In our latest interview series, we talk to Sue Kurtovich, an ECE specialist with over 30 years of experience, to explore the pressing challenges and innovative solutions in early childhood education.

Can you tell us a little bit about your journey? You have people ringing you today as an expert to ask for help. How did you get into this?

I think it might have been an accident. Like a lot of good things are almost an accident. It’s been a long journey and probably, I think best to say, completely unplanned and in a sense that opportunities present themselves. And I’m the kind of person who probably is more inclined to say yes than I am to say no. I probably tend to think about what’s the worst that could happen here if I said yes to this thing. And so, you know, I think that’s where it happened.

It all started back in the late 80s, before I even had my children. I sort of became involved with the setting up of a public service creche, as they called them back in those days. And it was when I was working for the public service. So it was kind of a committee run thing. Then we had children and ended up doing the administration at that particular service for a period of time. Went on to own and manage my own services for 15 years along with some colleagues. Got involved heavily with the Early Childhood Council during that time as a volunteer. Everything was voluntary in those days and after I had a period of time of being the President, the organisation had grown to such a size that it needed a paid employee. So they offered me a part-time job which became a full time job. And so I was the first paid CEO of the Early Childhood Council and did that for over a decade. Then we had a little bit of time out. Went and lived in the Philippines for a couple of years and when I came back I thought what am I going to do now? And so I thought what do I know? And I knew early childhood, so I came back pretty well at a time when the sector was in a bit of turmoil financially.

I think, umm, what had happened, the 100% funding band had been taken away and there were a few things going on. So I thought, well, I’ll just step in here and put myself out as a consultant and see what happens. And it really just grew from there. So I guess like most people that are consultants, you end up doing what you’ve got some level of expertise and where people have a need. And so most of my work around regulatory compliance and the business side, management side, staffing side, funding and the administration have all come from that need and seeing a gap there and helping people. And so, that’s where my little following has come from. These days I’m easing slightly out and I try to have one day a week off work.

So you were one of the first paid employees of the Early Childhood Council? The Early Childhood Council as we know if more than person today, it’s quite a team there.

The first was a paid part-time administrator working out of her home and she used to do the admin for a few hours a week. She was officially the first paid employee, but I was the first person to lead the organisation in a paid role. By the time I left, I think we were up to four staff. But you know the ECC’s always been an organisation that punched above its weight. So no one would have known that we had no paid employees for quite a long time. We’re talking back in the 90s and during the 2000s when there was an awful lot going on particularly from a policy point of view and working with the government and it was two or three of us and some of them part-time. We always seemed to manage and be able to do quite a lot with the resources that we had. There’s always been a high volunteer component and now I’m back. I’ve done a full circle and I’m a patron to the organisation and still putting in a lot of voluntary hours because that’s how those organisations work. They are membership based and yes, they’ve got more paid employees now and it’s certainly run a lot slicker than it was in the 90s. But, it relies heavily on the expertise of patrons like myself and other volunteers who come on to the board to provide expertise, elbow grease and recommendations.

Was it always the intention of the early childhood council to be the voice of private owner operators. Was the intention to be the voice of the education and care sector?

So when it first started there were the Kindergartens, they were the strong voice. You had Playcentre, you had Kohanga Reo coming up through the ranks and the ECC was that body that united all the independent services. So it didn’t matter whether they were businesses as such, whether they were for or not-for-profit. So it was all the organisations that didn’t belong to anything else, that didn’t have an umbrella organisation. So we described them as independent services and it’s always maintained along the lines of one third not-for-profit and the remainder commercially run services. There has been this perception that ECC was for businesses only. But the reality is the independent sector is made-up of such a diverse group. We’ve got Pacifica centres, Montessori, Steiner, we’ve got larger chains and we’ve got small single standalone services with 20 licenced places and everything in between.

I have always had a soft spot for the Early Childhood Council, recognising the need for a single voice for those independent services who would be left behind if there wasn’t a voice speaking for them. So really always happy to have lent my support in that direction.

So what are some of those things within the industry that you think about the most at the moment?

Yeah, I think there’s quite a few things. I mean there’s been a long unsolved workforce problem and this goes back quite a way. It was an issue before I left the Early Childhood Council. It’s had moments of, glimmers of hope. But when primary teachers were allowed to meet the requirements of early childhood, that sort of improved the workforce situation for a while. But it’s never been solved properly. We’ve never solved our workforce problem. And that goes back, if I think about it, to the mid 90s if the truth be known and that was probably the first sign that we were not ok and pushing for higher qualifications in early childhood, which is of noble intent, was putting a strain on the workforce. We weren’t doing anything about making sure there was sufficient supply. So the demand just kept going up. The requirements to have higher qualified staff were going up. The incentives to have more qualified staff through the funding system were there, but the supply wasn’t. And it all recently came to a head. We now realise how deeply we rely, probably across the whole country if the truth be known not just early childhood, on immigrants and we shut the doors and then we had a major crisis. So we already had a severe teacher shortage and then we’re shut the door on the only supply we had and once we shut that door we went from being in a pretty difficult staffing situation to dire.

And I think that’s been that deep seated long term problem that’s not ever been solved.

Then you couple that with the pressure around increasing pay at a time when we’re not sort of seeing necessarily the roles at the levels that they need to be. Everybody wants to pay teachers more. I’ve never come across an owner who hasn’t wanted to pay their teachers more. I haven’t found that person. But the reality is, what can parents afford to pay, how much is the government providing and the complexity of the system that the government put in around pay parity calculations. People are spending hours on calculations and gathering evidence. I feel like the effort that’s going into establishing where everybody is on the salary scale, maybe that time could be better spent somewhere else. It’s like we’re doing a retrospective calculation using information that people don’t actually have. That’s put a lot of pressure on services and I think that’s a big issue.

The third thing is the different approach that ERO has been taking around regulatory compliance and their reviews and the Ministry’s knee jerk reaction with regulation. A classic example is they’ve just passed regulation to change the requirements for ‘person responsible’ without identifying what the problem was in the first place. Primary schools can have a provisionally registered teacher with a class of 25 new entrants. In early childhood we can’t have a provisionally registered teacher in charge on the floor. That legislation was passed without even taking into account whether the sector could comply with it. What were they trying to fix? What was already broken?

We’re seeing more and more regulation coming in and that worries me. If something’s broken let’s fix it. But don’t just start passing regulations that add more compliance burden on an already stressed sector. Not one person has been able to explain to me what the problem was with provisionally registered teachers? I don’t know if it’s naivety coming out of the Ministry of Education or sometimes I think it’s an arrogance and a total disregard for the sector.

It annoys me when we get a new piece of legislation and when you ask how are we going to measure that? “Oh, well, we haven’t worked out the operational side of it yet”. We went through the whole thing with safety checking over the last couple of years where the Ministry really upped the ante on their expectations around evidence. But they didn’t put anything in place to help services. They just came in with a great big stick. And I don’t know how many provisional licences or suspended licences I’ve helped people with, I’ve lost count, where minor paperwork kind of issues around safety checking was the issue and all that the ministry had to do was say, ‘here’s a template, this is what we need you to have’. They were punitive and came out with a template but only after two years and causing an awful lot of centres grief. I just think those are the kind of unnecessary stresses on services. I’m all for people meeting compliance. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to have bad services out there but I’m seeing really good services being tripped up by really dumb things which could have been easily avoided.

I don’t get many people ringing me up to say they’ve just had a fabulous day with ERO and it’s all wonderful and all my staff are lovely today and I just thought I’d let you know. Consultants don’t get those phone calls. So my life is a little bit tainted because people ring me up with their problems and that’s what I’m here for. But sometimes I just look at those problems and think this could have been avoided. These aren’t bad people doing wrong by children, these are people who are genuine good operators who’ve been tripped up by something. And I feel like they all get lumped together. You read the list of who’s on a provisional licence and they’re all lumped in together and the level of non-compliance is just treated as the same. Oh, you didn’t meet GMA7A! Slam. They might have missed one referee. They might have not had one document where they hadn’t written down, the reference check they did. I think that’s a little bit unfair.

Do you feel that that volume for you, is that growing? Has it has it been steady?

The instances of help are increasing, no question about that. And the severity of the consequences for people seem to be getting more severe. So the sorts of things that would have once put you on a provisional licence and you would have sorted it out now they might ring and say our licence just got suspended. Couple that with our existing environment, having a lot going on trying to do your pay parity, initial salary step assessments for a whole bunch of staff and then you hire a person because you’re desperate and you didn’t quite cross all the i’s and dot the t’s, maybe there’s more opportunity to slip up on some of the things when you’re under a lot of pressure. If you haven’t got a good permanent staffing team that you’ve had together for the last five or six years, there is a chance that the reliever forgot to sign a document or you forget to get a parent to sign an accident form at the end of the day and our normal cheques and balances of chasing those things up and too stretched.

The owner is likely to be the manager as well as the administrator and potentially you know also coming back and doing the gardening on the weekends and taking the washing home.  you know that kind of service there’s a heck of a lot for them to do in a practical sense. And if you can’t necessarily rely on your permanent team because you’re operating with a lot of relievers, which I know that’s another whole can of worms in the sector.

It’s become attractive to go relieving. Our pool of permanent teachers is shrinking. I’m not saying relievers aren’t good because we need relievers obviously. But if we get too many people choosing relieving over permanent this increases the pressure on those who are permanent. The impact is that we are more likely to trip up on paperwork because on the day we had a reliever. Reliever induction is always going to be limited because you’re desperate on the day and you get someone in and you’ve never had them there before. It’s not ideal for the children as well as the parents or the existing team.

I’ve had this conversation with the Ministry more times than I care to count. Why have you created an incentive for people to go relieving through your funding system, through the parity system, you’ve created this. Why would you do that? Why would you want to? In the interests of quality, you’d think you would be looking for policies that created incentives to have a really good permanent workforce. A the moment we have the opposite.

If you had a magic wand to fix some of these things, what would you do? 

I think some of the quick fixes that we could look at would be, let’s just go to that whole relieving one very easily and quickly. The ministry could cap the salaries of relievers in the pay parity system. Like as in the kindergarten sector.

I think the Ministry could also think more about due diligence when they change legislation. Actually thinking about the problem they’re trying to fix. How else could we have sorted that out without another compliance burden on the entire sector. So the likes of the person responsible legislation changes that are coming in in 2024 could have been avoided had they actually stopped and thought about it.

I think on the staffing one, I wish I had the nut that would we could crack that one with, you know, I really wish I did but maybe we need to think more broadly about qualifications and early childhood. There’s been a very single mindedness towards a narrow type of qualification. The teaching qualification being the only thing. Has that shut out other people who would potentially have been excellent employees and people working with children, have we shut the door on some of those which we could jolly well do with. And do we need to think more broadly?

I’ve been in the sector for, you know, 35 years. We would have once been employing Karitane nurses with our infants. And I’m not necessarily, advocating we go back to what we used to do. But, do we need to think a little more broadly about our workforce, people that have come through Playcentre training, all sorts of things because at the moment it’s like you’re trained and which means you’re a certificated teacher or you’re nothing. Those other people count basically as nothing. So they’re just an adult making up the numbers. But in amongst that other group, there’s people who have a lot to contribute and have we thought, have we narrowed down the qualified workforce a little bit too much because we don’t seem to be solving the problem of getting enough of that narrow workforce in. So do we have to look slightly broader there?

Or the alternative is to say, how do we have more people that fit into that narrow group that the Ministry requires, which is the certified teacher. I guess increasing pay is one thing, but it’s going to take a while to see whether that has the desired effect. Pay is also increasing for many other professions that potentially could be more attractive than early childhood. So, are we actually making the gains there?

Some coordination between NZQA, the Teaching Council, Immigration and getting that right is really important. Because if you’re not training them here and we’re not, then we need to be looking offshore. And we need to make it as smooth a pathway as possible for people to be able to come from overseas. So for me, it’s either we up the domestic workforce and we don’t seem to be able to do that at all. The training providers, if anything, are shrinking their courses back. So that means if you’re going to only look at this narrow group as your workforce, if you can’t do it domestically, you’ve got to do it internationally. In which case, you’ve got to make the international pathway really, really simple and attractive and smooth.

And then the alternative to all of that is to say, ok, can we broaden the pool of people who are available to work with young children under the age of 6? I don’t feel like these things are hard because there’s only a certain limited number of options. But we’ve been going on now for 25 years worrying about our workforce. So potentially it must be hard because nobody solved it. So we are in a bit of a crossroads there because we’ve put all our eggs into the basket of increasing salaries and that’s going to solve the workforce problems because people will look at those big salaries now by comparison to what used to be and they’ll come rushing to early childhood. I am not convinced. I wish it was as simple as that. But I just feel that, are we really going to keep pace with the rest of New Zealand as far as career options and are we going to keep pace with the rest of the world when it comes to early childhood? Don’t know.

It is so interesting you say that because not too long ago I heard on the radio the state of Victoria advertising for early childhood teachers.

Yeah. We were driving around our motorhome at the South Island. I turned the radio, obviously. Tom, did you just hear that? Did you just hear that? Stealing teachers. So, you know, it’s like the police, the police are going over there. The nurses are going over there. You can’t stop that from happening. You can’t. If we can’t pay them enough here, we have to think about our strategy. It’s not about lowering standards, it’s about thinking about it in a different way. We’ve spent 25 years going down the narrow path of having certificated teachers only as our goal. It’s quarter of a century and it’s not working.

What are you optimistic about with regard to the sector? I know we’ve got so many challenges, but what sort of keeps you going, what is giving you the drive and motivation to continue your work?

Well, I think you know what keeps me optimistic, I suppose, is the fact that, we have this wonderful opportunity to influence and make children’s lives better. That’s what most people who are getting up in the morning and going to an early childhood centre are trying to do. And that’s what people like me that are trying to support early childhood centres are doing now. I think about it from my own grandchildren’s perspective and think about the little centre that they’ve attended and the fact that they are in the struggle of everything else as well. And a little rural community trying to get staff and all of those things. That’s what motivates me and some other fabulous people, is that there’s actually children’s futures at stake here.

When I got involved in opening centres myself, I had two preschool children, now I’ve got preschool grandchildren and I think this is the key part is to provide education and care for children. That’s it. All of these other things are just like a sideshow. Even the teachers, they’re an important sideshow, absolutely critical sideshow. But the reason the services are there are for children and so that’s the motivation and I think the motivation from all the people that are hanging on at the moment is that things will get better. That maybe we will have peaked as far as the sort of the nonsense around regulatory compliance and the Ministry might start seeing the light of day on those things and that we will get back to thinking about you know what’s good for children. We just want it to be the best it can be for them.

For more insights and expert guidance, visit Kurtovich Consulting to connect with Sue and find tailored solutions for your ECE centre.

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