NZ ECEC challenges mirror Australian context – underpaid educators, oversupply

by Freya Lucas

February 03

New Zealand’s early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector is experiencing similar challenges to those in Australia, with educators taking on second jobs to supplement low wages, challenges with an oversaturated provider market, and a struggle to be viewed as professionals, local news source Stuff has reported.

 

Alongside the wage struggle, educators also spoke to Stuff about the challenges faced in resourcing their services, with one centre selling homemade jam in order to provide equipment for children. 

 

Just as in Australia, New Zealand’s ECEC sector faces “several longstanding challenges”, Stuff writer Lee Kenny said, including low wages, staff shortages, an over-reliance on non-qualified workers and, more recently, an “oversaturation” of centres.

 

There are more than 4,600 providers offering ECEC in New Zealand, made up of a combination of companies, corporations and not-for-profit organisations, operating independently under the Governance of the Ministry of Education (MoE).

 

A recent NZEI survey found that many preschool staff are thinking of leaving the sector, with one educator from Palmerston North noting that “stocking shelves in a supermarket is a lot less stressful and almost pays the same,” she says.

 

Stuff spoke with Virginia Oakly, head of Nelson Tasman Kindergartens and the ECEC representative to education union NZEI. She told the publication that the New Zealand ECEC sector is facing what she termed “a deep and growing crisis”, with a 55 per cent drop in domestic students training to be ECTs between 2010 and 2018.

 

Since 2014, she added, the number of unqualified educators in centres has increased by 60 per cent from 2014 levels, while those choosing to become qualified has only risen by 15 per cent. 

 

Issues in relation to pay parity have “plagued the ECEC sector” for decades, Mr Kenny wrote, speaking to Jacinta McInerney who was one of 50 childcare workers who took to the streets of Christchurch calling for a pay increase to bring salaries in line with kindergarten wages – back in 1989.

 

She is now team leader at Karanga Mai Early Learning Centre – a free ECEC service in Kaiapoi, and sadly, she is still facing the same issues when it comes to wages. 

 

“I’d say we’ve been in a financial crisis for the last 10 years. We haven’t had a decent funding increase for the last 11 years,” she told Stuff.

 

The centre has been recognised for its excellence, being awarded the Education Focus Prize at the Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards in 2016, yet struggles to “make ends meet” selling jam at local markets to provide vital elements to the program, such as bikes and a shade sail. 

 

Ms McInerney explained the demands placed on a service such as theirs – which offers free access to early learning, as well as transport for those with no other way to access care – by the number of new services opening, flourishing in NZ because there is “no requirement to prove there is a demand for a new service within a community” before creating one.  

 

“I think there should be feasibility studies before another one opens up because it is a threat to services losing their children to newer, flasher, more modern-looking centres and the community-based ones are living on the smell of an oily rag,” she added. 

 

Since 2002, an additional 1,998 services have opened in the county, something Viv Shearsby – a Canterbury-based education consultant who has worked in ECEC for 30 years – describes as oversaturation. 

 

Denying the Government justification that the market will right itself and demand will settle, causing poorly run centres to close, Ms Shearsby said it “doesn’t work like that because every family is looking for something different and every family finds that somewhere.”

 

As a result, she said, a number of services are running at half to three-quarters of their capacity, because there are more spaces than there are children to fill them. 

 

Change is, perhaps, on the horizon for ECEC in NZ, with the December 2019 launch of a 10-year early learning action plan to improve the ECEC sector. Key elements of the plan include incentivising for 100 per cent and regulating for 80 per cent qualified teachers in teacher-led centres, improving the consistency and levels of teacher salaries and conditions and developing an early learning teacher supply strategy.

 

To read the full coverage of this story, as written by Lee Kenny for Stuff, please see here. 

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