Ministry's stance on fence causing lengthy daycare delays

by Lauren Pattemore - Apr 19, 2023

The opening of a new daycare centre in a Queenstown suburb has been delayed by two months as the Ministry of Education tells those in charge to fix a fence before welcoming families.

The pushback in opening date for the BestStart centre in Hanley's Farm is stressing out families already enrolled and waiting for childcare, as waitlists grow for spots with many early childhood education providers across the district. 

The very gates waiting to be opened are part of the trouble - with the Ministry of Education saying the chosen gate and pool fence doesn’t block out enough noise from nearby residential construction work.

This is what BestStart deputy chief executive Fiona Hughes says she has told been told by the ministry, which is in her view “taking a very hard line” on the fence.

Ms Hughes says their acoustic expert has told them the difference in decibels between the ministry's noise guidelines and their measurement at the current fence is “imperceptible to human hearing”.

“We find it rather ironic that they are prepared to open the primary school a few 100 metres away from us and those children can be exposed to the same noise. We think it's a bit contradictory.”

Similar pool fencing surrounds Te Kura Whakatipu o Kawarau, 950 metres down the road from BestStart, and also across the street from housing construction sites.

The gate and fence are a match with what BestStart has used previously in childcare facilities across the country, and it’s never been a problem before, she says.

Plus, the construction noise shouldn't be an issue longer-term.

“It’s a little bit frustrating because it's a residential suburb that will eventually not even have an issue with any noise…It’s really a temporary problem.”

She thinks the ministry has gotten tougher in the past few years, and it's confusing, she says.

"They're expecting you to meet a guideline and - as you and I both know - guidelines are there to give you guidance, not necessarily to say this is the law, these are the rules."

Although unable to provide exact numbers of children enrolled at the centre Ms Hughes says 114 families have enquired about sending children there. 

They're now left in the lurch as BestStart gets to work sorting approval from others in the subdivision for a different fence, rebuilding the fence, and remeasuring the noise levels.

“We really feel for the community because there is high demand (for childcare).”

Ms Hughes estimates the new fence could be finished within four weeks, and from then they’ll know more. There's a chance they could open at a reduced capacity.

“I'd say four to five weeks, we should have a decision on when we can open, and I would expect to be open within the next four to five weeks after that if everything goes well.”

Ms Hughes says they’ve fully communicated with parents throughout the process. However, one parent who spoke to Crux told a different story.

When enrolling their children in spring last year, the parent was told of an April opening, but the email notifying them of the delay arrived in their inbox on April 5.

BestStart's 'pool fence' across the road from construction work - and construction noise.

“We’re fairly fortunate that both myself and my partner have the flexibility at work. But if we were in jobs that didn't have that flexibility – like nurses or teachers or doctors or something like that – it would be a real issue.”

The parent has asked Crux to remain anonymous as their children are enrolled at the centre.

The parent was also not aware of the length of the delay.

“I've been anticipating an email saying, ‘cool, we're good to go, we are going to open next week’. That's the sort of impression that I'm under - that they might be opening literally any day.

“If it’s potentially another nine weeks away, that significantly changes how we're going to need to deal with that.”

The parent was no looking for at-home childcare, but notes it is a more expensive option. They are also considering flying in the children's grandparents from South Africa to help during the anticipated two-month wait, saying "the flight would pay for itself".

"I know some people are really stressing about it financially."

They know of other families who've been more heavily impacted by the delays, and one left scrambling after understanding their children were enrolled at the centre, only to be told by BestStart that their kids weren't on the books.

In general, it’s pretty tough for local families in need of childcare in Queenstown.

Manager of Queenstown Preschool and Nursery Jasmine Singer says demand for childcare is in the “same category” as demand for housing.

She says it's "really heartbreaking" having to turn families away, and recommends families enroll as soon as they’re pregnant if they’re wanting their child to get in before age two.

The centre has noticed an increase in demand since the Covid-19 pandemic, although they don’t think it’s directly related to the virus. But, in that time, two Queenstown childcare centres have closed, and there's been continued migration into Queenstown.

“We thought the opposite would happen (during the pandemic) and families would leave town, but there was actually an influx of families.”

Ministry of Education spokesperson Nancy Bell has confirmed they received an application from BestStart Hanley’s Farm, and her comments suggest the ministry isn't taking a ‘hardline’.

“There have been no changes to the regulations or licensing criteria used by early childhood services. Licensing criteria aren’t discretionary, either services meet the criteria or do not."

Ms Bell says as the application is currently under assessment the ministry is unable to provide further comment.

“This application is currently being considered against the early childhood licensing regulations to confirm it meets all minimum regulatory standards to ensure the health and safety of children attending.”

Ms Hughes says they’ve been told by the ministry they need to replace the existing fence with a 1.8 to two-metre fence, made of timber, spaced with a minimal gap.

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