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.



Comments

Kellie Carr said…
Interesting article but I think it's a bit unfair to individualise this to the private centre wen I see this in corporate centres more .... Also to say there is no funding then I think the people who own them need to look at what they spend their money on when this is defiantly do able but certainly won't and shouldn't make you rich �� I also find it sad that a teacher would stay in a centre when they don't like what's going on and wouldn't send their own child there, not really sure what that means! I certainly would need to know all the children's needs are trying to be met, nurtured and extended to feel I am doing my job! And that's to be the best teacher (and centre owner) I can be! That's my thoughts anyway!! ��
bsprout said…
Kellie, obviously there is a range of quality within private centres and corporate child centres are also regarded as private. I certainly wouldn't say that all private institutions are bad but when there is a need to make a profit it does shift priorities. Play centres and kindergartens do not have the same pressures to make money.

I would imagine that many ECE teachers remain in unsatisfactory situations because of job security. If you criticise your employer or resign because of quality issues it would create difficulties in obtaining a good reference and getting another job. I am aware that preregistered teachers who find themselves in a school where the culture and expectations are difficult for them feel obliged to stay to ensure that they can gain registration.

I am also sure that the staff at private centres do the best they can and if the owners support quality, good ratios and employ as many qualified staff as they can then standards will probably be high, however according to ERO almost half of the providers they reviewed were not able to run properly responsive curriculums.
Jan said…
The only way you can make a "profit" in ece centres, either private or community is to run on minimum staff and maximum numbers usually in minimum spaces.Many community centres do not have to pay rent which also assists them. We are a small group of Private centres established 20 years ago to provide high quality and real life Education and care with an emphasis on nature experiences. Children have opportunities for cooking, baking, gardening, local walks ect on an almost daily basis. Our forest programme provides opportunities to climb trees, make fires, fish for eels and do all the things that children have always done. Our out and about programme lets children explore the local and wider community such as museums, regional and local parks, beaches, libraries etc plus weekly swimming lessons. Many of our families do,not own a car or if they do no how to access these places. This programme requires extra staffing and as most teachers are qualified and experienced ( most have been with us between 10-20 yrs) are on higher pay rates. We always receive top ERO reports. We aim to break even and have made a loss more years than we have made a profit,however all this time we have been tarnish by the word Private. Under the Labour government despite being in low socio economic areas, our centres and staff were excluded from government contacts such as centres of innovation, training incentive allowances and equity funding ( Trevor Mallard' response was he was not giving any more money to centres whose only objective was to make a profit!) under National when we applied to establish centres under the participation programme we are tarnished with having small numbers ( if the moe can deal with centres who will cram 150 children onto one site then it is much easier to say you have provided x amount of spaces more quickly,(although the excuse given was that we didn't have enough experience. )
I,totally agree with your sentiments, we are cramming huge amounts of children into tiny spaces ( our outdoor areas have some of the minimum space requirements in the OECD). Prisionrers in our jails have much more outdoor time than children in ece centres. Many families do,work,long hours and for their own sanity keep them in care throughout their own holidays. Busy working families don't have time to go,on bush walks, beaches etc, they are usually too busy doing household chores at the weekend so electronic media is used as a babysitter. If we (as the community many children spend the most time in ) when do they ever get these opportunities? It is time various governments woke up,and valued children over their various political agendas
bsprout said…
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Jan, and providing more support for my observations. I think a distinction should be made between private centres that are for-profit and those that are not. As you say it is the profit motive that causes a reduction in what is delivered for children. Your own centre sounds wonderful.
Pennie Brownlee said…
The article is spot on - and thank you!
The situation we find ourselves in is the fall-out from neo-liberal economics, and 'downstream-neoliberal-economics' caught the NZ Education establishment completely unprepared. (i.e. real earnings decreased in the last 30 years, employment conditions weakened, labour force bargaining power lessened, two incomes to survive for many, child into 'care' for longer than parents spend at work...). What has evolved is a situation in which institutions were/are hastily set up to serve the needs of the commercial world, and it is done under the guise of education. (Originally childcare was with the equivalent of the Ministry of Social Services, then it was made the concern of the Ministry of Education.)
We in NZ did not have illumined examples of group care for children under threes (3-5 years yes but not under threes) - so everyone, including the majority of preservice providers of teacher education, was forced to 'wing it'. And it isn't good enough. Your examples are not isolated, they are more common than is good for our children or our society. Defending the indefensible is no help in altering the trajectory we are on. Of course there are private centres and community based centres that are exemplary - and many more that don't even come close to the right side of mediocre. We are not talking about growing cucumbers here, these are our CHILDREN we are dealing with.
Improvements? It is not a case of a higher percentage of trained people would make the difference (although I am all for the higher percentage of trained staff, if only because it increases the teachers' status within society), because nearly all new graduates come out of training establishments without any knowledge or skills around the very specific needs of the infant (the child under three) in group care. They 'got their student loan', paid their money expecting to learn what they would need, and were let down. These graduate teachers have their diploma/degree so understandably, think they do know, but they can complete their training without having had even ONE paper on the special needs of infants and toddlers in care. Then they join teams which, in the majority of cases, know as much about group care for the under-three as the new graduate.
I believe it is time to have a cross party dialogue around the situation we find ourselves in. It has to be cross party without the party slagging and blame that characterises party politics. All parties need to acknowledge the short comings of what has evolved under this economic theory-regime, that the research from neuroscience as it applies to babies and young children in group care is taken as a point from which to start (as the NZ Brain Wave Trust have been advocating), and that we work to improve the lot of our youngest citizens. If other countries can do it - then quite plainly, it can be done (think Sweden, Norway...). We just need the will and non-partisan openness to redress what I consider the Abuse of the Vulnerable. Basically, babies and children pay for our economic practices with their childhood and family life.
sincerely,
Pennie Brownlee
bsprout said…
Thanks for your comments, Penny. While I agree about the need for more training to cater for the needs of under three, I also think we should value parenting more. My children are now adults but up until they were five my wife and I both worked part time so that we could try and be the main carers and educators for them. It is sad that many parents, especially sole parents, do not have that option. We are seeing the erosion of families and the status of parenting being reduced. When parents are being pressured to work, and children lack the quality of care that good parents provide, it is the parents who are still blamed if the children behave badly.

I am also aware of many parents who work shifts (one at night and one during the day) so that they can both support their children, but this is not good for the relationship of the parents and shift work is known to have negative health impacts. We have become slaves to the economy when the economy should work for us.

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