When you leave your little one at an early childhood education (ECE) service, you're trusting that they're in safe hands and a safe environment.
In fact, it's essential that children are nourished, nurtured and kept out of harm's way, so let's look at how the government makes child safety a priority for educators and early learning services, and what you can do if there's cause for concern.
What are the rules around child safety at ECE services?
Before they can open their doors and begin educating and caring for young children, ECE services must meet licensing standards around several key areas, including Health and Safety.
These licensing criteria determine whether different types of services are meeting their legal and regulatory requirements to operate, and there are many areas where services must play it safe.
The 'Health and Safety' licensing criteria set out numerous ways that ECE services should reduce risk and prevent harm, relating to:
- Hygiene - by keeping safe and hygienic premises, furniture, equipment and materials.
- Emergencies - by planning for emergencies and carrying out safety drills.
- Sleep - by monitoring children’s sleep to keep them safe and well.
- Hazards and outings - by assessing and addressing environmental hazards, like cleaning products or electrical sockets.
- Food and drink - by giving children water and supervising them when they eat.
- Child health and wellbeing - by keeping the room temperature comfortable and having some staff with first aid training.
- Child protection - by taking steps to ensure children do not see inappropriate material and staff do not drink alcohol on the premises.
- Notification - if there is a serious injury, illness or incident at the ECE service, the Ministry of Education must be told.
- Supervision - educators in home-based ECE services must actively supervise children at all times.
There are also safety-related criterion under the 'Premises and Facilities' and 'Governance, Management and Administration' sections of the licensing criteria. For example, ECE services must:
- Use safety glass around children to reduce the risk of injury
- Have a first aid kit that's easily accessible by adults, but not by children
- Ensure that all children's workers are safety checked every three years
How does the Ministry of Education and Education Review Office ensure that ECE services meet (or exceed) safety standards?
Once ECE services meet the licensing standards, deliver on them during a probationary period, get inspected by regional public health services and are given a full licence, operators must continue to deliver on the government's quality standards going forward.
To see that standards don't slip, the Education Review Office (ERO) undertakes independent reviews of all ECE services every one to four years, and each ERO review is available to read here.
Government staff also visit ECE services and look at their financials to gauge whether they're meeting the quality standards and complying with their licences.
What happens if the government is worried about an ECE service?
Parents, politicians and bureaucrats all want to keep children out of harm's way, and the government acts swiftly if it has concerns about the safety and wellbeing of children at an ECE service.
Specifically, the government has the power to:
- Conduct spot checks of an ECE service at any time
- Put an ECE service on a provisional licence if it isn't meeting the quality standards (this involves the government detailing the standards not being met, monitoring the service and setting deadlines for improvement)
- Shut down an ECE service – either temporarily or forever – if it thinks children are at risk
What should you do if you're worried about your child's safety?
According to the Ministry of Education, 'At any one time, 98 per cent of early learning services are meeting or exceeding standards, with less than two per cent of our 4,581 early learning services on a provisional licence.'
If you have a complaint or concern, though, it's important to voice it.
Every ECE service must have a complaints procedure and you can take these steps if you're worried about your child's ECE experience:
- Start by speaking with the educator, kaiako, manager and/or owner of the ECE service.
- If the problem persists, make a formal complaint, following the service's process.
- If you're not happy with how the complaint is dealt with or you want to make an anonymous complaint, then contact your local Ministry of Education office. You can also seek free legal advice from Youthlaw if needed.
- Some concerns are very serious and if you think your child's safety is at risk (that is, you think they've been harmed physically, emotionally, or sexually while in ECE care or are likely to be harmed), then you should speak with:
Can complaints lead to real change?
They certainly can. The government promises to follow up every complaint made about an ECE service, and Hutt Hospital Childcare Centre is one example of complaints having have a real effect.
The Ministry of Education received complaints about this ECE service, then worked with an independent investigator to look into accusations that staff mistreated children in their care.
Hutt Hospital Childcare Centre had its licence suspended last December and after finding evidence of breaches in the centre's Child Protection Policy and the Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulation, the government then terminated the ECE service's licence.
So, if you are worried about your child's safety, or anything else at their ECE service, then open up the lines of communication and take a proactive approach. In all likelihood, your educators will listen and act – and if they don't, then the government will.
Ministry of Education: Ensuring Quality in Early Learning
Ministry of Education: Complaints About your ECE Service Stuff