Big queues to get into preschools
Last updated 10:26 08/09/2009

Mothers returning to work are fuelling a surge in preschool waiting lists, with some centres booked up to almost four times their capacity.

The issue has reignited calls to extend paid parental leave.

Figures released yesterday by the Ministry of Education show an extra 23,026 children including 15,872 under the age of three have joined early-childhood centres in the past eight years.

Two-thirds of centres have waiting lists and the wait is more than six months at almost a third (28 per cent) of those catering to children aged three and four well up from 11.9 per cent in 2002 and 17.3 per cent in 2006.

Nelson was worst off, with waiting times of more than six months at 43.4 per cent of centres for those aged three and four, and 57.1 per cent of centres for those under three.

Cherry's Early Learning Centre director Cherry Howitt said there was tremendous pressure on the rolls of its Christchurch centres.

Its Beckenham centre closed its waiting list in June 2007, when it was swamped by demand, and had only just reopened its list. It had about 100 children waiting to get into a centre with 45 places.

Howitt said she would open a second centre in Hoon Hay this month and already had 160 children on the waiting list for another 45 places, despite no parents having seen the new buildings.

"Parents have to go back to work at certain times," Howitt said. "A lot of them don't want to go back to work, but they're forced to.

"Their maternity leave comes up and they would rather be at home with their child, but conditions dictate that they must go."

In Wellington, Mount Cook pre-school spokeswoman Flora Totman said its waiting list was so long they were now only accepting applications from one-year-olds.

"Because if they're three or four they won't get in before they start school."

They currently had 87 children in their waiting list, she said.

She said it was a result of the 20 free hours and a push to get more children into pre-schools.

Auckland's Albany Community pre-school's head teacher Lynne Umar said they had always had a long waiting list but it was longer than it had been in the past.

She did not know how many children were on it but said they had to wait as long as nine months to get in for the morning session, which catered for older kids.

It was a trend that was being noticed by other pre-schools also, she said.

Sherryll Wilson, chief executive of Kidsfirst - the largest early-childhood education provider in the South Island - said about 3000 children were on waiting lists for the company's 63 centres.
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Kidsfirst last month launched a recruitment campaign for more teachers.

Early Childhood Council chief executive Sarah Farquhar said staffing shortages were "chronic".

New Zealand's high rates of early-childhood care have been questioned in some quarters.

The Children's Commissioner is investigating the care of under three-year-olds after the Education Review Office raised concerns over aspects of compliance in about half of the 74 centres it checked.

Speaking from the Child 2009 conference in Queenstown yesterday, child psychiatrist Dr Sally Merry said society should support parents to provide the best care for their children.

"People have to be able to earn a living and I think a lot of parents go out to work, not because they choose to, but because they have to financially," Merry said.

"We ought to be thinking very hard about ways in which we can support those who would like to stay at home and look after their children."

Paid parental leave in New Zealand is available for a maximum 14 weeks, far less than the average of nearly one year in other developed countries.

Research published in the Social Policy Journal of New Zealand this year said a "fundamental review" of New Zealand's parental-leave policy was needed.

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