This is the fourth in a series of short articles to break down, analyse and question the implications of the Draft Strategic Plan for Early Learning 2019-29. In this article we’re looking at Goal 4: Planning ensures that provision is valued, sufficient and diverse.
Five Key Points from Goal 4:
- Move to a network planning model for new Early Learning centres;
- The Ministry will run a pre-approval process for new centres to ensure growth is only directed into areas of need;
- Provide governance and management support for community-owned centres;
- Establish Early Learning centres on school land; and
- Establish and operate state-owned centres.
This section is about taking control of where new Early Learning centres are allowed to establish, assisting struggling community-owned centres through better governance, establishing centres on school land, and establishing new state owned centres. From a high level, this could be seen as an attempt to slow down the private Early Learning sector and to strengthen and provide more opportunities for the community/state-owned sector.
4.1 Develop and introduce a process to determine whether a new early learning service is needed
This initiative was inevitable and was largely brought about by an influx of speculative property and business developers, and those that support them, saturating certain areas of the larger cities across New Zealand with new centres, generic in design and lacking an understanding of the community needs. This influx of people getting into the Early Learning sector for purely financial reasons has slowed, but even today you can find one Auckland architectural designer advertising five speculative centres for lease, the majority of which are located in areas subject to low demand.
To address oversupply in some areas and undersupply in others, it is proposed to develop a process to determine whether a new early learning service is needed. This would be a move to a network planning model where the operators of new centres would need pre-approval from the Ministry prior to obtaining resource consent approval from the Local Council.
In my opinion, the network planning approach is needed and somewhat overdue. The state spends over $1.8B per year on Early Learning and it’s imperative that this funding is allocated wisely to ensure a return on investment. The Ministry will need a robust assessment tool to understand supply, demand and population projections. Furthermore, they will need to develop a transparent and fair process for operators to present a business case for new centres in areas that show low demand but also low quality. This will ensure that the initiative does not become a protectionist policy that stagnates the Early Learning market and takes away incentives for existing centres to constantly improve.
The network planning approach does have the ability to discourage constant improvement as new operators can be locked out of established areas. The formulation of this policy must allow for proven high-quality operators to enter an established market where it can be shown that their establishment would raise the quality of offering for children and parents.
4.2 Provide governance and management support for community-owned services
This initiative intends to raise the quality of leadership and governance in community-owned centres as this has been identified as an area of weakness.
To do this, it is proposed to:
- Expand the function of the MoE regional offices to provide further support;
- Engage a national provider to assist in training on management and governance;
- Assist services in finding support for governance when this is needed;
- Have MoE appointed managers available to step in and support improvement.
Community-owned centres are an important part of the Early Learning landscape. However, due to their very nature, they are often run by organisations with people of limited business and governance experience. This can lead to management issues, putting the viability of centres at risk. An approach to further support community-owned centre governance and management through training and guidance, rather than purely throwing money at problems, is a sensible approach and should be supported.
4.3 Support the establishment and maintenance of early learning services on Crown land administered by the Ministry of Education
There are obvious benefits in the co-location of schools and Early Learning centres, including creating easier transitions to school, combined trips for parents, creating community through a larger education campus, and increased accessibility to Early learning services for children of teachers at the primary or secondary school.
However, the details of this initiative are very limited and it’s the details which determine whether the initiative will be successful. There are two main choices:
- The MoE builds and maintains the Early Learning centre and charges a nominal lease to an operator. This could be a community-group or a non-profit;
- The MoE leases the land only and a private Early Learning centre builds, maintains and operates the centre.
In the first option, the MoE is responsible for all of the capital expenditure and maintenance costs of the building. With an existing stock of primary and secondary schools requiring significant investment and maintenance in the future, this would surely be an unattractive proposition for the Ministry.
The second option allows for the Ministry to open up land on existing schools and for private Early learning providers to build, maintain and operate centres. In this option, the Ministry could use the commercial ground-lease to assist with maintenance of the wider school campus or work with the school to use the income to reduce the burden of parent donations.
Using existing school land to accommodate Early Learning centres is a no-brainer, provided that operators are selected on merit – not simply because they are a community-based or not-for-profit model. If the intent is to use existing Ministry land to increase service supply, all service types must be able to participate in a selection process. Decisions on the most suitable operator should be made based on a demand analysis (as discussed in 4.1) rather than favouring one service type over another.
4.4 Co-design an appropriate funding model with Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust
This initiative is entirely dependent on the outcome of the Waitangi Tribunal claim relating to the Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust.
4.5 Co-design an appropriate funding model with the NZ Playcentre Federation
This initiative recognises that the current funding structure and operation of Playcentres will not be sustainable into the future. If Playcentre is to remain a viable choice for parents that are able to attend with their children, a change in funding or new funding sources will be needed.
4.6 Consider setting up state-owned early learning services with an associated research programme
It is proposed to set up three fully funded, state-owned and operated Early Learning centres. It is indicated that these centres would include wrap-around social services and would likely be located in communities where children experience inequality and where the provision of Early Learning services is low.
Provided that the scope of the state-owned services was limited to that, just three centres, this proposal would have merit. However, if this is a trial to determine whether the government wants to enter the Early Learning service market, then we should be concerned. The wording of this initiative certainly indicates that this is a trial for a potentially much bigger roll out of state-owned centres.
“These services would advance the Government’s vision for increased public provision to support equity… The initiative would provide an opportunity to increase knowledge about what it will take to invest in an early learning ecology that contributes to children thriving and living a good life in all-day early learning settings.”
Private, not-for-profit and community centres should all be opposed to such a rollout. Having the state enter the Early Learning sector as a provider will create inequalities of opportunity for high quality operators. It would be logical to assume that a state-owned service would have first rights and priority to any school sites as discussed in Initiative 4.3 above.
A state-owned service provider isn’t what the sector needs. Instead, the state should focus on supporting centres that need assistance, closing centres which consistently fall below the line, and providing incentives for existing high-quality services to establish in areas where demand is high and children experience inequalities in opportunity.
Final Thoughts on Goal 4
Goal 4 starts with the following statement, which sets the tone for the initiatives within:
“Early Learning services have expanded rapidly over the past decade in an unrestricted environment.”
One of the intents of Goal 4 is to clearly slow down unrestrained growth in the private Early Learning centre market. This is to be done through taking a network planning approach and associated pre-approval process. The Ministry will need to develop a transparent and accurate tool to assess demand, supply and population growth in order to implement this initiative.
As part of this network approach, appropriate sites for new centres on school land will be identified. It will be imperative that private education and care centres are not excluded from the selection process and that operators are selected on merit and proven performance.
Whilst slowing down unrestrained growth, additional resources will be directed to community-owned centres with poor performance in the areas of governance and management. This is an area where community-owned centres have often shown weakness and this is a positive step.
The proposed state-owned centres are a concern. Not in their limited stated form (only three centres), but in the idea that the state could provide a more efficient delivery of early learning services than the other existing service types already established. The government would be better supporting the provision of these services through existing providers using financial incentives.
Whether or not you agree with my thoughts, I invite you all to share your comments. Most importantly, make sure to share your thoughts formally during the consultation period.
Keep a look out for my future article on Goal 5 and a summary of the whole Plan.