16 Apr 2024

Watch: David Seymour announces early childhood education centre changes

2:49 pm on 16 April 2024

The government has announced changes to the early childhood education sector, which it says will make it easier for new centres to be set up.

ACT leader David Seymour has announced the moves at a Wellington ECE centre, where he read to children while sitting next to a book featuring Jacinda Ardern, before telling reporters the former prime minister was an authoritarian.

He has also signalled plans to introduce mandatory child abuse reporting, while noting the government has not yet made a firm decision on that fraught debate.

The changes will revoke legislative changes allowing the government to decide where early learning services should be, and requirements for ECE centres to have a highly-trained teacher in charge before being allowed to open.

Announcing the changes, Seymour - the Minister for Regulation and Associate Education - said the decision about where services should be located should lie with parents and providers.

"Any other business, the test of whether there's demand is 'do people come and give you their money in return for your services', not 'can you satisfy a government department that people might want to do that if you're allowed to open'.

Associate Education Minister David Seymour speaks to media about cutting regulations in the sector.

Associate Education Minister David Seymour speaks to media about cutting regulations in the sector. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"Ultimately you can't make someone open a centre, and you can't make a parent send their kid to a centre - all you can do with network approval is restrict centres from opening where the parents might have actually wanted one."

The governement is also cancelling a change that would have taken effect in August, requiring any ECE centre to have a more highly qualified teacher to be in charge to be permitted to open.

It would have meant at least one teacher with a Full Practising Certificate (category one or two) would need to be on site. Seymour said the current setting - requiring any registered teacher - would now remain.

ACT leader David Seymour reads to children, next to 'Taking The Lead', a book about former prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

ACT leader David Seymour reads to children, next to 'Taking The Lead', a book about former prime minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ / Giles Dexter

"Theoretically you would have to close while that one person went to the bathroom, if that one person you might have was sick you would have to pay a very expensive reliever in order to open.

He said the government would also be doing a funding review, including of the pay parity rules "which are creating enormous cost and inflexibility for the sector".

He signalled the government could look to make child abuse reporting mandatory at ECEs - something many advocates have been calling for - but said it was a "very difficult dilemma" they would need to work through.

"I think we will, but that is something that will come into quite a wide sweep of review," he said. "If somebody hasn't reported then I think they've done a great neglect to that kid ... I'd just make the point that once you make it mandatory to report something you also put a lot of pressure on people to say 'if I tell anyone then it's going to be reported and I could end up getting retribution for reporting it'."

Ahead of his announcement at a centre in Wellington, Seymour read Oi Frog! to the children there. Another book,Taking the Lead: How Jacinda Ardern wowed the world had been placed prominently alongside him.

Seymour would "absolutely" have read the Jacinda Ardern book to the children, but said "Oi Frog! was a lot more entertaining and ironically Oi Frog! seemed to be a warning to children about authoritarian people that tell you what to do all the time.

"Maybe that's why they have the Jacinda book - for a similar purpose - who knows?"

He defended his characterisation of Ardern as authoritarian.

"I think the way that she used power through the Covid era was excessive, it didn't properly balance New Zealanders rights and their welfare and in some cases it actually was found to be illegal."

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, speaking to reporters in Singapore as part of his trip to Southeast Asia, said he did not agree with Seymour's characterisation.

"He's entitled to his views, I wouldn't describe it that way. I would say that we didn't get everything right in the Covid response and that's why we actually want quite a wide ranging [review] - with a broader set of terms of reference - to look into the Covid response at that time.

"It's important that we take the learnings from that as we go forward into any future events."

He repeated his position it was "quite okay" for the three coalition parties to have different views, and agreed when it was put to him some of Ardern's actions in closing the borders and imposing lockdowns had been authoritarian.

"Well, yes, but again I'd just say to you we're going to have a full review to to say what worked, what didn't work and what did we learn from it all."

Associate Education Minister David Seymour reads "Oi Frog!" to children at an Early Childhood Education centre in Wellington.

Seymour reads "Oi Frog!" to children at an Early Childhood Education centre in Wellington before speaking to reporters. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Sector group and opposition respond

Early Childhood Council chief executive Simon Laube said the sector was "really really relieved" by the moves, as it was currently "incredibly difficult" to set up a new ECE centre.

"Adding about six months to an establishment period of about two-and-a-half years is hugely costly, but it was the lack of certainty that you had with that new step of the process," he said.

"That new step just means that you go through a whole lot of hoops, whole lot of cost, and you don't know if you're going to be able to get a licence at the end of it."

Early Childhood Council chief executive Simon Laube, at the centre where the government announced a rollback of regulations for the sector.

Early Childhood Council chief executive Simon Laube, who was at the announcement this morning. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

He said some of the safety regulations were just box-ticking exercises adding extra cost, and ECE centres in Wellington had closed despite high levels of demand with no new centres expected in the next few years.

But Labour's Education spokesperson Jan Tinetti said the changes to location requirements were "really disappointing".

"To get rid of it means that we have no idea where ECEs are going to be going up, and it means that it's inequitable because we don't get them into places where the needs are greatest ... this is something that parents wanted, we know that it was working really well in the first instance."

"Rural areas will be way more disadvantaged, low socio-economic areas will be way more disadvantaged."

She said some parts of the sector had backed the change because of the equity considerations, and reversing the higher-skilled teacher requirement would put children at risk.

Seymour said early childhood education centre managers had told him they were "actually fearful of calling the Ministry of Education or ERO because they're worried about what will happen if the inspectors come around ... to find something wrong that will cost".

While the legislation is repealed, Seymour is proposing to speed up granting approvals for new services by revoking the national statement on the network of licensed early childhood services. Consultation on this proposal is now open and runs until 5 May 2024.