An agenda for raising the quality of early childhood education in NZ

Sarah Alexander 2018By Dr Sarah Alexander
(Ph.D., M.A(hons)., B.A., Higher Dip Teaching, Kindergarten Dip, Montessori Dip (dist) London)

This article extends on one originally published by the NZ Herald, 3 March 2017.


There's a need to speak out about the quality of children's care and early education in our country.

We have a strong early childhood system. It is an integrated system providing both care and education.(1)  Around 200,000 children attend ECE. Public education expenditure devoted to ECE was 14% in 2015, up from 6.4% in 2002. New parents returning to work can usually quickly get a place at an early childhood service as supply is good. Furthermore, the stigma around using childcare has almost disappeared in our society - such is the strength of the presence in numbers of early childhood services across the country and the value successive governments have given to promoting the use of ECE.

But there has been no clear policy direction or plan when it comes to quality and government has been getting a number of things wrong.

Fortunately there is hope that government may start to get things right for quality.  Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced in February 2018 that the government is starting a work programme to champion a high quality public education system. A part of this will involve the development of an ‘Early Learning Strategic Plan’ to build on ‘Pathways to the Future: the 10 Year Strategic Plan for ECE’ commenced in 2002 and discontinued in 2009.    

The question now is whether the government will show that it is responsive to making ECE the best it can be for children or will it be guided by other stakeholder and political interests?  

There are 12 problems for the quality of early childhood education for children, and these are to do with:

  1. Children’s rights and interests
  2. Child numbers
  3. Adult to child ratios
  4. Qualified teachers
  5. Gender discrimination
  6. Space per child
  7. ECE participation / life balance
  8. Knowing children
  9. Teacher wellbeing
  10. Accountability and transparency
  11. Community ownership and participation
  12. Valuing care and education

Any new strategic plan must address and not glide over or ignore the problems currently affecting quality for children. (It does seem strange though to hold off making changes until a Strategic Plan is developed when the Government has power to make some improvements now)


First Problem – Children’s rights and interests

Regulations and mandatory criteria are brought in and decisions made regarding policy and funding without a proper process of checking or independent audit of how children will be affected and their parents/ caregivers. 

Alarm bells ring when teachers share their concerns about ECE becoming akin to something more like factory farming and parents are told that their child has to attend an ECE service for at least 15 hours a week or they will lose half of their benefit money. The Ministry of Education uses production and sales language such as staff "on the floor" and ECE is viewed by commercial investors as being a highly profitable ‘industry’ to get into whilst ECE providers committed to high quality can find it a struggle to maintain quality teacher-child ratios and pay teachers the wages they are worth.


Put children's rights and interests at the heart of ECE policy, management and administration.

Have all decisions and policies independently audited to assess whether good for children and families and likely impacts. 

Key reference material:  See the My ECE Code of Children's Rights in ECE.  Also see the sections on the holistic nature of ECE and the rights of the child in the Meade (1988) report "Education to be More". 


Second Problem - Large child numbers

In 2011 the government increased the maximum centre licence size of 50 children to 150 children, and from 25 babies to 75 in order to reduce costs for ECE providers and enable providers to expand capacity.  At the time many in the sector were opposed to the change because it was believed to not be in children's best interests. (Read more) The early opposition seems to have been justified.

Today, large child numbers and a lack of regulation for group size is a significant concern. Several surveys of teacher views about quality and workplace issues have uncovered concerns related to large child numbers including unsafe noise levels, over-crowding, and difficulty finding time to form relationships with individual children.


Regulation that specifies maximum group sizes must be introduced with urgency – or, the law change that resulted in centres being able to increase licence size beyond 50 children must be reversed.

I define group size as the specific number of children grouped together within a service who interact together with the same teacher or teachers in an assigned area or classroom. (Go to more explanation about group size)


Third Problem - Adult to child ratios

Looking at the first set of Child Care Centre Regulations introduced in 1960 I see that the minimum ratio was 1 adult to every 5 children under 2 years. The ratio for over-2s was 1 adult to every 10 children. This is the same today.  So nearly 60 years later there has been no improvement in the regulated adult-child ratio. (Read more about ratio requirements)

However, early childhood centres are much busier places today with more demands placed on staff. Teachers must follow and implement a nationally prescribed curriculum. They must also assess children's learning and document it. The maximum permitted number of children in centres has tripled from 50 to 150 creating more demanding environments for teachers to work in. Teachers are required to do a large amount of documentation and engage in ongoing professional development.  

Ideally a service should operate on ratios that are better than 1:10 for over 2s and 1:5 for under 2s. Children and their teachers are both at increased risk when a service runs on minimum/skeletal ratios, especially as conditions are not always perfect – for example when a child is hurt and needs one to one care or a staff member becomes unwell during the day and a replacement cannot be found quickly enough. (Read more)

There is evidence, by way of teacher reports, that service owners and operators may not always have a clear understanding of when an adult must not be counted as being within ratio. Children can be left without adequate supervision when teachers are performing other duties or on breaks. (Read more


Increase the minimum adult-child ratios specified in the regulations.

Fund the Ministry of Education to provide face-to-face education to service owners and managers on the rules around when adults count and don't count as being within ratios.

Fund the Ministry of Education to regularly visit services unannounced and check for compliance with ratios.


Fourth Problem - Qualified teachers

If as the Minister of Education intends, early childhood services are to support children's learning and be effective in this regard then not having qualified teachers in ratio in teacher-led services is a major quality issue. 

Under governnment regulation, teacher-led centres are not required to have more than 50 percent early childhood education trained and qualified teachers within ratios on the floor (working with children). There was a government target of 100 percent early childhood qualified teachers but this was withdrawn in 2011 and is yet to be reinstated. (For more political discussion see: "Do qualified teachers matter")   

There is no legal requirement for Home-based ECE agencies to employ qualified teachers to work with children so a significant number of children are taught by unqualified teachers because they attend home-based ECE. Much of the home-based sector relies on self-employed contractors. Those who are qualified teachers find that their qualification is not recognised for the purpose of teacher registration/ certification because they work in home-based. (For moe political discussion see the 2012 news story on the review of Home-based ECE)


Reinstate the target of 100% ECE qualified teachers in teacher-led centres. Set a date by which 100% ECE qualified and certificated teachers will become regulation. (In-training and unqualified teachers treated as additional to the minimum ratio requirement). 

Require licensed home-based agencies to employ ECE qualified and certificated teachers and not have unqualified carers responsible for children.  

Instruct the Education Council [update: since this article was written it has been renamed as the 'Teaching Council') to recognise the teaching qualifications of home-based ECE teachers for the purpose of teacher certification/ registration and renewal.


Fifth Problem - Gender discrimination

In 1992 the percentage of male early childhood teachers in teacher-led services was 2.3% and it has not been higher than this since.  In 2015, just 2% of early childhood teachers in teacher-led services were males. (Read about reasons, causes and advocacy) The government needs to act to get an increase in the proportion of men to women in early childhood teaching. This must go hand in hand with the introduction of anti-discriminatory measures and monitoring, for example, to ensure that no ECE provider allocates tasks or restricts teaching activities on the basis of a teacher’s gender.

Why is gender balance in the ECE workforce important?  Because the children attending ECE are at a very impressionable age when they are developing their gender identity and learning about social roles. The inclusion of men on the teaching staff alongside women enables all children to learn early on that girls aren’t necessarily destined only to fill a traditional role and there’s no reason why boys can’t aspire to be early childhood teachers. As an OECD (2017) report on ECE states: “a reinforced male presence is critical to counter traditional views of women in child-rearing positions, and to the extent that school and learning remain gender neutral”.

International research shows that the presence of male teachers at early childhood services makes a difference to children’s performance in maths and language in the early years of school. A nationwide survey of the early childhood sector by ChildForum in 2012 showed strong support for the Ministry of Education and the Government to act to increase the proportion of men in teaching. (Read more)


Education officials must receive training in unconscious gender bias. 

Every ECE provider and management contact person for an ECE service must complete training in unconscious gender bias.

ECE regulation and criteria must be revised to reflect anti-discrimination principles and expectations. The Ministry of Education must monitor ECE service policies and practices for sexism and bias.

A target of at least 5 percent male teachers in ECE by 2022 must be set by the Government. As part of this, a well-thought out effective recruitment and promotion campaign should be commenced before the end of 2018.


Sixth Problem - Space per child

The minimum space requirements per child are insufficient. NZ regulations specify minimum space for licensed centres as 2.5 metres2 per child indoors and 5 metres2 outdoors.  In licensed home-based services the minimum indoors is 10 metresin one area and there is no stated minimum amount of outdoor space. (Read more about the issue of space and overcrowding by clicking here)

But young children need a lot of space for movement and to be able to play uninterrupted by others when they wish. Space is measured and approved by the Ministry of Education only at centre-based services and at the time of licence application, unless a change in the centre’s licence is requested then the amount of space may be recalculated. Over the months and years that follow, more furniture may be added, new room dividers may go in, some rooms may be closed off at different times of the day and not available to children, and the purpose that rooms are used for can change – all of which has potential to shrink the original amount of space available to children.

The space that young active children get is a lot less than the average office space occupied by workers. A 2016 report by Colliers found that Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington workers occupy on average 18.5 metres2, 18.1 metres2 and 16.2 metres2 office space each.


Regulation on space must be reviewed and the minimum amount of space per child increased for both indoors and outdoors.

A new requirement should be introduced that would see the Ministry of Education or an independent verifier undertake a yearly check on the amount of indoor and outdoor space per child at each home and centre setting to ensure that space available to children does not fall below the minimum standard.


Seventh Problem - ECE participation / life balance

Like adults, children do best when they experience a good life - work (ECE participation) balance.

But there are at least two barriers to this: first is pressure on parents to leave their child at ECE even when sick, and second is the way funding acts as a mechanism to get ECE providers to maximise child hours of attendance.

A fraught issue between services and families, especially over winter, is sick children attending and passing on illnesses to other children and teachers. Parents are often caught between a rock and a hard place because they are still charged for ECE when their child does not attend and the number of paid sick days they get from work is limited.

Funding is geared to children who attend ECE full-time. For example, part-day ECE services are paid at a significantly lower funding rate. (Read more)  A loophole in the 20-hours ECE funding scheme enables service providers to require parents to enrol for as many as 10 hours a day to access their entitlement to 6 free hours a day and up to 20 hours a week. (Read more

International research evidence shows that participation beyond 12 - 15 hours a week does not necessarily result in greater developmental benefits for children. On the other hand, too much time spent in ECE, especially beyond 30 hours a week, can be detrimental to parent-child attachment, elevate children's stress levels and result in children displaying more aggressive and negative behaviour (unless there is good awareness of the risk and this is carefully managed, e.g. a service successfully duplicates the best aspects of the home environment such as small group size and loving care). (Read more)  


The lower per hour per child funding rate for services that offer part-day education sessions must be made the same as the per hour full-day rate. This would remove the financial incentive for ECE providers not to offer sessional services.

The funding system needs to be redesigned to give families’ choice, flexibility and more say over the hours that their child attends ECE.

Other ways of providing ECE could also be funded such as meeting the cost to services of providing teaching and learning resources for parents to use with children at home.


Eighth Problem - Knowing children 

The majority of children in ECE attend teacher-led services and the majority of children are left by their parents or caregivers in the care of the service. Currently few early childhood services are known to support teachers to visit new children at home, to see them in their natural context and establish a closer partnership with parents than would otherwise be possible. To teach effectively teachers need an in-depth knowledge and understanding of each child. All teachers need to build links between the different socialisation settings for children. It is important to know about children’s experiences and learning in their different socialisation settings and to establish shared goals and cultural match. (Read more). 


The Education Ministry must advocate home-visiting and provide guidance to service providers on management of staffing so that home-visiting becomes an accepted part of every teacher’s job.

A home-visit should occur within the first few weeks of each child’s enrolment and at least yearly while the child remains at the service.  


Ninth Problem - Teacher wellbeing 

When teachers work conditions are poor this has a flow-on effect on teacher retention, continuity of care for children, and the quality of teaching and learning. The Ministry of Education must step in and not be hands-off when it comes to teacher employment issues and ensuring all ECE service providers are good employers.  It must stop discounting reports of serious workforce issues (e.g. see survey results on teacher stress, injury, and bullying). 


The Ministry of Education must work with teacher representatives, health and safety and employment experts and researchers to identify and implement strategies to improve teacher safety and wellbeing and monitor ECE provider employment practices (e.g. educating ECE providers on what bullying looks like, how to respond it, and how to eliminate it). 


Tenth Problem - Accountability and transparency

While teachers today are subject to a fairly rigorous level of accountability and transparency through the process of getting and retaining a practising certificate and can be reported and publicly named for misconduct with this placed permanently on their record, the same is not true of service providers.

The lack of accountability of ECE providers is supported by the Ministry of Education which is yet to accept its public responsibility for transparency. It has refused for a number of years to release information on complaints of a serious nature that have been upheld against a service, the name of the service, and what has been done to ensure that the incident or problem leading to the complaint does not occur again. It does not issue warnings or make findings available to other ECE providers to learn from or prevent similar from happening at their service.

The Ministry is failing to meet its civic duty to make known the names of ECE services that it places on provisional licences or other actions it takes against services that breach regulations. The Ministry allows ECE providers to open new services even when a provider is under investigation for breaching licensing conditions or is known to have done this recently. (Read more)


An independent body with teeth (power and authority) is needed to deal with provider misconduct which is open and requires automatic referral of providers by the Ministry of Education and other government departments.

Conduct standards need to be set by the independent body and each service provider required to show how it is meeting these. (For an example see the My ECE, Code of Ethical Conduct for Early Childhood Services)    


Eleventh Problem - Community ownership and participation

Funding policies over the past decade have favoured the growth of private and commercial early childhood services on a large scale while the proportion of small services based on community participation and support has decreased.  We are at the tipping point where private/ commercial services will become the majority. This is of concern because unless some correction is made it is probable that families will lose the choice of community based services within the ECE sector. (For more political discussion click here)


What support is currently provided by the Ministry of Education for community based services needs to be reviewed to identify and then put into place strategies and funding specifically aimed at assisting community-based services to be sustainable.


Twelfth Problem – Valuing care and education

Education and care is fading from being the defining purpose of early childhood services. Should education (including care) not be kept at the forefront of what early childhood services are about there will be serious implications for the quality of the sector, and the quality of children’s experiences and learning outcomes.

Without explanation and justification the Ministry of Education and the office of the Minister of Education have redefined the role of services and the capability of services as "early learning". This signals a down-grading of recognition of early childhood services from being for child education (care and teaching and learning) to being about one component only and that is learning. It also suggests an official view of early childhood services as being lesser than schools and in a state of ‘learning’.

Childcare advocates fought hard to have childcare brought within the administration of the education system alongside free kindergartens and schools, instead of sitting within the social welfare system. It was successfully argued that all early childhood services are places of education and that the quality of the education provided for young children matters, leading to the development of a qualified workforce, a national curriculum, and so on.  

Note that: children can learn anywhere and at any time from anyone, with anyone or by themselves whereas education is something that is planned and organised and includes teachers who provide opportunities for thinking, problem-solving, creativity, social bonding and friendships, etc. With children so young, care is part and parcel of providing education. 


Ministry of Education officials, ministerial advisers and press release writers must evaluate their use of language and receive training on the history and philosophy of early childhood education and care.


In conclusion...

We have a strong ECE system in NZ.  But as discussed above if the government is serious about quality there are a number of things that the former and earlier governments have been getting wrong that need to be changed.

Should Education Minister Chris Hipkins want to achieve an early childhood education system of high quality for children then a good starting point would be to attend to fixing the problems as mentioned above. 

The new Strategic Plan must not ignore and should acknowledge these problems and detail what will be done to fix these if these have not been fixed by the date of the Plan’s release.



(1)While the system is strong it has one weakness - programmes such as HIPPY and Family Start are not within the early childhood education and care (ECE) umbrella. Playcentre is an early childhood service with a valuable parent education function but this is not given the importance in policy that it should have.


About the author

Dr Sarah Alexander is a leading expert, researcher and adviser, on early childhood education quality, management and policy. Her past work includes researching and reporting on the practical effects on centres of the Before Five 1989 – 1990 education reforms, contracted by the Ministry of Education. She was also the author of the Best Evidence Synthesis on effective teaching in ECE, one of the first of three BESs to be published in the Ministry of Education's internationally acclaimed BES programme. 


See also the articles: 

Impending Government Review of the Early Childhood 'Market" 

Details about the Minister's proposals for an 'Early Learning' Strategic Plan 


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