'Connections lost' as mobile kindy reaches end of the road

LUCY TOWNEND
Last updated 09:00 01/03/2014

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It's the end of the road for one of New Zealand's last remaining mobile kindergartens.

Hunterville Mobile Kindergarten will take its last run at the end of the term after changes in government regulation, funding difficulties and a declining demographic put the brakes on the service's ability to survive.

The kindergarten, set up in 1975, covers hundreds of kilometres a week to deliver education to remote rural families throughout the Manawatu and Rangitikei districts via a toy-laden travelling van.

It is one of two services of its kind left in New Zealand and caters for a total of 47 families.

The Ruahine Kindergarten Association, which runs the mobile service, announced yesterday that due to the Government's licensing regulations being unrealistic, a drop in rural demographics and high compliance prices, it could no longer shoulder the costs.

General manager Alison Rudzki said it was a loss for rural families living in isolated areas with the service connecting communities and setting up critical links for children.

"The really sad thing is the children and the community lose out. The really great thing about the mobile is not only about children getting a quality education but it's about parents connecting and pulling together as a community," she said.

"That's so important in those rural communities and once you start taking those services away there's less of a connection likely to happen and that's the really sad thing."

It was hard work to make mobile services comply to government expectations as they operated in spaces not specifically designed to be kindergartens such as churches, halls and schools, Ms Rudzki said.

The regulations mean only licensed sessions at centres that meet the rules are allowed. Rules include having wash-down facilities, water at a certain temperature, regulated fence heights, a separate room for children to sleep in, with specified bedding. Teachers must use a change table when changing nappies and it must have steps so children can climb on independently - and it all needs to fit in the van.

Ministry of Education early learning parents and whanau deputy secretary Rawiri Brell said the demand for mobile kindergartens had declined with more childcare choices available.

"However, they are still a valuable option," Mr Brell said. "We have also offered to develop a new funding model to support the service continuing in a sustainable way and one option is to licence each site, the other is for each site to become a playgroup."

Ms Rudzki said ideas including sponsorship were floated, but the huge operational cost, which reached nearly $145,000 annually, plus compliance with government standards, meant any agreements would have to be long-term and substantial.

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NZEI Te Riu Roa national early childhood education representative Virginia Stark said it was a shame to lose the service.

"It's very disappointing that while the Government talks about the importance of increasing access to quality early childhood education, it is not supporting a service that is connecting rural communities and setting up their children for a lifetime of learning."

A survey of families indicated 75 per cent already used other early childhood education services and some parents indicated they would transfer their children to other centres.

In October the mobile kindergarten's teacher, Jodie Currie, was runner-up at the New Zealand's Most Inspiring Teachers awards.

- Manawatu Standard

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