Farming Children for Profit
Due to various national roles I have, and the fact I live in Invercargill, I spend many hours flying. The negative factor is my carbon footprint, but the positive is that I have great conversations with people sitting beside me who often have interesting jobs and life experiences. It expands my world view and enables me to find out more from people who have first hand experiences of areas that I am not directly connected with.
I have just returned from the South Island Green Party policy conference in Nelson and on different legs of my journey I sat with two people who worked in the early childhood education (ECE) sector. One was a teacher nearing retirement and the other worked as an Early Intervention teacher and our conversations revealed some worrying trends.
The woman involved with early intervention spoke about the growing cohort of children heading through the system with delayed language development. The reason for this is that many young parents do not engage their children in necessary conversations due to distractions of technology and hectic lives (her observation). Many under fives spend forty hours or more in private centres that are under-staffed and a large percentage of staff are not qualified. She described the proliferation of private centres that she referred to has "plastic" and inadequate. They had tiny outside play areas and plastic play equipment that were under constant competition because of the limited play options. She also expressed frustration at the number of children who needed her support but couldn't receive it because of a lack of funding and the bureaucratic barriers involved in accessing it.
I had a similar conversation with the teacher who described understaffing in private centres, the artficial nature of the limited outside space (artificial turf) and the hours that many children spend in these centres. She described one child who was dropped off at 7 am and picked up 11 hours later at 6pm every working day. Many children apparently do not even have proper holidays and it wasn't unusual for children to rarely have a week off to spend extended time with their families. She had one child in her own centre who had severely delayed in development (under CYFs care) and the amount of paperwork and advocacy needed to get early intervention was problematic and by the time they got some support the child shifted to another foster home and left the centre. The transient nature of many struggling children is a problem in the primary system too as families chase jobs and affordable accommodation. In her private centre they had three qualified staff and two who weren't.
Care and eduction were once seen as essential roles of the state in a civil society. Introducing a profit motive to welfare and education generally has a negative impact on the vocational and ethical drivers that generally motivate most of those who work in these sectors. For-profit centres make more money if their wage bill can be reduced and their staffing numbers kept at a minimum. This Government cut funding to the early childhood sector by a whopping $400 million when they first took office and still underfunds the sector. Under Labour there was a goal of having centres work towards 100% qualified staff but a cap of 80% has since been put in place and those over 80% have experienced funding cuts. While Ministers talk about an increase in funding since the initial cut, it has no contextual base when you don't include the increasing numbers of children in early childhood facilities.
The participation levels of ECE in New Zealand are the third highest in the OECD with the average weekly hours of attendance for children under five increasing from around 13 hours to 21 hours over the last fifteen years. Many children will be spending considerably longer hours than 21 (given the earlier examples). The Government has promoted the view that mothers should be in employment as soon as possible and beneficiary parents are legally required to have their children attend ECE once a child is three. There is research demonstrating that children who have experienced ECE are better equipped to learn when they start primary school. However this is dependent on the quality of the education provided and good results could probably be achieved through just a few hours a week.
A recent survey of 600 early childhood teachers revealed that 25% wouldn't want their own child to attend the centre where they worked, citing limited facilities and no time for teachers to develop close relationships with the children. According to an Education Review Office (ERO) report last year: "Just over half of the ECE services reviewed had a responsive curriculum that supported infants and toddlers to become confident and competent communicators and explorers." That means almost half of those visited did not have a responsive curriculum that met the needs of children in their care, this is hugely worrying when we are talking about tens of thousands of children being subjected to care that is not meeting their developmental needs.
The social status given to people who support the most vulnerable in our society also dictates the quality of those attracted to jobs where there are constraints on incomes. Many of those who work in vital roles in education and care are paid the lowest wages and have the worst job security (especially teacher aids). Most are women.
Under a National Government the status of parenting has been seriously downgraded and we have seen education, social housing and elderly care become greenfield opportunities for private profit. Our top All Blacks have been advised that retirement homes are considered secure investments and private early childhood centres and home based care are popping up in every neighbourhood. This Government even subsidies corporate providers of ECE to set up operations in low decile communities despite the fact that those they support are clearly exploiting the system and tax payer money for their own profit.
We have the second worst levels of child welfare in the OECD (29th out of 30) and concerning levels of child poverty and yet the main response from this government has been to get parents into work. Most are working now and we have low unemployment compared to most OECD countries and one of the highest percentages of working mothers (the number of sole mothers in the workforce has increased by almost 12% over the past ten years). However, at least 25% of our children have been living in relative poverty for the last 7 years with many of these children not having their basic daily needs met in terms of safe homes, regular healthy meals and appropriate clothing. If we have dramatically increased the workforce participation with no change to the levels of child poverty, then clearly employment isn't the main solution. Forcing parents into low paid jobs and adding child care costs to their financial problems is not really helping children or struggling families, it is just feeding the the growing ECE industry.
It appears that we are replicating what we have done to the dairy industry with our children. We have increased the numbers within the ECE industry by promoting quantity, not quality. We have not focused on adding value so that the end product is not something that will provide a good return. We have also ignored the external effects on what we are doing that will have costly implications later. It may be a little callous to refer to children as commodities, but it seems like our world now operates through the language of economics rather than the humanities.