Evaluation of two ECD Services: Licensing & Chartering Advice and Support; Advice and Support to Licence-Exempt Playgroups Publications
The purpose of this research is to investigate the quality and outcomes of the work that Early Childhood Development (ECD) services does in these two areas. Specifically the evaluation seeks to describe the services provided, identify the outcomes, identify how well advice and support are provided and identify barriers that impact on achieving outcomes. Interviews with Ministry of Education and ECD staff and participants in programmes form part of the evaluation.
Author(s): Linda Mitchell and Diane Mara, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
Date Published: November 2001
This evaluation of two Early Childhood Development (ECD) services – licensing and chartering advice and support, and advice and support to licence-exempt playgroups – draws on interviews with Ministry of Education (MOE) national and regional staff, ECD national and regional staff, and early childhood centres, groups, parents and other individuals who have worked with ECD in these areas. It also draws on evidence from ECD’s publications, resources, the Document of Accountability between the Minister of Education and the Early Childhood Development Board, and monitoring reports. It describes similarities and differences in perspectives about the nature, purpose and impacts of ECD’s work, and factors associated with ECD’s effectiveness, to draw out themes and issues. The findings are discussed in the wider context of education policy developments.
Licensing and chartering advice and support
Both MOE and ECD staff regarded promotion of ‘quality’ as important aims of ECD’s licensing and chartering advice and support. However, there were differences between and within staff groups on how ECD could promote quality provision throughout their licensing and chartering advice and support. ECD staff saw quality as a crucial aspect of their advice and support from their first contact with groups and individuals, and showed how this could be promoted in relation to centre design, centre staffing and environmental design. Staff from one MOE management centre also thought that encouraging quality design for centre buildings, even where this went beyond the regulated requirements, was an important aspect of ECD’s advice. MOE staff in the other two management centres tended to see the goal for ECD of helping centres to meet regulated (and minimum) standards as the first step, with quality standards being achieved after this. MOE national staff were not explicit about how quality could be promoted by ECD staff, although they thought it was important that groups and individuals gained an understanding of the way the curriculum would be provided to achieve a quality service.ECD staff noted there is no obligation on the part of groups and individuals to work with ECD or follow ECD’s advice. MOE itself is constrained in the extent to which it can require ‘quality’ design or staffing standards by the minimum standards set in regulation. The issues that emerge from analysis of the material are:
- whether, in order for ECD and MOE to fully understand each other’s roles, it would be helpful for them to reach agreed understanding about aims of licensing and chartering in respect to quality provision;
- whether (and if so when) good standards should be set in regulation in respect to group size and design of space in relation to age groupings;
- how MOE’s licensing work can support ECD’s licensing and chartering advice and support, and vice versa;
- the high volunteer workload in respect to the community needs assessment process. A question is whether this could be reduced, e.g. by ECD becoming responsible for the needs assessment itself;
- how to bring together the planning capacity of MOE and ECD’s expertise in community needs assessment. The Government is currently considering proposals in the long-term strategic plan for MOE to play an increased role in identifying gaps in provision of early childhood services and control of their establishment and closure.
There were common themes in MOE and ECD perspectives on factors associated with the effectiveness of ECD’s work. These included:
- the importance of the quality of relationship between MOE and ECD, and whether there is a common framework of understanding of roles and responsibilities and interpretation of standards, including regulations;
- the nature of the contractual arrangement between ECD and MOE, and the extent to which this inhibits ECD responsiveness. In this respect, there does not seem to be an association between the Document of Accountability targets for licensed and chartered centres, and any assessment of unmet need in the community;
- the skills and understanding of ECD staff and the impact of their work, which were regarded as variable.
ECD pointed out that there is disjunction between the limited criteria for eligibility for the discretionary grants scheme, and the work of ECD staff to promote high standards of environmental design and sustainable organisational models that cater for the educational needs of children.From the perspectives of centres, groups and individuals, ECD’s advice and support could be improved by:
- provision of establishment grants, including funding to employ trained staff, before the centre receives bulk funding;
- consistent advice from MOE and ECD officials;
- reduction in volunteer workload;
- provision of more ECD resources, including an outline of all the tasks in becoming licensed and chartered, and resources to help with personnel management;
- improved early childhood education bulk funding levels.
MOE and ECD agreed that the cultural diversity and community development focus of ECD staff are strengths. They agreed that early childhood qualifications and experience provide a foundation for licensing and chartering advice and support, but ECD staff also noted that there is a high level of specialist knowledge required for this work. In one area experienced staff are being paired in a mentoring role with inexperienced staff to address training needs. Some staff are specialists, but many staff are working across a range of areas of work, and ECD staff regarded this as a detrimental practice. It did not enable staff members always to develop the depth of knowledge and skills required for this work, and led to some variability in quality. National office ECD staff acknowledged that manuals and resources needed updating. ECD regional staff thought that resources to assist in the provision of advice and support about licensing and chartering needed to be extended, and to offer models of how centres and organisational plans could be based on quality features. One ECD co-ordinator proposed that sample plans, sample staffing schedules, sample centre budgets related to operational models, environment resources and a centre management resource should be produced.In respect of Pacific centres, MOE staff regarded the recruitment of Pacific staff to work with Pacific centres and groups as a strength. They also noted the need for technical expertise and for building capacity amongst staff.MOE regional staff identified local issues and relationships, as well as ECD staffing, as factors in effectiveness of advice and support for Pacific centres:
- some unwillingness to comply with regulations, and differences in cultural values;
- close linkages with the church, leading in some instances to spending of government grants on the church rather than the early childhood centre;
- some criticism of quality of ECD’s advice in respect of centre design;
- variable advice and support from ECD co-ordinators;
- limited understanding by Pacific centres of the total processes of licensing and chartering ;
- lack of viability of some Pacific centres, because the parents do not understand the full responsibilities of being licensed and chartered;
- widespread and diverse workload of ECD Pacific co-ordinators, making it hard for them to provide post-licensing support.
ECD outlined issues as:
- problems for centres being able to attract trained staff with Pacific languages and skills;
- letting of post-licensing and professional development contracts to other organisations, thus dispersing specialist knowledge amongst a variety of organisations;
- the time it takes to become licensed and chartered. The approach of ECD regional staff to licensing and chartering Pacific centres is to ‘drip feed’ information. Some groups take about 5 years to become licensed and chartered, with two of the groups in our sample taking 8 and 12 years respectively. Pacific co-ordinators have to translate many of ECD resources into Pacific languages.
An underlying theme of the evaluation was some tension between ECD and MOE, and the importance of good communication and a common framework of understanding. This was also raised in the Hunn and Cullen (2000) review of ECD Board. Issues were raised in our evaluation about the inflexibility of the Document of Accountability. Associated with this was the difficulty ECD staff have in being fully responsive to meeting community need for establishing new provision. In addition, MOE is likely to have a future role in planning new provision, an area which intersects with ECD’s current role in community needs assessment. This points to the desirability of reviewing the costs and benefits of the Document of Accountability, and the form of the relationship between ECD and MOE.
It is recommended that:
MOE and ECD could usefully meet to discuss:
- the development of systems for effective communication between ECD and MOE;
- frameworks of understanding about respective roles and responsibilities and common interpretations about standards;
- ways in which ECD can have input into policy development related to ECD’s work;
- the merits of a contractual arrangement for licensing and chartering advice and support based on an assessment of unmet need for early childhood provision;
- whether there is value in reviewing the costs and benefits of the current Document of Accountability and the form of the relationship between ECD and MOE.
MOE with ECD’s input:
- consider ways to address the issue of fragmentation in a service that requires a high level of specialist skill and supporting resources. This could include examination of the role of government in the provision of licensing and chartering advice and support and how this impacts on the way we think about contestability.
- consider including in the application form for discretionary grants, requirements to provide business plans and submission of building and organisational plans (to be assessed against quality standards);
- develop a consistent interpretation of regulations.
ECD with regional staff:
- in its working group on ECD resources and publications, could usefully consider developing a chart of tasks to be completed for licensing and chartering for parents and groups, sample plans, sample staffing schedules, sample centre budgets related to operational models, environment resources, and a centre management resource. Translation of resources into Pacific languages should be a priority.
- consider extending the arrangement for inexperienced staff to be mentored by an experienced colleague, particularly for Pacific staff. Consideration could also be given to how arrangements could be made for staff working on licensing and chartering to specialise in this work. Arrangements such as the employment of itinerant co-ordinators could be investigated.
- discuss internally whether the approach of ‘drip feeding’ information to Pacific groups is in the best interests of ‘empowering’ those groups, why Pacific groups are taking so long to become licensed and chartered, and whether the goals of licensing and chartering are desirable in all cases.
Advice and support to licence-exempt playgroups
There were differences in perspectives on the purposes of licence-exempt playgroups, with parents and ECD staff emphasising that playgroups are both parenting programmes and early childhood education services. MOE staff, while acknowledging the benefits of playgroups to parents, tended to focus their thinking on the educational aspects for children and the policy challenges in gauging ‘quality’ for children. Thus it would be useful for ECD and MOE to discuss the purpose of licence-exempt playgroups, and to incorporate the parenting benefits into any concept of ‘quality’, before thinking about appropriate indicators to use in gauging quality of licence-exempt playgroups. Another question which needs to be included in the development of policy for licence-exempt playgroups is the meaning of ‘participation’ within a licence-exempt playgroup. The evidence in this evaluation is that attendance in playgroups may be infrequent and sporadic, because of the circumstances of the families themselves and the operation of the playgroup. Consideration of participation could usefully go beyond attendance measures, to include the extent to which parents are actively involved in the programme and make use of other services offered, such as ECD workshops and access to health and other services, when these are co-ordinated with the playgroup.The absence of a high public profile for playgroups, and the limited knowledge and valuing of them by others, was a significant concern for ECD, who want to have meaningful involvement in policy making, so that grass roots understanding and experience make for good policy development. MOE acknowledged its limited knowledge of ECD’s work with playgroups and of how they operate, and appeared open to ECD involvement in policy development.The value of playgroups emerged from parents’ and ECD’s perspectives as both a service offering early childhood education experience, and also an opportunity for parents to learn about their own children’s learning, to be supported by meeting with other families and learning things for themselves, and to take on community responsibilities by running the playgroup themselves. Some playgroups have a special role in passing on language and culture and affording similar groups, such as rural parents, teenage mothers, refugees, immigrants and families in refuges, opportunities to get together. There are benefits to this type of programme, involving parents getting together in a group setting with their children, that cannot be realised in an individualised parenting programme.The perceived impact of ECD’s advice and support was variable, and seemed to depend very much on the skills of ECD co-ordinator, the time the co-ordinator had available, and other factors such as the knowledge and resources of people within the playgroup. ECD’s community development approach and the employment of Pacific staff to work with Pacific playgroups and Maori staff to work with Maori playgroups were seen as strengths. However, it was regarded as extremely important that the co-ordinator held an early childhood qualification, had experience in working in early childhood services, and was offered ongoing professional development and support. ECD resources and publications were regarded as a strength. In the views of ECD regional staff and parents, it would be helpful to extend them. Factors within ECD environment, the government policy framework and the wider public value system were perceived as significant influences on ECD’s capacity to work effectively with playgroups and on families’ capacity to participate. ECD regional staff felt constrained by:
- some working conditions, such as high workload, limited administrative support, low pay rates within their collective agreement, and limited access for some staff to professional development pitched to their need;
- the impact of contestable contracts, which has weakened their capacity to deliver an effective service;
- the inflexibility of the Document of Accountability, inhibiting the work areas they would like to be involved in.
ECD national staff felt inhibited by:
- inadequate resource levels for ECD’s work;
- lack of valuing and funding of licence-exempt playgroups;
- issues of poverty and lack of venues in some areas.
Parents would like to have more resources and-hands-on contact with ECD.Parents and ECD staff strongly supported additional funding to enable ECD to offer more hands-on visits and workshops, publish national and local newsletters, and develop further resources. The work ECD is able to undertake in a few visits every year does not provide opportunities for realising the full potential of trained teachers offering action-based learning within an early childhood education programme. Extension of work may require additional funding to ECD within its Document of Accountability.
It is recommended that:
- MOE and ECD set up a working group/work together to develop an agreed understanding of the concept of ‘quality’ in a licence-exempt playgroup, integrating within the ‘quality’ concept an understanding of parenting benefits and of ‘intensity’ of participation. ECD could use this to further develop their own benchmarks of good practice, and it could be one of the concepts underpinning the Document of Accountability;
- MOE review the funding of licence-exempt playgroups and ECD’s role in providing the support structure for these groups, recognising both the early childhood education and parental development aspects;
- ECD consider ways to strengthen its resource and publications arm, in order to develop further high quality resources and extend its publications for licence-exempt playgroups;
- MOE involve ECD in the development of policy related to licence-exempt playgroups, and in the wider policy area of parental development.
That MOE research contracts be offered in the following two areas:
- the definition of quality in licence-exempt playgroups;
- a Pacific early childhood evaluation to explore the factors contributing to achievement of quality and sustainability for Pacific centres and playgroups.
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