places for children’s education.
‘Early learning’ is code for ‘childminding’.
In using the moniker ‘early learning’ the Ministry is effectively saying that in the education system ECEs are outsiders and not of equal status. This is shameful coming from the Ministry today, because as long ago as 1986 childcare was transferred to the Department of Education and the sector become professionalised. Early childhood services today provide a national education curriculum and have early childhood trained teachers who are professionally recognised.
What the Ministry should have done was to simply say that all education entities in the Auckland region were to close, early childhood education services included.
3. Not set a period for closure unless its certain that it’s not going to change its mind
The Ministry’s third blunder was not recognising the inconvenience and stress it caused by its directive on Jan 30 to be closed until Feb 7, but then lifting the directive on Feb 1 and then telling services that they could only continue to claim emergency funding for remaining closed until Feb 7 if they had suffered flood damage or if their local community had been seriously affected by flooding (Ministry special bulletin, 1 Feb 2023).
There were early childhood centres that did not suffer flood damage and their local community was not seriously affected, but they had staff from outside of the local area who could not get to work and staff who had school-aged children to care for at home. There were home-based educators who were able to be ‘open’ as they had no damage but couldn’t do so because other members of their immediate and extended families were home and therefore group size was too large.
4. Make sure instructions provided are relevant to the event and not to COVID-19, are provided at the same time as issuing the directive and not days later, and cover what people need to know and do
The final blunder was not providing a comprehensive outline of expectations and requirements relevant to the emergency at the same time as it issued the directive to close, covering such things as not asking staff to take unpaid leave or use their paid leave, managing parent fees, and school-aged children attending with parents.
Instead the Ministry told ECE services to stay open for the children of essential workers, as under COVID-19 (Ministry special bulletin, 30 January 2023) even though the reason for closure was very different to the COVID-19 Alert Level setting requirements. The language of COVID-19 and “essential workers” was not relevant. On Feb 3 two days after lifting the directive, the Ministry detailed its expectations for staff pay that covered just two circumstances: when the service was closed, or if the service was open but staff could not get into work.
The measure of a government department perhaps is not that they don’t do things right the first time round, but that they perform vastly better after the first time.
The question remains how well will the Ministry perform next time a sudden event occurs rather than a well-foreshadowed disturbance?