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"Quality" The Best For Kids

Minimum Licensing and Quality Standards for Early Childhood Services in NZ

By Dr S Alexander
© ChildForum


higher standards for better qualityResearch on quality has focused on four structural features of the early childhood setting that can be controlled (if a government wishes) through regulation.

These are:

  • group size (also known as class size),
  • trained staff,
  • adult-child ratio, and
  • the amount of space per child.  



Current Regulation and Practice:

Group size in a home-based ECE service (also called family daycare) is limited to a maximum of four children aged under six years. 

NZ does not regulate the size of groups in early childhood centres. Centres can be licensed to have up to 150 children (0- 6 years) or 75 babies. This goes against international best evidence on optimal standards for children's development and wellbeing. A baby for example may be cared for by more than three and even up to 20 different adults in an early childhood centre and this is not good for the baby. Click here for more discussion on group size.

What to Look For:   

  • A home-based ECE setting that does not have school aged children also attending.
  • A centre with small group size.
  • Preschool-aged children should not be with more than 30 other children (and preferably fewer than this).  These should be the same children throughout the day.  
  • Infants and toddlers under 2 years should be in groups that are no bigger than 10 (and preferably no more than 8 other children). These should be the same children throughout the day. 
  • The staff or teachers in a group/class should be consistent for the children and not frequently changing. The staff or teachers for a group/class should not be shared with other classes/groups.
  • Children in a group/class should not play and learn in the same playground or other spaces with other classes/groups but have their own rooms and outdoor area. 

Note that a small group of children of mixed ages (under and over-2s) can be better for children for learning from peers and being part of a family grouping than being in a larger group segregated by age.



Current Regulation and Practice

NZ regulations focus on recognising the 'qualification' as opposed to recognising the 'training' undertaken (i.e. a person's skills, abilities, and qualities).  

In teacher-led centres such as kindergartens and childcare centres a minimum of 50% of the people counted in the adult-child ratio are required to hold a teaching qualification recognised by the Education Council for work in an early childhood centre. This means that up to half of the teachers in an early childhood centre may be unqualified. Some children may not be cared for by a qualified teacher because the qualified teachers may be spread throughout a centre or they may spend their time with a particular group of children and not with others, e.g. teachers may be employed to work with preschoolers while unqualified staff are employed to work with the babies.

In home-based ECE services the people daily caring for and teaching children are not legally required to have early childhood training - only their supervisors (visiting teachers also called 'coordinators') are required to hold a recognised teaching qualification.  

In playcentres (also called parent-led services) at least 2 of the adults on duty for the session must have completed courses from the Playcentre Diploma in Early Childhood and Adult Education. There are several combinations of course levels which are approved under the Playcentre licensing agreement with the Ministry of Education.

What to Look For:

Teacher-Led Services such as kindergartens, preschools, home-based education providers, and childcare centres - The highest standard is for centre staff and home-based ECE educators (who are counted for the adult-child ratio) to each hold a recognised diploma or degree for working in an early childhood service setting with children on a daily basis. (At the very least a home-based ECE educator who is not a family member and is (or the agency is) receiving government funding as a licensed service should have completed Level 4 on the NZQA framework for early childhood qualifications but ideally for quality the educator should be fully qualified).

Additionally, an ECE centre may support staff who are in-training and may employ some unqualified staff who have skills (e.g. in music) that the qualified staff do not have. These staff who are not fully trained should be counted as additional to the teacher-child ratio and not as part of it. 

Parent-Led Services - This quality standard for staff training as evidenced by holding a recognised teaching qualification is not relevant to services where parents stay with their children. In playcentres, where parents cooperatively provide the education programme each parent should be learning alongside their child and participating in training or informal mentoring opportunities provided within the service. In the case of children being left by their parents at a parent-led service the adults responsible for them at the service should be trained. 

Cultural Services - There is no research evidence to indicate that a teaching qualification or training in child development is an indicator of quality in services such as Te Kōhanga Reo with a central purpose of language and cultural transmission.  Such services are different from mainstream ECE that is based on western beliefs about children's play and theories of learning and teaching such as that of Piaget and Vygotsky, etc.



Current Regulation and Practice:

NZ regulations specify no more than 4 children to 1 adult in home-based licensed ECE. 

In centres operating for more than four hours a day the ratios are: 5 infants to 1 adult;  up to 6 over 2 year-olds to 1 adult for the first 6 children and 2 adults for up to the first 20 children and then a further adult for each additional 10 children (e.g. 3 adults for up to 30 children, 15 adults for up to 150 children).

For more detailed information including a table showing the ratio requirements click here.

In Playcentres, NZ regulations specify no more than 5 children to each adult. Children aged under 2.5 years must have a parent or familiar caregiver attend with them, who can be one of the 'duty team' for ratio purposes

What to Look For: 

  • In a home-based ECE setting 1 adult to a maximum of 4 children
  • In a centre ideally a ratio of 1 adult to no more than 3 to 4 children aged under 2 years
  • In a centre a ratio of 1 adult to no more than 8 children over 2 years (note that toddlers have high safety needs and greater space for movement is important for toddlers.  Ideally toddlers should have a ratio of 1 adult to no more than 4 to 5 children). 
  • While all adults/ teachers interact with and care for all children in the group, ideally each child should have their own special adult who takes overall primary responsibility for them emotionally, intellectually, physically and knows the child's home learning environment and family well to ensure the ECE services supports and extends children's learning and meets family cultural values and expectations.    



Current Regulation and Practice

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

What to Look For:

In a country like NZ with a relatively small population there is no excuse for an early childhood centre being built to provide the minimum rather than ample space for children. Overcrowding can result easily as ECE services may enrol the maximum number of children they are licensed by the Ministry of Education to have according to the space available rather than going under the licence number.  Also overtime as more furniture etc is added or some children's areas may be placed out-of-bounds or used for other purposes the amount of space available for children's rest, play and learning can be reduced.  

  • Indoor space of at least 3.5 metres- optimally though 5 metresper child is better.
  • Outdoor space of at least 7 metres2 per child
  • Every 12 months, an ECE service should have the size of spaces available to children re-measured and the total amount of space per the maximum number of children attending at any one time recalculated so parents can be provided with a recent calculation of the amount of indoor and outdoor space per child. 


Would you like to know more?  

See and download a free copy of the    pdfGuide to Quality Childcare and Education Services in NZ 

Click here to go a list of research articles and theses on different approaches to defining quality, relationship to policy, and its measurement 

Click here to go to articles on the effects of participation in ECE on children



I observe a few under two year old children in a mixed age setting with free indoor-outdoor flow in the centre I work at and can clearly identify their development, learning, and well-being through peer support. Their learning is also documented through exploration in the environment as well as heuristic play sessions. Invariably they choose their own support teacher when they join and are supported as they settle in. No doubt there are challenges to mixed age settings but strongly feel that toddlers are exposed to quality education if that environment suits them and their whānau. (Cyrus Taraporvala 2015-04-21)


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