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


How Good is the Teaching Children Get in Early Childhood Education?

© ChildForum

Parents who expect their children to receive a good early education need to be aware that not all  teachers are able to teach well and not all services have conditions that allow effective teaching to take place. In some services you can see brilliant examples of effective teaching appropriate to the individual child, and in others teachers are either unable to or don’t have the conditions that allow them to be much more than supervisors or group controllers.

An Australian study reported by the Australian media as portraying the standard of teaching in preschools as ''very poor'' is a wake-up call for New Zealand’s early childhood sector and political leaders.

It was suggested in the media that the standards and teaching in Australian early childhood education services showed children were in many cases experiencing little more than a ‘glorified playgroup’.

“We might see a nice environment, but there is a low level of quality interactions. Staff don’t see the opportunity to teach. It’s a very poor story in terms of the educational content of these programmes,” lead researcher of the E4Kids study, Professor Karen Thorpe told the Sydney Morning Herald.

The researchers observed ‘constant’ missed opportunities for teaching children.

The NZ Government funds places at early childhood services and aims to get more kids participating earlier and for longer hours in the day because early learning is recognised as being important for children’s long-term educational achievement.

However, if the Australian study is anything to go by on Early Childhood Education standards, New Zealand authorities should be more alert and must recognise shortcomings in our various child centres.

In some cases a well-run playgroup may be better because in a playgroup parents are involved, watching, and spending quality time interacting with their child.

ChildForum gets regular complaints from parents who do not like the structured programmes provided in some early childhood centres.

Parents say they are too organised and the teachers are too busy taking photos, and not playing alongside children and interacting with them and letting children be children.

It was reported that the Australian study of 2500 children found that on a scale of one to seven, the quality of instruction for four-year olds - regardless of whether they attend preschool, a childcare centre or family day care - averaged a ranking of just two.

Professor Thorpe said the results of the study were ''shocking''.

Meanwhile, leading experts in early childhood education will attend a national conference, organised by ChildForum, in Wellington at the end of January with a focus on raising the effectiveness of teaching.

Dr Ken Blaiklock, a senior lecturer at UNITEC, will address problems of our national early childhood curriculum not including some crucial learning areas for children and in a separate presentation he will examine major concerns with the method commonly used in centres to assess children’s learning.

Assoc Professor Claire McLachlan from Massey University will discuss the Education Review Office 2011 report findings that many early childhood services are failing young children because of poor literacy teaching practices and policies, and what effective literacy teaching in an early childhood education centre would look like.

Other presenters will cover topics of cultural differences, such as working with immigrant children, child health, such as having edible gardens in ECE centres, and social issues such as young solo fathers with small children.

ChildForum hopes that by laying research on the table and having a critical discussion on learning and teaching in early childhood education, research might begin to filter through to policy level so policy can be developed that will provide the conditions to enable effective teaching to take place.


Failings in the Current NZ Early Childhood Education System


Early childhood centres are becoming more visually attractive to adults and providing a cute looking environment, with artificial turf replacing grass and natural play spaces and fancy learning equipment suitable for only one or two children, thus replacing equipment that encourages social dialogue and group play. However, this kind of environment can be very boring and frustrating for the child attending for more than an hour or two and provides little in the way of opportunities for children and teachers to have shared experiences on which to build learning

Time for Teachers to Get to Know Children Well Enough to Teach Each Child Well

In Centres

  • high number of children – teachers can be caring for as many as 150 preschoolers or 75 babies (prior to 2011 numbers were limited to 50 preschoolers and 25 babies per centre licence);
  • poor ratios – one adult to every five babies attending and one adult to every 10 preschoolers in all-day centres, or one adult to every 15 preschoolers in part-day centres;
  • gaps in the training and knowledge of teachers within a team as only half (50%) of teachers need be qualified and of those who are qualified the quality of their training and ability to put into practice theory and research on effective teaching may be variable; and
  • rarely do teachers visit children at home and get to know their life, behaviour, abilities and interests outside of the centre.

In Home-Based Education

  • teachers work alone often for long hours without breaks; and
  • most have not studied research and theory on effective teaching and do not hold a qualification recognised for teaching young children.

Professional Expectations for Assessment of Children

Not all teachers are given sufficient non-contact time in order to complete child assessments.  It is becoming more common to see a teacher not engaged with children playing around him/her, because she/he is doing observations, writing learning stories, taking photos, and doing portfolios.  Note that the Kindergarten Teachers' Collective Agreement has built into it specified maximums for child contact time (though like other teacher-led services it may possibly be up to individual associations and whether staffing ratios allow for a teacher to have non-contact time whilst carrying out observations and doing assessments of children - this needs to be clarified).  

Structured Programmes

Structured programmes now appearing in some childcare centres and preschools might help in marketing the service to parents but are totally not necessary and may restrict children's development to that prescribed within the boundaries of the programme. They result in top-down teaching and do not require much skill on the part of the teacher to implement.

Regulatory and Inspection System 

An early childhood service may not be visited again by Ministry of Education officials after it receives its initial licence, unless a complaint is laid about a breach in regulation.

The Education Review Office visits once every three years and does not do unannounced spot checks.

No sanctions, other than downgrading a licence, are known to have been applied to under-performing early childhood services.

Checks by reviewers external to the early childhood organisation a teacher works for are not undertaken on the quality of a teacher's teaching.  


Australia is ahead of NZ in having the information provided by the E4Kids Study.  The NZ government has not funded similar research to provide evidence of what needs to be improved.  There are ERO reports, such as on literacy and also on the quality of infant/toddler education which have noted serious shortcomings. There are many small scale research studies by researchers around the country over many years which when put together suggest it is time to go beyond quantity of provision to looking at the quality of children's learning and the actual effectiveness of teaching.  

The Ministry of Education (2003) Quality Teaching Early Foundations: Best Evidence Synthesis sets out characteristics identified through research that indicate and enhance teaching effectiveness. The Synthesis noted at the time that knowledge of best practices outweighs the research available and that more research was needed.  See the link to this below. 

A 1999 University of Otago study led by Prof Anne Smith, looking at infants and toddlers in early childhood education and care centres found that one-third of the children had no joint interaction episodes with teachers during the periods of observation. Should the research be reproduced today quite possibly a similar finding may be made as conditions for children under two years have not changed.  The Commissioner for Children in a recent report pointed to serious shortcomings in regulations and in practices including the need to improve ratios and ensure that in centres with mixed ages the qualified teachers were not with the older children only leaving the unqualified teachers to care for the under-2s. 

The publicly funded New Zealand Council for Educational Research Competent Children research project drew a sample of Wellington children.  See the report 'Competent Children at 5' by Wylie, Thomson and Kerslake Hendricks (1996).  It did not explicitly examine teaching effectiveness but did collect and analyse information on the structural characteristics of service quality and carried out observations of children at services.

At the time the study was undertaken, early childhood teachers were implementing Te Whāriki the national early childhood curriculum.  Assessment of children and doing portfolios were core elements of teacher practice as they are today. Kindergarten teachers were all qualified but at the time ratios were 1:15, as kindergartens operated sessionally. Childcare services tended to have fewer qualified teachers but ratios of 1:10.  The researchers found that smaller group size made a difference to the quality of interaction, with more interactions of a conversational and educational nature, and when only one adult as opposed to two adults were present. Teacher qualification can partly make up for a large licence size/total group size and higher number of children to adults, but not completely.

Here is data from the 'Competent Children at 5' report showing the nature and number of interactions with adults for the children observed:

N*= 1478 
N = 1426 
N = 1422 
Home-Based Edn
N = 385 
No interaction with adult 60% 41% 48% 38%
Group level interaction 15 16 19 4
Conversation 4 9 5 21
Child request for help 3 5 4 7
Minimal intensity 6% 11% 11% 10%
Simple elaborations 10 15 12 17
Intense talk 6 12 5 21
No language extension 17% 29% 24% 32%
Some language extension 6 9 4 16

* = Number of child observations



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