There’s no one-fee-fits-all approach in early childhood education (ECE).
Instead, your child’s ECE service or kōhanga reo has its own policies and procedures which will determine how much your family pays for child care.
The specific service you choose, government subsidies you’re eligible for, and hours your child attends, will all influence the fees you’re charged, but what happens if your child doesn’t actually go to ECE on their usual day?
Unexpected sick days, planned public holidays and sudden closures can all affect your child’s attendance. Here’s what they might mean for your family budget.
Who decides what fees an ECE service will charge?
Early learning service providers operate as commercial businesses or not-for-profit organisations in this country.
Services are overseen and supported by the Ministry of Education, but child care fees are a private arrangement between each service and its parents, with the provider having the final say on how much is charged and when.
Your service will have a clear policy around fees and enrolment conditions, which you’re encouraged to ask about.
It can charge you for any hours your child attends, outside of the 20 free hours that ages three, four and five are entitled to, and your service can also ask for donations and optional charges in addition to the normal fees you pay.
Do you still have to pay if your child has a sick day?
This is a question to ask your ECE service, but as a guide, it’s common for services to charge normal fees for all absences that fall on a usual day of attendance (including sick days).
The good news is that the government can keep paying child care assistance to your ECE service to reduce the fees payable.
If your child is absent for less than three weeks, they’ll continue paying without you having to do anything. And if your child is off for three to six weeks for a medical reason, you’ll need to let your service know and provide the government with a medical certificate to continue getting child care assistance.
The government may also pay towards your child care (for up to 28 days) if you’re going overseas, or your if child is absent from care because of COVID-19, and you can read more about this here.
A holiday discount is also available at some ECE services, so it’s worth enquiring about this, and giving plenty of notice if your child will be away from care on a family trip.
Do ECE services charge for public holidays?
Most services close for public holidays (like New Year’s Day, Good Friday and Labour Day); and if a public holiday falls on a day your child is scheduled to attend, your enrolment form will determine whether you have to pay for the day or not.
Some ECE services don’t charge families for public holidays when they’re closed (the cost of staff holiday pay may be spread out over all families’ regular fees), but many services do charge for public holidays to cover staff costs and other outgoings.
You’re encouraged to read your enrolment form carefully before signing, so you know what fees you’re liable for if your service is closed.
If you do have to pay for public holidays, but have flexibility around your child’s ECE days, there’s also the option of enrolling your child on days that are less likely to be public holidays (e.g. Wednesday and Thursday, rather than Monday and Friday).
What happens during unplanned closures?
Although we associate unplanned closures with COVID-19 lockdowns, there are a number of reasons why your ECE service might have to unexpectedly shut its doors.
An emergency closure happens when circumstances beyond the control of your ECE service cause them to close temporarily (usually for one or two days).
The emergency could be caused by:
- Extreme weather conditions,
- Interruptions to essential services,
- Non-controllable health and safety issues, or
- Civil defence emergencies.
A voluntary temporary closure happens when your ECE service is unable to operate for a short period of time. They can choose to close for up to three months (or sometimes more) when things like this happen:
- There are major renovations happening at your ECE service,
- There are low enrolment or staffing numbers, or
- The service doesn’t have a ‘person responsible.’
Services don’t get government funding during voluntary temporary closures, but they can apply for funding to continue if they’re forced to close in an emergency.
Your ECE service will be able to explain its fee policy, and other practical arrangements, if it has to close for some reason, and there’s information about COVID-19-related closures below.
What effect does COVID-19 have on fees?
COVID-19 has highlighted the different fees that individual ECE services charge:
- During the Level 4 COVID-19 lockdown in March/April 2020, Stuff reported that most – but not all – ECE services waived or reduced their fees.
Some services continued to charge full fees while children were at home in lockdown, and although the government described this as a, ‘A matter for those services and for their parent communities,’ it did say that parents couldn’t be compelled to continue paying those fees, and urged ECE services to be flexible and reasonable.
- During Auckland’s more recent Alert Level 3, the Ministry of Education advised ECE services to, ‘Have an open conversation with your parents and continue to review your parent fee policies – especially for children who are enrolled, but are not able to attend your service in person.’
As far as child care assistance is concerned, the government can keep paying towards your child care fees if your ECE service has to temporarily close due to COVID-19. For example:
- Your service has to close due to COVID-19 Alert Level 4,
- It’s connected to a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 and has been instructed to close (for 72 hours for cleaning and contact tracing),
- It’s not able to operate safely and within public health guidelines, or
- Your service doesn’t have any children needing childcare, temporarily, because of COVID-19.
The government can provide child care assistance whether your ECE service is charging a fee to hold your child’s place, or not.
What you can take away from all this, is that your ECE service will have its own fees and enrolment policies.
It’s important that you read your enrolment form carefully before agreeing to it, and if you need clarification, don’t hesitate to ask about the fees for sick days, family holidays, public holidays and unexpected closures.
If you’re worried about the fees that you’re going to be charged, ask your ECE service to explain them, and if you’re still not satisfied, you could make a complaint or consider whether different hours, days or even another ECE service would suit your family (and budget) better.
It’s also important to research the child care assistance you may be eligible for.