Monday, November 4, 2013

Kindergarten cops: who's monitoring beneficiary kids' early childhood education?

In its latest round of welfare reforms, the government introduced a range of so-called social obligations sole parent beneficiaries need to comply with in order to continue to receive their benefit. Failure to comply with social obligations results in a financial sanction. One of the more controversial aspects of the reforms was the obligation that effectively lowered the age of compulsory education for children of beneficiary parents by requiring them to attend an approved early childhood education (ECE) programme from the age of 3 years. The legislation has some flexibility (beneficiaries must take "all reasonable steps") but the three regular readers of this blog will know that counts for little under this administration.

Approved early childhood education
But like so much of what has passed as radical reform under National's Social Development Minister, there now appear to some questions abut whether this is as reformist as it appears, and how it will work in practice. A recent press release from Child Poverty Action Group reflecting on the changes to ECE argued that "early childhood educators are now accountable for the compliance of parents in meeting compulsory attendance requirements" and that this "undermines the relationships which should be of high trust. Such high trust relationships are at the heart of the EC curriculum Te Whariki, and of other ministry documents such as Ka Hikitia, the Maori education strategy."

Let's deal with the trust issue first. It would surely be easier to get compliance for the new obligations if beneficiary parents felt they could trust their ECE providers. Ratting off parents is not a great way to foster trust (and how do providers rat off people who aren't enrolled?). If parents felt they could trust their providers, there probably wouldn't be a need to coerce people to use ECE through social security legislation.

More important is how the government intends to monitor whether beneficiary parents are sending their children to an approved ECE programme. Either they ask the beneficiary and trust them, or check up on them. What are the compliance costs of that for both WINZ and ECE centres, many of which are quite small. In addition, many beneficiary (and non-beneficiary) parents move regularly and this makes both compliance and monitoring difficult. Or WINZ could check ECE rolls off against WINZ data. This is feasible, especially with a government that is a world leader in data sharing on a scale that would not be tolerated in most democracies.

However, the mystery of how parents are to be monitored deepened with this response from Peter Reynolds, chief executive officer of the Early Childhood Council. According to this "both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Development have repeatedly stated there are no arrangements in place to exchange information and no immediate plans to do so." But wait, there's more! "...were this sort of activity [information sharing] to be entertained by government, it would no doubt encounter an early childhood education sector unwilling to provide information that could be used for that purpose."

So how are beneficiary parents being monitored to ensure their children are attending ECE as required? And how many parents are being sanctioned for non-attendance, and on what basis? Instead of blustering and blathering about children's wellbeing, why doesn't the Minister work with her education sector counterpart and ensure there are affordable, quality, culturally appropriate (yes, culture does matter) ECE services in low-income areas. To be fair, the government has spent on ECE in South Auckland, just not in areas where it's most needed (take a bow, Takanini). A quality ECE programme in Takanini and its sister suburbs would be much more helpful than cutting benefits for something many parents have little control over.