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A Brief History of Te Whare Kōhungahunga o UC | Early Childhood Learning Centre (ECLC)

20 November 2023

In 1986 university staff with young children desperately needed reliable childcare facilities. Read a Brief History of UC's Early Childhood Learning Centre, written by Sheila Walker, its first supervisor.


In 1986 University staff with young children desperately needed reliable childcare facilities. Use of the Student Association's creche was proving unsatisfactory because they could not be guaranteed a place for their children from one year to the next. Jeremy Finn (Faculty of Law), together with a small group of staff, eventually persuaded the Vice-Chancellor of their needs and a University rental house was made available. It became the present Early Childhood Learning Centre in early 1987. The position of Supervisor was advertised and fortunately I was the successful candidate. My CV showed my long experience in the field of early childhood education. My immediate past experience was the establishment of two successful child care centres in Christchurch; firstly at Avonside Girls' High School where I ran a child care unit to facilitate the recruitment of teachers with pre-school children and then the Educational Child Care Centre in Gayhurst Road which operated as a parents' cooperative.

The brief I was given was broad-based. The Centre was due to open in less than six weeks! During this creative set-up time, the University was generous with expenses and also the use of their maintenance staff to make necessary essential internal alterations such as play spaces, special toilet facilities, cloakroom, a sleeping area and a staff room. In addition was the designing of an outside playground. This work brought along a team of parents who worked hard to create a sand-pit to my design; it had to have an internal circular concrete track for toy trucks to use and bench-type seating along the edges. Additional tasks included the erection of equipment sheds and sunshades. Fortunately I was able to purchase all the possible essential equipment that the Centre needed. Whew; it all felt good! I think it was at this point that the Finance Registrar asked to see me and gently suggested that I should now stop whilst I was ahead! The Centre was now fully equipped and opened on time.

The centre was set up to cater for 2-5 year olds and operated in two areas; 2-3 year olds and 4-5 year olds. This worked well because children at these ages have different needs. The University had made it clear to the staff parents that the Centre had to be financially self-supporting, able to cover all daily running costs including staff salaries. A Parents' Committee was elected and the first major task was to set fees for the first term and the conditions under which the Centre would be run. Most of the parents had been using the Student Centre creche on an hourly basis and I now had to convince them that the only system that would give the centre a guaranteed income was based on half-day/full-day or full weekly enrolments. Fees were determined on a daily or weekly enrolment. After the first term's trial this fee system, plus a Government Child Care subsidy, appeared to be satisfactory and we stayed within budget. However we were a little disappointed when the University decided to charge us rent; however the Centre coped. The original staff were all well-qualified and the staff/child ratio was 1:4. The founding staff included Sheila Walker (Director/Supervisor), Mary Harrall and Di Smith who, on my retirement, became the new Coordinating Supervisor. 

By 1990 the existing staff parents were having more children and seeking childcare for their forthcoming babies. Clearly the ECLC needed a dedicated Under Two Unit. I saw this as another challenge and discussed the feasibility of this development with the Parents' Committee. They were obviously all in favour and backed my decision to approach the Registrar. Fortunately there was a spare unoccupied section just behind the Centre and which could be an ideally suited site for an Under-Two Unit.

Next I presented a workable budget to the Registrar and hoped to convince him that if the University built this very much needed unit I could assure the University that it would be self-sufficient. After finding my estimated budget to be sound architects were called in and the rest is history. After the completion of the building, my loyal assistant Di Smith made a special request to the Parents' Committee and the University to have the new Unit dedicated to me as a thank-you for establishing a Child Care Centre second to none. The new Under Two Unit was formally opened by the Vice-Chancellor Prof AD Brownlie on 18th April 1991 and dedicated to the Centre's first Coordinating Supervisor Mrs Sheila Walker. Finally, as we approach the 30 year anniversary of the Centre's opening in April 2017, my congratulations to everyone; staff, parents and the University for ensuring the Centre's future success.

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