ECE Diamonds

Helen Orr – early learning is magical

b. 1947

Life member 2007

An active, practical, outdoor childhood in a large, all-girl family, where she never felt limited by her age or gender, helped to shape Helen Orr’s philosophy on education.

Although Helen trained and initially worked as a nurse, her childcare career began when she couldn’t find a centre she was happy to leave her young children – one with knowledgeable staff, a family feeling, and a sense of freedom for children to say and do their own thing, happy, occupied and valued. 

Helen complained to friends in Social Welfare who said, “If you know so much, do it yourself.” Helen had a suitable house and set up a centre in 1971.

“I drew on my childhood experiences a lot. My overall mission for a centre was “family life lifestyle”—not segregated by age, not confined; helping each other and being helped by others.

“I went to courses and joined the Association (now Te Rito Maioha). I met Sonja Davies who said I must train. I enrolled in the Royal Society of Health Childcare Certificate run by the Association. I remember coming back from the first meeting feeling I was not the only woman who feels strongly about things. 

“I couldn’t understand why childcare was under Social Welfare. If kindergartens were funded as education, then why weren’t childcare centres? …I was always selling the view that we weren’t child minding. I did it with a passion.

“I also wondered why the status of people working with young children was not high. [School] teachers were respected and we were teachers in early childhood. I remember being laughed at for saying I saw myself as a facilitator of children’s learning. To me, early learning is magical—that is why I referred to myself as an ELF (Early Learning Facilitator)!”

In 1980, the Association appointed several childcare advisors, including Helen, to visit and support centres to improve their facilities, train staff and build knowledge of children’s needs and the needs of parents and staff.

The 1989 Before Five education reforms brought higher standards with higher funding to pay trained staff. Centres were able to employ more teachers, increase teacher pay, improve ratios and reduce parent fees. 

Then funding got cut by a new Government. There were protests. Helen took children to a protest march down Queen Street with a banner ‘Early childhood comes first for education’.

Helen served as an executive member from 1981–1990 as strong advocate, supporting centre members, branches, and training. In 1983 Helen became supervisor of the Greenlane Hospital Childcare Centre, where she stayed until retirement in 2018.

Helen has witnessed and contributed to many changes in the sector. In 2012 Helen said: “It is exciting to feel we are being valued and not seen at the bottom of the education spectrum but at the beginning. For goodness sake, early childhood comes first. If you don’t get it right in the first five years, everything after is remedial.”

This article is an abridged version from Te Rito Maioha’s book on its life members and their work. You can read Helen's full story and those of other ECE champions:

Life Stories on the Frontline: Growing a childcare movement in Aotearoa
Ngā kohinga kōrero a te aumangea: Kia mana te ara kōhungahunga ki Aotearoa