Parents should be subsidised to stay off work and spend longer with their children in the first year of their babies’ lives, the children’s commissioner says.

Yesterday, John Angus issued a major report into the care of under-two-year-olds.

The report said childcare for Kiwi toddlers was of “variable” quality and in places there was a shortage of care. Childcare was not fundamentally bad for children, but it had to be high quality to be of value.

“Current policy, regulation and training of staff is a bit underdone,” Dr Angus said. Even where quality was good, babies aged under one were at greater risk of exposure to infection and illness at a time when their immune system was underdeveloped.

“Childcare should be shorter rather than longer in duration, especially for children under 12 months old,” the report said.

Many parents did not want to go back to work so soon after the birth of their baby but felt they had to in the interests of their family.

The report said there should be more support for parental care of those under one, with Dr Angus suggesting a review of the current 14 weeks of paid parental leave.

“In an ideal world, care at home by parents or extended family is in the best interests of infants under one-year-old.

“There is room for government policy to better support parents who make a choice to stay at home, through more flexible parental leave provisions.”

The large amount being spent on childcare subsidies was only slightly less than the cost of paid parental leave for under-two-year-olds, Dr Angus said.

The report said under-two-year-olds were the fastest growing group in childcare, with 32,000 toddlers now in childcare centres.

Children were staying in care for longer periods, but Government policy focused on quality care for three and four-year-olds, with the rules about qualified staff not applied to the care of under-two-year-olds.

The report has been given to government ministers and will also be considered as part of a task force looking into possible changes to early childhood education policies.

However, Education Minister Anne Tolley said: “I note that many of the recommendations will involve increasing costs for services, and ultimately for parents.”

A spokesman for Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson said that though the report would be considered, extending paid parental leave was not on the cards because it was unaffordable.

Labour Party deputy leader Annette King said the report was “too important to be allowed to sit on a shelf gathering dust”.

“The Government needs to take a close look at this report if wants to be taken seriously when it talks about its determination to do something about issues such as child abuse,” Ms King said.

The Early Childhood Council said there was a risk of “unnecessarily frightening” working parents with young children in care.

There was good international research that supported the benefits of under two-year-olds being in high-quality care, the council said.

New Zealand Childcare Association chief executive Nancy Bell said the research on under-two-year-olds was “unequivocal” that they needed sustained attention from well-trained adults.

A happy fulltime dad

Stay-at-home dad John Cunningham is quick to admit he’s a very domesticated man.

A former chef, Mr Cunningham is father to Alastair, 3, and Kirsty, 20 months, and relishes his role as a fulltime caregiver.

“I’m just cooking for the family now which is easier in some ways but I get more complaints.”

A report released by the children’s commissioner yesterday stated paid childcare was variable and recommended improvements be made to paid parental leave.

Mr Cunningham agreed there were many advantages to being at home for his kids but understood it could be a financial stretch for many Kiwi families.

His wife, Lisa Lorenzen, is a teacher at St Catherine’s College in Kilbirnie. Twice a week both children attend the Miramar Community Creche for four hours. It costs $33 each session and boasts four qualified supervisors. “I think for the kids, it’s great to have their dad around.

It’s important for parents to be with their children as much as possible, I believe. I don’t see the point in having kids if you’re not going to spend time with them during the day.

I think some people put themselves under pressure to keep up with the Joneses: they’ve got to have the flash car, the flash house. I think it’s more important to spend quality time with your family than worry about that stuff.”

He plans to stay at home till both children are at school. “Obviously the most important part of a child’s life is when they are young, so if you get it wrong you can really screw things up.”

When children spent time with carers at creche, it was important the staff were trained, Mr Cunningham believed.

“I know there are some centres where the carers are just kids, just really young people, you know. I’d like it if every childcare worker was qualified. Obviously people who are properly trained for something will always be the better for it.”

What matters

The main elements of quality education and care for under-twos are, according to the experts:

– High adult to child ratios

– Small group sizes

– Skilled staff

– Positive, sensitive and responsive care

– Superior physical environments with well-defined indoor and outdoor spaces

– Significant parental involvement

– Attention to health and safety

– Effective learning programmes

– The Dominion Post

HOME IS THE NEW FIRST GRADE – Teach Your Child to Count to 10 – Early Learning Method

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