The Provider Assessment Group (or ‘PAG’ for short) is a special Ministry of Education unit focused on ensuring that early childhood education (ECE) services meet quality and safety standards.
For three years, the PAG conducted surprise visits at high-risk early learning services to stamp down on financial fraud and health and safety breaches.
As a result, the PAG cancelled up to 17 licences across nine services – before the unit itself ceased operating late last year, when its three-year pilot scheme ended.
Now, the PAG is back! The government is reinstating its ECE investigation unit, and although this is welcome news to some, others are a little circumspect.
Here, we look at the different viewpoints, and see what the PAG’s return means for children, parents and whānau.
What does the ECE sector think about the new PAG?
RNZ reports that the PAG’s reinstatement has been met with a mixed response.
While some see an urgent need for this investigative unit, others are cautious about the manner in which the PAG will operate.
Generally-speaking, ECE experts want the new PAG to:
- Focus on truly bad operators across the sector
- Be fair in the way it investigates and penalises, and
- Remain focused on safety and quality in ECE services.
When it comes to individual opinions, RNZ reports that:
- Childforum’s chief executive, Sarah Alexander is positive about the return of the PAG. She says the unit is, ‘Going to be utterly, totally vital to lifting both the quality and the standards of early childhood services,’ and is hopeful that the PAG will investigate a lot more ECE services, instead of focusing on home-based providers.
- Early childhood centre owner, Linda Petrenko is also positive and sees a need for the PAG to root out badly-run services. She says, ‘It is unfortunate that this investigative group is necessary, but it is high time that those who are dishonest and incompetent are struck off from operating services.'
- Early childhood teacher and campaigner, Susan Bates also sees a real need for the unit, based on the fact that hundreds of teachers have told her about poorly-run early learning centres. However, she cautions that the new PAG needs to listen to teachers when it investigates complaints, show them respect, and take a less ‘brutal’ approach moving forward.
- Early Childhood New Zealand Te Rito Maioha’s chief executive, Kathy Wolfe is optimistic about the PAG and says, ‘There could absolutely be benefits from a group of this nature’ as long as their process and requirements are fair.
- And last, but definitely not least, Early Childhood Council chief executive, Peter Reynolds has told RNZ that he’s hesitant to support a unit that, ‘Could be characterised as a hit squad’, but says there is a place for surprise spot checks – as long as the PAG focuses on genuinely bad operators, rather than ‘minor shortcomings in paperwork’ (e.g. an incorrect word in a Health and Safety policy).
In a separate statement, the Early Childhood Council has said that instead of, ‘Tying [ECE] providers up in red tape’, the government should, ‘Use funding to support them, incentivise the right behaviours and ensure we get the best outcomes for our children. Along with fairness and transparency.’
Is the return of the PAG good news for families?
From where we sit, it’s heartening to think that fraudulent and unsafe ECE services will be identified and held to account for bad, negligent or downright dangerous practices.
The PAG uses surprise spot checks to ensure services are doing the right thing, and takes action if they’re not.
The special unit is small (with about 13 staff, mostly in regional offices), but the Ministry of Education has promised that the PAG will bring expertise and equitability to the job:
- The government has told RNZ that, ‘The PAG team will complement our regional licensing staff by providing specialist skills in financial fraud, and complex risk assessments relating to regulatory and licensing non-compliance.’
- And, instead of just focusing on home-based services, the PAG will use its ‘knowledge and risk-identifiers’ across the ECE sector (which is good news for ChildForum and for families).
Although some have criticised the old PAG’s harsh or nit-picking approach, there is evidence that the unit saved money and identified health and safety breaches:
- As well as cancelling about 17 licences, the old PAG claimed to have saved $6 million worth of early childhood subsidies per year.
It identified providers that were over-claiming government subsidies for children in their care, and if the new PAG can pick up on dodgy dealings, this frees up government funds for more positive ECE spending.
- It’s also in everyone’s interest that ECE services have proper health and safety policies and practices in place, and the PAG’s ‘surprise spot checks’ can help to ensure that services offer good quality.
For example, RNZ reports that the old PAG conducted spot checks on 37 homes in four home-based services in 2020, and found health and safety problems in 19 of those homes. This resulted in six of the homes being immediately removed from the licences of two of the services, and it’s encouraging to know that health and safety was – and is – being taken seriously.
If the new PAG can clean up services that have poor health and safety processes or suspect financials (or both), then this is good news for children, parents, whānau and the ECE sector.
Quality ECE has benefits for individuals and society, and we hope that the reinstated PAG will succeed in remedying bad quality and raising the bar for good.