Why is New Zealand's childcare education unaffordable and inaccessible?

Image from Child Poverty Action Group webinar posterDid you know that Kiwi parents pay more for daycare than those in other countries even though State funding here is the highest? New Zealand's childcare costs are among the most expensive in the world. Research has shown that providing families with access to affordable early childcare education can boost women's employment in wage-based labour. Many democratic nations across the world are focusing attention on intentional education for children from the ages of 0 or 1 until entry into primary education.

On Monday, August 14th, the Child Poverty Action Group offered a free webinar focused on the Early Childhood Care and Education Sector. The panelists were Michelle Duff (journalist and author), Dr Sophie Moullin (University of Auckland), and Dr Jenny Ritchie (Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington). The recording of the webinar, "Why is Early Childhood Care and Education so unaffordable and inaccessible?" is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbnBr-Pam1g.

Michelle Duff included in her presentation a chart by data journalist Felippe Rodrigues that compares across multiple countries New Zealand's average cost for parents using childcare facilities as a percentage of their average wages. She emphasised that around $1.3 billion of state funding goes into the sector every year but the four biggest private operators get around $450 million of that. (See more on this in her recent article in Stuff.) 

Felippe Rodrigues chart re cost of childcare - OECD data

New Zealand spends $2.3 billion in early childhood education each year for 195,000 children, and the top five private providers receive almost a fifth of the government funding. In her presentation in the webinar, Duff Two-thirds of New Zealand's early childcare centres are run by private businesses whose primary goal is to increase profits and pay shareholders. This leaves, she claimed, high-quality education, access to care, and community-based needs to be of secondary importance. Duff estimated for her October 2022 fact-finding article that women lose out on estimated $116 million in earnings every year due to issues accessing childcare, with Māori, Pasifika, and single mothers impacted significantly more than others. 

Dr Moullin, a sociologist at the University of Auckland and former adviser on social policy in the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, spoke about the downward trends in New Zealand in what had been a world-leading initiative in early childhood education (ECE) since the 1990s. She disparaged the stagnating wages and professional development of ECE staff, and that the government subsidies do not meet family needs. She described how in other nations a public investment in pre-school education as an expanded part of the current education sector works more efficiently than government subsidies or keeping mothers out of the wage labour force. She argued that public schools already have in place the kind of infrastructure needed to recruit teachers and maintain high quality education experiences -- and that this would be a more effective financially than offering it from profit-making corporate providers. Moullin's recent opinion piece in Newsroom described the competing policies of the Labour and National parties. Labour introduced a policy of extending subsidies for early childhood education to include 20 hours for two-year-olds; while National has offered a $250 million childcare tax rebate of up to $75 a week. Neither party has offered enough to make a difference, Moullin argued, in women's actual lived experiences and family budgets.

Dr Jenny Ritchie described what she called an erosion of New Zealand's early history of a social contract by "market forces" with the recent growth of large corporate providers of early childhood care and education. She emphasised that this trend is inequitable in quality of care and access. She summarised the CPAG recommendations to close the gaps in access and to increase community-based, not-for-profit providers. The CPAG recomend that government should prioritise working with iwi, hapu and urban Maori authorities and Pacific communities to identify the gaps in provision. A major recommendation is to provide free ECCE to all children who are using community-based services. This would include finding ways for those providers currently for-profit (including those identified as "charities") to become non-profit and community-based providers. This would mean, then, that government would need to raise funding levels to offer professional development to fully qualify teachers and improve those teacher/child ratios.

A Child Poverty Action Group's policy brief co-authored by Dr Jenny Ritchie as early as 2020 posits that the early childcare system has been designed to benefit largely privately run centres and parents and children suffer as a result. To explore this topic more or to gather resources for discussing this topic with political candidates, visit the toolbox associated with the webinar at: https://www.cpag.org.nz/media-releases/election-2023-early-childhood-care-and-education-toolbox




To read more articles from The Circular (July-August 2023) issue 642, click on the tag below.
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