Creating spaces to hear parents' voices: methodological reflections on the Families Commission's early childhood care and education project involving some migrant and former refugee families.

Author:Kindon, Sara
Position:Report
 
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Abstract

How do recently arrived migrant and former refugee families from non-English-speaking backgrounds in Aotearoa New Zealand balance work, study and childcare? How do they access and experience early childhood care and education? This paper describes and reflects on a Families Commission-funded qualitative research project which sought to generate answers to these questions via focus groups and participatory diagramming. It outlines the context within which the research was commissioned before discussing the rationale and approach adopted. It offers reflections on the lessons learnt from negotiating cultural, linguistic and contextual differences, and from attempting to create appropriate spaces in which to listen to parents' experiences, including the context of the accountability environment of a New Zealand Crown entity.

INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT

Formal, high-quality early childhood care and education (ECE) services for pre-school children are important for parents and children alike (Mitchell et al. 2008). These services contribute to parents' and caregivers' opportunities to undertake paid work, upgrade their qualifications, and develop social and cultural connections. They also provide a range of positive educational and social outcomes for children. The Ministry of Education provides financial assistance directly to ECE services in the form of a per-hour subsidy for each child who attends. Subsidy rates depend on the age of the child, whether the service is all-day or sessional, the proportion of qualified teachers, and the type and quality of service provided. From 1 July 2007 the Government has funded up to 20 hours a week of free ECE to children aged three and four years old who attend teacher-led services. A childcare subsidy is also provided by the Ministry of Social Development to assist eligible families with fees.

Participation by pre-school children in ECE services has increased steadily across all ethnic groups over the past 16 years. In 2006 over 94% of New Zealand children had attended some form of ECE before starting school (Ministry of Education 2007). However, rates of participation in ECE vary by ethnicity and are, for example, relatively low for Pasifika children compared with European/Pakeha children (Ministry of Education 2007). There is also a gap in our understanding of how well the ECE needs are met for migrant and former refugee families in Aotearoa New Zealand, especially those facing a range of settlement challenges (e.g. because they are from non-English-speaking backgrounds). Finding appropriate approaches for undertaking research with these families is critical if their voices are to be heard and used to inform policy and operational practice.

Over 60% of the 46,964 people who were granted permanent residency in New Zealand in 2006/07 came from non-English-speaking countries. The largest proportion of these were from China (12% of people granted permanent residency), predominantly in the Skilled/Business and Family Sponsored streams. The second largest group came from India (9%), followed by the Philippines (6%), Fiji (5%), Samoa (4%), South Korea (2%) and Tonga (2%). The 22% of people granted permanent residency during 2006/07 in the source country category of "other" came from around 150 different countries. This included 258 people from Russia, generally in the Skilled/Business or Family Sponsored streams, and 120 people from Iraq in the streams of Skilled/Business (15), Family Sponsored (65) and International/Humanitarian (40).

As a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, New Zealand accepts an annual quota of around 750 refugees within its International/Humanitarian migration stream. In the five years from 2002 to 2007, 3,800 people from 50 different countries were accepted through the quota. In 2006/07 85% of the refugee quota intake was accounted for by people from Myanmar (49%), Afghanistan (30%), Sudan (3%), Iraq (2%) and Iran (1%). The remaining 15% (or 112 individuals) of the quota refugees were in the category of "others". This included 11 people from Eritrea (plus one other from Eritrea in the Family Sponsored Stream) and 27 from Sudan (plus one other in the Skilled/Business stream and four others in the Family Sponsored stream) (Merwood 2008).

This paper describes and reflects on a qualitative research project undertaken on behalf of the Families Commission. It sought to explore the access to, and experiences of, formal and informal early childhood care and education of a range of migrant and former refugee families. This paper briefly outlines the rationale and research approach taken, including the integration of a technique called participatory diagramming into focus groups. It reflects on the lessons learnt from this approach and generates implications for future policy and practice that may be helpful to others carrying out research with these kinds of parents and families.

RATIONALE AND APPROACH

The research was carried out with migrant and former refugee families that face relatively more challenges than other new migrants settling into New Zealand. The decision to work with these groups was made after consultation with agencies and academics working in the area of ECE, including the Ministries of Education and Women's Affairs and the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, in late 2007. The selection took particular account of:

* the Ministry of Education's 10-year strategic plan for ECE (2002-2012), which identifies communities in which current participation is low, and the information that will be collected as part of the longitudinal evaluation of the plan

* major projects on participation and access for Maori, Pacific and rural families that are either planned or underway within the Ministry of Education

* earlier work by the Families Commission, including Focus on Families (Stevens et al. 2005), What makes Your Family Tick? (Seth-Purdie et al. 2006) and Migrant Families Now and in the Future (Families Commission n.d.).

The mandate of the Families Commission to "advocate for the interests of families" (section 7[1] Families Commission Act 2003) and to "have regard to the needs, values and beliefs ... of other ethnic and cultural groups in New Zealand" (section 11[c] Families Commission Act 2003) supported the need for research that focuses on the perspectives of families themselves rather than the perspectives of funding agencies or service providers.

In 2006/07 the Families Commission consulted migrant and former refugee families about their needs. This consultation highlighted the importance of exploring options for ECE to respond to the distinctive requirements of these families, particularly the:

* cultural and integration needs of families, and the need for childcare to help parents to access English-language learning

* needs that arose for some migrant and former refugee families from the lack of informal support for child care because of limited family and friendship networks in New Zealand (Families Commission n.d.).

The Families Commission was particularly interested in filling gaps in both existing research evidence and planned research initiatives on the ECE needs of migrant and former refugee families as part of its Even Up programme of work aimed at ensuring families have real choices that enable them to balance work and family commitments.

The small-scale qualitative study discussed here provided an exploration of some migrant and former refugee families' preferences and priorities for formal and informal ECE. It adopted a post-positivist approach that recognised the embeddedness of all knowledge within the social relationships and contexts that produce it (Bondi et al. 2002), and did not seek to be statistically representative or produce generalisations. Rather, to meet the research aims, it sought to identify information-rich cases of groups that were as diverse as possible (Krueger and Casey 2000) via a purposeful sampling approach (Patton 2002).

Six groups around the country were identified. These groups involved parents with very different migration histories and settlement experiences in New Zealand, and varied socioeconomic backgrounds, ECE needs and priorities. (1) A focus group with academic experts and practitioners in ECE with expertise on the needs of migrant and former refugee communities was also held in Wellington. This was scheduled to occur part-way through the analysis of focus group discussions to enable deeper probing of issues raised by parents. Groups were also chosen to represent four main areas of migrant and former refugee settlement in New Zealand (Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch), and two prominent...

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