Kindergartens becoming 'daycare by stealth', parents say
Kindergartens are becoming "daycare by stealth" as hours and fees increase, lobbying parents say.
But kindergarten associations say they must adapt to a lack of funding and families' changing needs – or face closure.
A group of concerned teachers and parents sent an open letter to the Education Ministry and Minister Nikki Kaye, arguing against incremental changes to the 130-year-old kindergarten model.
It was a public model built around learning through play, fully funded by taxpayers with some donations from families, for four-hour sessions per day for 3 and 4 year olds, either in the morning or afternoon. Parents were heavily involved. Other private early childhood education options like daycare centres traditionally provided care for children of working parents.
A "Stop Auckland Kindergarten Changes" Facebook group has more than 200 members. Parents fear competition for children, and therefore government funding, drove kindergartens away from offering traditionally free, short sessions.
Many were instead becoming a commercial service for working parents, with some enrolling children for up to nine hours hours a day.
According to the ministry, only one kindergarten – Ponsonby Kindergarten – was still funded as a four-hour sessional centre.
ChildForum chief executive Dr Sarah Alexander said the early childhood education model had been a "national treasure" since 1889, but was under threat. There would soon be no kindergartens that met the definition of a free kindergarten under the Education Act.
"It's like taking Marmite away."
Associations were taking ownership away from communities and turning kindergartens into something that resembled other childcare models, she said.
Auckland mother-of-four Sarah Fleming was one of hundreds of parents worried about kindergartens going from being a "wonderful" place to foster learning for short periods to becoming another "babysitting service".
There were "truckloads" of daycare centres available for that.
"Slowly over time they've made small, incremental changes that have made it difficult to argue our point."
"It's almost like daycare by stealth."
She believed children under 5 struggled to focus and learn for more than four hours. Kindergartens were not equipped for nap times during long sessions.
She believed most teachers were unhappy about increased hours, but were afraid to speak out against their employers.
Roskill South Kindergarten parent chairwoman Julia Bloore said changes to hours and fees "completely disempowers you as a parent".
With optional 50 cents per hour "donations" changing to a compulsory $735 a year, Bloore and other parents could no longer access her kindergarten.
"We're not sending our kids there because we need to be somewhere else without them, we're sending them there because it's good for them."
Auckland Kindergarten Association chief executive Tanya Harvey said its 107 kindergartens were increasing hours to seven-hour days, with Ponsonby the last offering only four-hour sessions.
"The real issue nationally is with lack of government funding and needing to adapt the service to meet the needs of parents."
Kindergarten was about the philosophy of learning through play, not about the number of hours offered, she said. She had a "mixed bag" of reaction from parents about the changes.
"I get where parents are coming from, but if kindy didn't adapt, they would have to close."
Increasing hours meant teacher-child ratios improved from 1 to 15 to 1 to 10.
NZ Kindergartens represents 25 of 30 regional associations. Chief executive Clare Wells said the majority operated centres during the same six hours as schools, which was "very well received".
"You can see the changing dynamics of families. I think that's what's driven it."
More than 60 per cent of its kindergartens still offered shorter sessions.
"It just gives us room to be more flexible for the community's needs."
There was always a question about what "free" meant in the definition.
Many centres charged fees where the child did not qualify for government funding. If a kindergarten did get 20 hours' government funding, it usually asked parents for a donation too.
Funding was cut by 14 per cent when, in 2010, the Government stopped its higher funding rate for services with 100 per cent qualified teachers – a characteristic that used to be kindergartens' point of difference.
Increasing hours meant more money for kindergartens, she said, but "we don't condone earning profit".
The ethos of kindergarten remained the same – affordability, accessibility, high quality and inclusiveness, she said.
Ministry deputy secretary Katrina Casey said there were 655 kindergartens, accounting for 16 per cent of all enrolments in licensed early childhood services.
Kindergartens received more funding – between 4 and 141 per cent higher – for students per hour than any other early learning service.
From December 2008, kindergartens were allowed to charge fees, regardless of whether they were described as a free kindergarten. She did not know how many were still free.
"Kindergartens make their own decisions about how they are run.
"The change away from the sessional model is likely to reflect changing needs of families."