ChildForum Office of Pre-Primary Education

ChildForum Office of Pre-Primary EducationLead advisor on early childhood care and education 
National membership 

Publisher of the New Zealand-International Research in Early Childhood Journal


Big and continuing increase in child numbers at centres

© ChildForum

crowd of children2

New statistics show many early childhood centres contain larger numbers of children than ever before. For example, 6 percent of childcare centres now house 100 or more children compared to just four years ago when no centre had more than 50 children attending.

The response to a change in regulation in 2011 allowing operators to increase by up to three times the number of children has been strongest in the private sector which is predominantly for-profit.  

This begs the question as to whether the government now needs to look at implementing maximum class sizes so that any cost saving goes toward ensuring optimal conditions for children's learning and care. 



In 2011, the Education Minister changed the regulations around early childhood education service licences, allowing services to apply for a licence for a maximum number of 150 children, up from the previous 50. The Minister said that it would assist operators to cut costs and reduce paper-work, while aiding government policy to increase child participation in ECE.

crowd of children

The regulation change was made unilaterally by the Education Minister at the time without consultation with the sector.  

It was made without regard for the research evidence on quality environments for young children’s learning. Research shows that children in larger groups display more aggression, have higher rates of sickness and risk of repeated infections, and teachers working with larger numbers of children are more restrictive and controlling, or detached and uninvolved with children than those who work with fewer children. The size of the group can also affect noise levels and the amount of stimulation and confusion children experience.

The change in regulation went against the results of a Ministry of Education survey of parents showing no support for centres to increase licence numbers, but also the thoughts of many in the sector itself.

Surveys carried out by ChildForum showed teachers and early childhood service operators held concerns for the wellbeing of children with worries about the potential for overcrowding, for children to become “just a number”, the service environment becoming too noisy or chaotic and having too many children to develop relationships with. (READ for example a survey report on reactions specific to the licence change)

Prior to 2011, the 50 child maximum acted as the class size limit because NZ has no regulation for group sizes. Today the defacto class size is 150. This is an anomaly given the push for quality education and a desire for small groups among teachers along with the fact that even in a school setting a child is likely to be in a new entrant class of no more than 15 and later a class of no more 30.

While children may be split into room groups, the licence change meant that in services with more than one centre on a site teachers could be moved around to suit the needs of the centre, and children could be grouped differently for example at the beginning and end of the day or during holidays when total numbers are sometimes lower to minimise staffing costs.

For example, a parent responding to a survey on the quality of their child’s early childhood service described how over a Christmas holiday period the children from different rooms were grouped together in one class for the owner to save on staffing costs which caused a negative change in their child’s behaviour and their experience of the centre. Prior to the regulation change in 2011 it would not have been permitted but the centre had relicensed as one big centre for 100 children instead of 3 smaller centres.

There is still no regulation for group sizes within centres, there has been no increase in minimum staffing ratios, the Minister has not met the timeline of 80% qualified teachers by 2010 and government scraped the target of 100% qualified teachers by 2012 - yet there has been a rapid rise in the average number of children in early childhood education centre programmes.  

Go to an article and read more on: Larger numbers now permitted:  why, what this means for group sizes, and strategies that those working with 50+ children can use to minimise the negative impacts on children and ensure optimal group sizes.




Four years on from the regulation change as many as 26 per cent* of all childcare centres now hold licences for more than 50 children and 6 pecent for 100 or more children.

The average licence size number of childcare centres has gone from 35 children in 2010 and 2011 to 46.8 children in 2015* (a 32.2% increase).

*As at the end of October 2015

Table 1 below shows that before the regulation change, kindergartens tended to hold larger licences than childcare centres, but now this is the opposite case. 


TABLE 1. The impact of the regulation change in 2011 on the average licence size number of various centre types

group size 1 chart 

The regulation change also appears to have had no impact on the average licence size of Playcentres, Kindergartens and Te Kōhanga Reo. Why is this? Hee are some ideas:

  1. Perhaps these services have a more community and family purpose whereas childcare centres and those that are run for-proft see value in building or extending centres to be able to enrol more children?
  2. Perhaps while at least some of these services may have space to fit in more children without breaching the minimum regulations for amount of space per child, their organisations may be philosophically opposed to having greater numbers of children per facility?
  3. There may not be such a demand for these services as shown by the fact that there has been little growth in the number of centres in these parts of the sector – but this could also be due to government giving greater value to the commercial childcare model and promoting participation in it.



The greatest increase in child number since 2011 has come within the privately run childcare centre part of the sector (40% increase in the average licence size of a full-day private centre) as opposed to community-based services (a 17% increase).

Table 2 below shows that there used to be no difference between private and community-based all-day childcare centres with both maintaining an average licence size of 35 children but this is no longer the case. Private childcare centres now have an average licence size of 50 children and community-based centres 41 (as at October 2015).

Private childcare centres responded to the law change more quickly than community-based centres. Going on what has happened so far, it does not look likely community-based centres will close the gap and increase licence size numbers to the same level as private childcare centres. 


TABLE 2.  How private and community-based all-day childcare centre operators responded to the 2011 regulation change increasing the permissable maximum number of children per centre

group size 2 chart




If, as the data suggests, it is likely the average number of children will continue to increase as new centres are established for 50+ children and smaller centres struggle to compete and close or are financially forced to increase the number of children they are licensed to have on the premises and decrease the amount of space per child to the bare minimum required by regulation, it begs the question as to whether the government now needs to look at implementing maximum group sizes regulations.

Surveys suggest that the majority of centre operators, including those running for-profit centres would have no issue with legislation for group (class) size.

A 2014 survey of early childhood sector needs by ChildForum showed that introducing regulation for group/class sizes was one of three things the sector wanted most, alongside improving staffing ratios for under-2s and restoring funding for early childhood services employing 100% qualified teachers within minimum staffing ratios.

The Education Review Office also advocates small group sizes for infants and the My ECE website suggests to parents that they look for services that offer for children to be cared for in smaller groups.

ADVICE FOR VOLUNTARILY IMPLEMENTING SMALLER GROUP-SIZES:  Want to know more about how to get the greatest benefits from limiting group size? What are some strategies your centre could implement to reduce the impact on children of being in a centre with many other children? Go to a previous member's article written by ChildForum on this and read people's comments - click here to view 


Where to Now?

There is a need to review current regulation and rules on the way teacher/ child ratios are implemented in light of the increase in larger licences. Currently, the ratios are not supervisory and are calculated across a licence, which could have implications. For example, a service with two buildings of 35 preschoolers each that previously held two separate licences needed eight teaching staff, four in each centre. However under a combined licence for 70 children it would only need seven perhaps leaving not enough staff to adequately look after children in one of the buildings.

With the government’s continued push to increase child numbers in ECE making the sector an attractive one for people looking to run a successful business, it would seem to be more important now than ever to consider putting more emphasis on group sizes and supervisory ratios (as opposed to centre-wide staffing ratio). Then parents could be sure that their child is being put first, and financial gains possibly made by operating a larger centre are not at the expense of quality of education and children’s welfare.

To discuss, put forward your ideas and have your say by commenting below.

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