The rise and rise of corporate childcare

Education Aotearoa 1 Oct 2014
The current boom in large-scale for-profit early childhood centres is shaping up as a disastrous experiment in the care of the very young. Jane Blaikie investigates.

Key points
◾ A boom in industrial- scale childcare centres is pushing high-quality, small-scale centres to the brink.
◾Reports are emerging of vulnerable children being subject to poor quality care and education in large, for- profit centres.
◾Hundreds of millions of dollars of public money is going to private-sector operators who put profit first.

Some 43 percent more children are attending early childhood services than a decade ago, according to the latest Ministry of Education figures. But more striking is that all this growth has been in for- profit, all-day services.

A total of 91,207 children now attend for-profit services, while the number of children in kindergartens run by non-profit associations has fallen slightly to 24,949. Since 2011, when regulations that limited the size of centres to 50 children were changed, 124 centres have been licensed to cater for up to 150 children. One for- profit operator owns 28 of these large centres.

EA’s investigations found that this radical experiment is leading to dire outcomes, including reports of very poor quality practice with young children, despite the best efforts of overworked and underpaid staff…..

Big-screen TVs

In South Auckland, two former professional rugby players are opening centres. A parent visited one and found that each year-age room features a big screen TV. A teacher later visited to confirm the report and found there were relatively few other resources or activities for children.

To entice parents to enrol in the new centres, the operators ran events outside a supermarket offering free food to families and large free toys to the children. Parents at the new centres pay no fees and their children get free nappies, formula and lunches. A door-to-door pick up service for children means parents do not have to go to the centres – breaking a cardinal rule of good practice in the sector: positive, ongoing, daily relationships with parents.

But even with no fees, government funding means the new centres are very profitable, says Monteith, who’s done some back-of-the-envelope calculations – if you employ a minimum of qualified teachers and plenty of low-paid, unqualified relievers….

Adding salt to the wounds is that the new centres are believed to be opening with millions of dollars of government set-up money as part of the “targeted assistance for participation” (TAP) programme, which is meant to encourage participation in early childhood education in areas of low participation.

The idea of TAP seems good but the reality is that some licences are being given to new operators to open centres without regard to local need. New centres are opening where good centres already exist and where these have capacity….

How then has this situation has been allowed to develop? For most of last century, progressive groups promoted ECE while conservatives tended to resist the idea of ECE, preferring a more traditional model of at-home mothers. However, when the Labour government introduced the  20 hours free policy, with the intention of not offering the funding to for-profit services, it came under immediate and intense pressure to do so, and it succumbed.

In turn, the National-led government elected in 2008 swallowed any remaining doubts it might have had about mothers in paid work and now appears to see the sector as a good business opportunity.