Baby farms & welfare mums

Huge changes are being made to early childhood education under the cover of the earthquake, as the government warms up for welfare reform

I was genuinely shocked to learn yesterday that from July 1 this year early childhood services will be allowed to have up to 150 children and/or 75 under-2s in one centre.

Baby farming, here we come.

These reforms are particularly dangerous at a time when the government has deliberately cut funding to centres in a bid to reduce the percentage of qualified staff.

More children and babies + fewer qualified staff; the equation isn’t rocket science in terms of the outcomes.

Staff:child ratios are already precarious - a centre must have 1 staff member for 5 under-2s, 2 staff for 7-20 2s & over, and 5 staff for 41-49 2s & over.

When I was somewhat younger and closely involved in the early childhood sector I was led to believe that 1:3 was the ideal ratio for under 2 care – that benchmark appears to be long gone.

Yes, a lot more profit may be made, but what about the health, happiness and security of the babies and children concerned?

And what of the wellbeing of the staff attempting to provide care and education in conditions more reminiscent of Eastern Europe than of safe, wholesome little Aotearoa?

Yet another major reform that would normally attract at least some media attention has been snuck in under cover of the Christchurch earthquake.

The Ministry of Education quietly announced its intentions on its website on March 3.

I didn’t hear a peep about it until the NZEI put out a media release yesterday, March 8, and I doubt anyone else did either. Perhaps the announcement was so under the radar that not even the relevant union was aware of it until 5 days later – incredible when given its significance.

This isn’t just by chance – I’ve checked Minister Anne Tolley’s websitefor media releases over the past week, and there’s not a sign nor a skerrick from her of anything to do with this significant change .

I am fearful of what else is happening right now that we out here in the wastelands of public ignorance know nothing about.

What a convenient distraction the Christchurch tragedy has become for a government intent on maximizing what it can achieve of its agenda before November, while minimizing that annoying muss and fuss from the public.

Apart from the danger, the new centre sizes pose to the quality and nature of early childhood education itself, I also believe the amendment of these regulations ties very closely to the reforms John Key and Paula Bennett plan to make to our welfare system.

Key features of the Rebstock Welfare Working Group report released on 22 February includes recommendations that:

  • All women who are dependent on welfare and who have babies while they are on the new Jobseeker Allowance should be required to seek paid work from the time their baby is 14 weeks old (majority opinion of WWG); or 1 year old (minority opinion, and the option I believe Key and Bennett are likely to pick up).
  • All people who are on the Jobseeker Allowance as sole parents or as partners of welfare recipients will be worktested from the time their youngest child is 3 years old.
  • A carefully gradated series of financial and forced work for dole sanctions are proposed for those who fail to comply with these worktesting requirements.

Rebstock’s goal is to move the percentage of beneficiaries and their partners looking for paid employment from 37% to 77%. Access to early childhood education is seen, naturally, as a crucial part of this equation.

The Rebstock report talks a lot about how important it is to promote children’s well-being. Yet when one puts her recommendations for forcing mothers of babies out to work alongside Anne Tolley’s latest regulation changes for childcare centres, I believe the well being of children is the last thing on the minds of any of these women.

Paula Rebstock, Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley are deliberately working on an agenda which – if they succeed – will see mothers forced out into the paid workforce while their babies are compulsorily cared for outside the home, in conditions substantially lower than the high quality to which the early childhood sector in this country has traditionally aspired.

US reforms which force many mothers out to work while placing children in compulsory childcare have not turned out well, for example see this report on welfare-to-work in North America.

I hope that in the slightly longer run, and despite the tragedy of what’s happened in Canterbury, many of us will work together to do everything we can to repel these latest affronts to the welfare of children, childcare workers, mothers and families.