ECE Diamonds

Margaret Lamb – a slow battle to improve childcare

Margaret Lamb at Southland Community Crēche

Life member 1990
President 1977-1981

A school teacher and mother who’d set up her own kindergarten in Auckland, Margaret Lamb was one of our great battlers for change, helping to win over politicians that had traditionally rejected childcare. But, as she learned, it was to be long battle with many setbacks.

In 1973, Margaret was so inspired by her first conference of the NZ Association of Childcare Centres and the vision to improve childcare, that she formed an Auckland branch of the Association. A core group of members ran workshops, sharing support and ideas for improvement, attracting upwards of 100 people.

“We were horrified by ghastly conditions in some centres. We tried to encourage people to change their methods. Children were neglected. The way in which children were spoken to was awful. There was no appreciation of child development or of parents.”

There were wider issues. There were major problems with childcare regulations. Childcare was still largely unfunded, still disapproved of by many, and regarded as social welfare rather than education. 

Determined to make change, Margaret joined the executive and became president. Margaret also joined the National Party thinking, “Right, if you can’t beat them you join them.” 

“I would trot along to Party meetings and talk about childcare to these highfalutin people with beautiful clothes and beautiful homes. I always supported full daycare, but I was acceptable because I ran a private kindergarten… and they could see that I wasn’t a “burn a bra” feminist.”

When Social Welfare officials told her not to rock the boat, she recalled: “A bit of me grew up and realised what a great big slow battle it was to improve childcare. I was at a meeting and said, “I’ll take it to Rob Muldoon.” He listened and responded. Even he was aware the mood was changing. The barriers were broken down slowly. … Sonja had been wonderful, but you had two political forces — the Labour Party almost embracing childcare, against the National Party that had not.”

The political and public mood slowly changed through the 1970s and 1980s. Professionalism in childcare grew rapidly. During Margaret’s time as president, the Association received its first grants for field-based training and set up its own qualification. When she stepped down, Margaret moved into advising and training for the Association. 

In the late 1980s, the Labour Government launched the Before Five reforms, positioning childcare within education and setting a path to major improvements in funding, quality and access. But when the National Government won the next election, many of these improvements were wound back.

“That was another learning point: what is printed doesn’t always get implemented. It’s been soul destroying. This is what is so terrifying with politics. One group of politicians said, “Yes you can, and we will give it to you.” The next lot come in and say, “We won’t give it to you.”

This article is an abridged version from Te Rito Maioha’s book on its life members and their work. You can read Margaret’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