The many threads of early learning in Aotearoa

Issue: Volume 100, Number 1

Posted: 4 February 2021
Reference #: 1HAG_T

In conversation with Emeritus Professor Helen May, the Education Gazette explores aspects of the history of early learning in New Zealand. This is the first of a two-part series.

Staff of the Mt Albert Day Nursery guiding children into the nursery vehicle, 1947. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-5936-51. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22319178

It was 1975 and with nine years’ primary teaching experience in play-based junior classes, Helen was keen to return to teaching following maternity leave after the birth of her first child. A hunt for childcare for babies in Wellington was fruitless, the exception being the Victoria University Crèche that had a centre for ‘under twos’. So instead, Helen completed degrees in anthropology and education and became a part-time ‘childcare worker’ at the crèche – the term ‘teacher’ was not used in childcare then.

“This was a wonderful place for children, bursting with creative play – including for the babies,” recalls Helen.

“Several staff had Playcentre qualifications. It was also a wonderful place for student mothers. Quite a few women professors of my generation are indebted to the university crèches.”

In 1978, Helen was appointed the co-ordinating supervisor at the crèche. This marked a turning point in terms of her commitment to early childhood education and in particular advocacy for childcare (later termed education and care). She worked with Sonja Davies, Ros Noonan and childcare workers to establish the Early Childhood Workers Union and became the union’s first president in 1982.

Researching the history and politics of childcare for her master’s thesis that same year was the start of researching the wider history and politics of early years education; this body of work is ongoing, with 15 book publications to date.

“The early childhood sector of today, with its range of services, has roots stretching back 150 years with do-it yourself endeavours by groups, mainly women, on a mission for education reform, social change and social justice.

“Advocacy and protest characterises its development and acceptance as part of the education system. Much has been achieved, but there are ongoing campaigns,” says Helen.

Kindergarten movement

The first kindergarten was established by Frederich Froebel in Germany in 1837, with the idea arriving in New Zealand in the 1870s. Kindergartens presented a radical model of education with a curriculum of blocks, outdoor play and gardening, games, music, movement and craft occupations.

The first kindergartens in New Zealand were established by a few progressive primary schools and infant classrooms gradually adopted some kindergarten activities.

The first free kindergartens for city children ‘on the streets’ were established in Auckland and Dunedin in the 1880s. Overall, the numbers of children attending was small. Nevertheless, political and education interest was strong but there was resistance to incorporating kindergartens into the school system due to cost. Kindergartens were dependent on charitable fundraising – even after a small government subsidy per child began in 1909.

By 1914, there were kindergarten associations operating in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. A national organisation was established in 1926 with a total of 28 free kindergartens.

However, in 1931, with the backdrop of the Depression, the kindergarten subsidy was removed. While this came as a blow for the sector, it also helped to galvanise support across society for the work of kindergartens.

The subsidy was reinstated in 1935, along with increased support for kindergartens. These efforts were interrupted by the war, but the idea of government-supported pre-school became part of the post-war blueprint for education.

In 1945, a Preschool Consultative Committee was established including representatives from kindergarten, school, Plunket and the fledging Playcentre movement.

The Committee’s report was released in 1947, recommending that the state take over the kindergartens. This did not happen due to objections from kindergarten organisations and a partnership compromise was agreed: Government had regulatory control and funded the infrastructure of a national kindergarten system. Ownership remained with kindergarten associations.

Thereafter, every town and suburb embarked on establishing their own kindergarten. Waiting lists grew to meet the demand and did not subside until the 1980s.

Education and childcare movement

Parallel to the growth of kindergartens were the first institutions providing all-day childcare for the children of working mothers. Gaining support for these nurseries and crèches was a harder road.

Short-lived attempts were made to establish crèches in the 1870s and 1880s. There was resistance to the potential of encouraging mothers to work, or providing a childcare solution for unmarried mothers.

In the early 1900s, three successful charitable/church crèches were established in Wellington, Auckland and Gisborne, alongside ventures for the ‘unfortunate’ such as a maternity home for unmarried mothers, a soup kitchen and an orphanage. By the 1930s there were a few community crèches, some with City Council funding now seen as a support to mothers.

During the war, some workplace nurseries were established. The government asked kindergarten associations to open day nurseries. Auckland Association firmly rejected the idea, but in Wellington three full-day kindergarten nurseries were established.

Challenges through the decades

The 1947 preschool report did not support proposals to fund day nurseries as they “deprived children of normal family life” and there was the issue of cost.

“So childcare faded from the government agenda and became hidden from view, in contrast to the rapidly expanding half-day playcentre and kindergarten that did not contravene ideals of a breadwinner father and an at-home mother,” explains Helen.

The post-war years were a time of economic growth and more mothers were working. A raft of childcare centres, nurseries and crèches, both private and community-owned, discreetly opened in family homes, halls and backyards. Some provided caring environments, although mainly with untrained staff. Others were more akin to baby-farming and harmful.

It took a newsworthy crisis and scandal to shed light on this.

In 1958, police raided a home in Auckland declaring ‘it was too shocking to give all the details’. They found a child with a broken leg and children with skin infections. The owner was caught running away. Within three weeks, Mabel Howard (Minister of Child Welfare) announced the introduction of regulations.

The 1960 regulations placed ‘childcare’ centres under the government umbrella of welfare, not education.

There were other challenges. Most centres could not meet the standards and only 41 centres initially attained a license. There was no funding to support centres to upgrade or train staff to meet the requirements for an A-grade licence. The education component only required that ‘suitable toys be available’.

Advocacy and subsidies

Sonja Davies (later an MP and recipient of the Order of New Zealand) was the licensee of the Nelson Day Nursery whose landlord refused to install another toilet. This prompted the formation in 1963 of the New Zealand Association of Childcare Centres, as an advocacy voice on behalf of childcare.

The first subsidies to parents who could not afford fees began in 1973. Not until 1984 did subsidies for trained staff begin as a consequence of huge advocacy from union and women’s organisations. In 1987 childcare was shifted into the Department of Education alongside kindergarten and playcentre, although each was funded differently. An early childhood movement was now emerging.

In 1989 the government’s Before Five reforms created a uniform administrative, regulatory and funding framework in an attempt to improve equity within the sector but some entrenched inequities remained.

Playcentre movement

The first Playcentre – a parent-led early childhood centre – was established in Wellington in 1941 as a support to women whose husbands were at war but also as a small-scale initiative whose founders had an awareness of progressive education ideas and the psychological needs of children and mothers.

Operating with fewer children in makeshift accommodation with volunteer mothers, a Playcentre was easier to establish than a kindergarten that required government-approved plans, funding and teachers. Unlike kindergarten there was not a whiff of charitable philanthropy and the organisers decided against fundraising. By 1946 there were 40 Playcentres.

The distinctive belief of Playcentre was that parents are the best teachers and parent education became the hallmark. The first training course was underway by 1945, spearheaded later by the arrival of Gwen Somerset in Wellington in 1948 combining both early child and parent education. Somerset’s book I play and I grow (1949) became the philosophical guide for Playcentre and a standard text for kindergarten.

With the post-war demand by families for pre-school education, Playcentre expanded across towns, suburbs and into rural areas too small for kindergartens.

Playcentre provided what academic and political activist, Geraldine McDonald described as an “acceptable career for mothers at home”. As childcare grew, Playcentre supervisors became its mainstay staffing, making play and education more visible and routines more relaxed.

By the 1980s, with more mothers in employment, Playcentre numbers had declined, but to this day, Playcentre still meets the needs of families wanting a hands-on involvement in the early education of their children.

Māori activism for early education

Prior to the 1960s, few Māori children attended preschool. Throughout the 1960s there was a flurry of reports promoting the idea of Māori children benefitting from preschool – initially by encouraging attendance at a kindergarten or Playcentre.

 This did happen – particularly in Playcentre, but Pākehā institutions felt alien to many Māori families. Sponsored by the Māori Education Foundation and the Māori Women’s Welfare League, many Māori communities established their own preschools, typically in schools, marae and halls, and with some affiliated to Playcentre.

By the 1970s most of the preschools had ceased to function. The mainly voluntary task was too huge to sustain. Soon to be established in its place was a movement driven by significant Māori concern for the revival of te reo Māori.

The kōhanga reo (language nest) movement was based on the strategy that the language should be ‘caught’ rather than ‘taught’ in the early years with the child learning the language in the context of an immersion environment.

Under the auspices of Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust comprising founding representatives from the Department of Māori Affairs, the Māori Education Foundation, Māori Women’s Welfare League and the New Zealand Māori Council, kōhanga reo were rapidly established around the country.

The Waitangi Tribunal noted in its 1986 Te Reo report: “A remarkable thing has happened. During the last three years an extraordinarily vital development has taken place among Maori people. This is the Kohanga Reo Movement.”

Indeed, between 1982 and 1985, almost 400 kōhanga reo were formed with more than 6,000 mokopuna attending – explosive growth compared to mainstream preschool formats.

The Trust oversaw development of the movement; kaumatua and kuia, fluent in Māori were brought out of retirement to immerse the children and whānau in te reo. Adults were immersed in tikanga and te reo, initially using what affectionately became known as the Blue Book Syllabus and were able to be awarded a Kōhanga Reo National Trust Certificate as they became kaiako (teachers or instructors) themselves.

Overall, kōhanga reo funding remained with the Department of Māori Affairs until the 1989 Before Five reforms. At the same time, kōhanga reo were brought under the umbrella of the Ministry of Education and were thus treated by the Crown as part of the education sector.

Pacific patterns

The mid-1980s saw the emergence of what were initially called Pacific Islands Language Nests by different Pacific communities, showcasing the language and culture of their respective Island group for children mainly born in New Zealand.

The first reported Pacific group was in Tokoroa in 1972-3 established by Samoan and Cook Islands women. There were Samoan and Cook Islands initiatives in the early 1980s in Wellington and Auckland with around 10 Language Nests by 1984, rapidly increasing to around 172 by 1990.

Support came from Pacifica women’s organisations and churches, but centres did not meet the criteria for government funding. A’oga Fa’a Samoa attached to Richmond Road School in Auckland became the first licensed Pacific centre in 1990.

The issue of qualifications was a barrier. This was resolved when the renamed New Zealand Childcare Association established a fast-track course for four women with teaching qualifications not recognised in New Zealand. With the awarding of the Association’s Childcare Certificate, these women ran training courses among Pacific communities under the umbrella of the association. This was the fledgling beginning of a distinctive Pacific early education movement, one that had many distinctive cultural patterns from respective Pacific Islands.

Professionalism and parity

The issue of qualifications has been a challenge to each early childhood service. From its beginnings in Germany the kindergarten movement held to the idea of the professional teacher.

Kindergarten Associations in New Zealand established their own training, with students working in kindergartens in the morning and studying in the afternoon. This was the pattern until the 1948 when government-funded two-year courses in the four city associations.

“Kindergarten teachers were always disadvantaged compared with primary teachers, even after kindergarten training shifted into Teachers Colleges in 1974 with a two-year diploma compared with the three-year primary diploma.

Kindergarten pedagogy

“There were positives in this move but kindergarten pedagogy was undermined by the dominance of the school subjects with primary teaching staff often winning appointments over kindergarteners,” says Helen.

Similarly, the New Zealand Association of Childcare Centres established its own field-based childcare certificate. In 1975, after much advocacy, a one-year certificate course began at Wellington Polytechnic. This was followed in the 1980s by one-year courses offered in Teachers Colleges.

Neither childcare nor kindergartens were happy with their lot and campaigned for training programmes equal to primary. Eventually in 1987, the Government announced a three-year integrated early childhood diploma. There was some regret amongst kindergartners at the loss of their stand-alone kindergarten qualification.

Unified movement

This was a huge policy win and again hastened the move towards a more unified early childhood movement, says Helen. The programmes were launched across 1988-1990 and later became degree programmes. The Childcare Association similarly upgraded its certificate to a field-based diploma and later a degree.

Equivalence with primary teacher education removed a barrier to the long campaign by kindergarten teachers for pay parity with primary teachers, which began in 1973 but not won until 2002. Teachers working in childcare immediately began a campaign for pay parity.

Helen’s academic career in early years education coincided with these new political times. With an appointment to Hamilton Teachers College in 1987, and in 1995 as the New Zealand’s first Professor of Early Childhood Education at Victoria University, and later in 2005 as the foundation Dean of the University of Otago College of Education, she has relished the opportunity to be involved in creating a graduate, postgraduate and research culture in early childhood education, as well as continued engagement in political advocacy as early childhood education battled for recognition and funding.

The second part of this article will be published in Issue 5, Volume 100 of the Education Gazette, the next special centenary edition to be published this year.

References: Helen May, ‘I am five and I go to School’ Early years schooling in NZ 1900-2010, I (Otago University Press, 2011); Discovery of Early Childhood (2nd edition) (NZCER Press, 2013); Politics in the Playground: The world of early childhood education in Aotearoa New Zealand (3rd edition), (Otago University Press, 2019).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 1:06 pm, 4 February 2021

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