2014, Volume 17, Special Issue: Early Childhood Policy

Mapping Policies and Pathways in Early Childhood Education: A Note from Aotearoa New Zealand

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Gibbon, A., & Farquhar S. (2014). Mapping policies and pathways in early childhood education: A note from Aotearoa New Zealand. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal.  Special Issue: Early Childhood Policy, 17, 1 - 10.


Invited Country Note

Mapping Policies and Pathways in Early Childhood Education: A Note from Aotearoa New Zealand

Andrew Gibbons and Sandy Farquhar
Auckland University of Technology and University of Auckland



In 1988 the future of early childhood education in Aotearoa New Zealand was mapped out by two documents: Education to be More (Meade, 1988) and Before Five (Department of Education, 1988). The former, a ground-breaking report to government, and the latter, the responding government agenda, have significantly shaped policy strategies for the purpose, nature and provision of education of children ‘before five’ years of age. This country note traces some of the policy directions that were made possible by a coherent national vision and a strong sense of direction. In surveying the current terrain of early childhood policy in Aotearoa we reflect on the historical policy events that continue to influence early childhood education today, and outline a few of the continuing and persistent challenges that are likely to lead, and at times threaten, future development. Our discussion of these challenges reflects a need for policy makers to engage more strongly in understanding the challenges and supporting the early childhood education community – a community which, we believe, is critical to the welfare of the nation.

Key words: Government policy; politics; funding; teacher qualification; teaching; teacher education; Māori participation.


The pathway years, 2000 to almost 2012

In the first section of this article, we go back to the dawn of the millennium – a busy period in early childhood policy development. A Labour-led government had reconnected to its pre-1991 commitments in Education to be More, with the updated 21st century language of strategic ‘pathways’, assessment and professionalisation (Ministry of Education, 2002, 2004a/b). This government reconnection rather than continuation was in part a reflection of the 1991 ‘mother of all budgets’ that slashed funding to early childhood education (and to most other areas of education and social policy). The effects of Budget 1991 were devastating for early childhood education – effectively crippling any thorough-going implementation of the Before Five policies. By the beginning of the 21st century, though, social infrastructure and spending were on the government agenda again, albeit for a short time. The Labour-led government’s policy directions for early childhood, guided by a research-informed strategic plan (Ministry of Education, 2002), was held with strong positive regard by the early childhood sector.

The Early Childhood Education Strategic Plan Working Group set up in 2000 involved a nationwide consultation process reflecting Aotearoa’s “long tradition of community involvement and provision” (Meade & Podmore, 2002, p. 29). Out of this process, the Ministry of Education published the strategic plan for early childhood, Pathways to the Future: Ngā Huarahi Arataki (Ministry of Education, 2002) which articulated a ten-year plan for the sector. The plan expressed the Government’s view that the early years were critical to later academic and vocational success and would contribute to the future economic health of the nation through the availability of ‘dawn to dusk’ care (Clark, 2005). Strategies for implementing the plan involved a complex mix of approaches: funding, regulating, informing and supporting. Effectively, this led to increased funding rates to all teacher-led services, the implementation of study grants for student teachers, the introduction of qualified staffing incentives for centres, equity funding grants, a review of existing regulations, a review of the role of the early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996), increased professional development funding, and the establishment of teacher-researcher partnerships through the creation of the ‘Centres of Innovation’ scheme. The Ministry of Education also rationalised and regulated support providers and integrated the Early Childhood Development Department responsible for parenting programmes into the Ministry of Education, as well as developing a series of on-going evaluations of policy.  

Throughout this period, rapid professionalisation of the early childhood sector ensued with a move toward registration of all early childhood teachers; development of the sociocultural assessment guidelines Kei Tua o te Pae (Ministry of Education, 2004a); pay parity for kindergarten teachers with primary teachers; the requirement that all early childhood centres have fully qualified teachers by 2012; and the funding of a wide range of professional development and innovative practice schemes. In addition, the Ministry developed Professional Standards for Kindergarten Teachers (Ministry of Education, 2004b) acknowledging the importance of professional, pedagogical and strategic leadership and giving further legitimacy to pay parity with primary school teachers. In July 2007, 20 hours free early childhood was introduced. Also in 2007 the New Zealand Curriculum was published, arguably providing a stronger possibility of coherence between early childhood curriculum and the national curriculum through recognition of a more holistic approach to the nature of curriculum, particularly through the development of key competencies (Ministry of Education, 2007). Professionalisation of the sector, along with the increased funding and attention by government, was interpreted as an indicator of support for early childhood education fitting within the wider context of ‘family friendly’ social policy (Farquhar & Gibbons, 2010).

While not without critique and shortfalls, there was an optimistic picture of policy developments during the first decade of the 21st century. Generally any criticisms were based on concerns about the fairness of policy for the many different stakeholders in the early childhood sector; the ways in which some pedagogical practices were becoming quite dogmatically or even religiously applied and evaluated across a very diverse sector; the role of economic thinking in the development of care and education policy; and the ways in which policy might impinge on the business of early childhood education. Strategic incentives were devised to ameliorate some of these concerns.


Revisions and retrenchments, 2008-2013 

This section of the paper focuses on the change of policy direction within the contexts of a new government, earthquakes and an international fiscal crisis. We discuss some of the revisions and retrenchments that have occurred across the sector and then examine some of the current challenges and constraints.

In 2008 the National Party returned to Government and has maintained a strong position in Parliament. Within weeks of assuming power, the National government redirected the early childhood regulatory and policy environment albeit with relatively familiar stated aims to ‘improve staff ratios, tackle the early childhood teacher shortage, cut bureaucracy, and boost participation rates in ECE’ (Bennett, 2008). Implications for early childhood education have been dramatic.

Within its first term of office, the government increased group size without sector consultation; reduced the requirements for 100% fully-qualified teachers to 80% qualified; relaxed the rules around adult-child ratios; and removed the word ‘free’ from 20 free hours signalling that the government recognised services would also be charging optional charges. Funding was cut to professional development programmes and to the Centres of Innovation practitioner research programme. Targeted funding was introduced to encourage ECE providers to open up centres and provide more places for Māori and Pacific Island children. An initiative for national screening of children’s behaviour was promoted, supported and then rebranded as the Positive Behaviour for Learning Programme (PB4L). This government-funded programme was one of the few programmes to receive 2013 budget support. PB4L is expected to support schools, centres and parents through managing children’s behaviour. The programme, like High Scope in the United States, uses long term cost benefit analyses to argue that early intervention into a child’s learning and behaviour is likely to reduce later costs associated with a dysfunctional adulthood.

During this period, two major and tragic earthquakes struck the Canterbury region, the second levelling the central city and taking 185 lives. The earthquakes led to significant policy concerns for the Ministry of Education in relation to rationalising and resourcing the educational infrastructure. The closing of schools met with considerable resistance by a city reeling from the devastation and looking for stability rather than major structural developments of the educational provisions in the region. The Government promoted the use of early childhood education and care to support families in staying in the region, and to support early childhood education providers at risk of closing from low rolls.

A global economic crisis added further to a general retrenchment taking place, destabilising the pattern of growth in social policy areas under the former Labour-led government. Within this environment, the jury is still out on how well early childhood policy develops over the next few years. As part of a globalised world economy, the Government recognises the importance of early years education to its economic and social development. However, the importance and value of meaningful dialogue and consultation with wide representation from the sector has been undermined by policy, resourcing and a shift in government perception and support of the professional status of early childhood teaching.  This concern is developed in the final of three policy challenges outlined and discussed in the last section of this article.


Three continuing and persistent challenges

We have selected three broad areas of challenge for discussion: Māori participation, teaching life and teaching the teachers. These are interconnected policy contours that have suffered from a loss of strategic direction. The purpose of the following discussion is an attempt to recover lost ground and to reinvigorate a sense of direction for early childhood education. Additionally the purpose is to re-invoke the spirit of Education to be More as a worthwhile legacy of participatory democracy for all education in Aotearoa.


Māori ‘participation’

Government’s present focus on ‘participation’ in early childhood education specifically targets increasing Māori participation in early childhood services in association with the Māori education strategies Ka Hikitia (Ministry of Education, 2008; 2013). There are concerns as to the extent to which this strategy is driven by, and able to realise, a commitment to tino rangatiratanga. For instance the attention to increased Māori presence in education settings requires levels of commitment and understanding of te Ao Māori that many centres find very difficult (see for instance Meade at al., 2012).  The extent to which the bicultural intentions of Te Whāriki are being honoured is questioned (Colbung, Glover, Rau & Ritchie 2007; O’Loughlin, 2013). In 2012, The Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal upheld a claim by the National Trust against the Government on the basis that teaching qualifications discriminated against Māori knowledge and practice through the funding mechanisms that favoured ‘mainstream’ teacher education providers however until the 2013 publication of the second iteration of Ka Hikitia, and arguably the 2012 publication focusing on supporting future-oriented learning (Bolstad, et al., 2012) there had been little attention to systemic change that reflects an increasing accountability of the Ministry of Education to the Treaty. It is important to acknowledge the development of Te Whatu Pōkeka and Tātaiako: Cultural Competencies of Teachers of Māori Learners as significant steps towards systemic change. However as much of the initial rhetoric for increasing Māori participation in education was couched in new right economic discourse it is vital to remain critical of the underpinning assumptions that shape the direction of Māori education strategies.


Teaching life

While the Ministry is hearing that “higher quality across the sector needs to be continued through greater professionalism – as measured by qualifications of service staff” (ECE Taskforce, 2011, p. 4), a baseline minimum qualification for all early childhood teachers has been constantly thwarted by extension of timelines in which this minimum is to be achieved. The National government quickly dropped the 100% qualified regulation that was in place for 2012 and it is yet to be reinstated. Furthermore funding caps/bands have hamstrung centres’ abilities to employ all fully-qualified teachers. The complexity of this issue includes on-going tensions around the nature of a quality teacher, a quality teacher education, and the ways in which these contribute to quality in a centre. Alongside this issue are other on-going persistent challenges: high attrition and low staff retention rates of teachers; inadequate support and induction processes; low social and career status of early childhood education and early childhood educators; and unacceptable levels of teacher burnout (Aitken & Kennedy, 2007). The effects of these issues extend to centre owners and managers who are vitally involved in managing these issues on a daily basis, juggling structural difficulties in day-to-day working life, inadequate sector funding, inadequate teacher-child ratios, limited ‘non-contact’ time, limited early career mentoring and limited teacher professional development. Such multiple challenges must impact on the education of young children and the ability of the sector to adequately support parents and families. The extent of these challenges and their implications for children, families and society remain largely unknown and require further research and analysis, particularly as a prevailing government message is that early education is a cure-all for societal ills. One of four key areas identified in an action plan for vulnerable children was to increase ‘quality’ participation in early childhood education: “We know there is a link between early childhood experiences and adult chronic illness, mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, poor educational outcomes and unemployment….The human and financial costs of not facing up to these challenges are too high” (Ryall, Parata & Bennett, 2012).

Clearly, the quality outcomes sought by government are not being achieved. The professionalism of teachers is vital to on-going improvements in early childhood quality, and this needs to be addressed by government to secure its investment. 


Teaching the teachers

A recent working party report A Vision for the Teaching Profession (2010) recommended lifting the teaching qualification benchmark to a postgraduate qualification for primary and secondary graduating teachers. There was, however, no mention of early childhood teacher education in the report. In subsequent developments of post graduate initial teacher education qualifications, early childhood was also overlooked.1

The ECE sector in Aotearoa has a strong global reputation in terms of curriculum development, most notably through the document Te Whāriki and the development of assessment practices that support this document. ECE academics and graduates of this country’s teacher education have an international reputation that should be regarded as an investment to enhance through the development of postgraduate qualifications. Inclusion of ECE in discussions and development of the PG ITE would also be consistent with the Government’s strategic visions for an inclusive education sector that provides choice for prospective students and for graduates.

All student teachers will be enhanced by the continuance of teacher education partnerships between, in particular, primary and ECE and also secondary and ECE. A feature of the ECE sector is its ability to maintain and develop strong connections and partnerships with communities throughout Aotearoa. This key contribution supports the Government in its strategic aims for educational outcomes of targeted communities.

Furthermore, ECE scholarship and professional practice provides an important contribution to the future of primary and secondary teacher education and this contribution will be diminished by a separation of teacher education pathways. This concern is most evident in the document Supporting Future-oriented Learning and Teaching: A New Zealand Perspective (Bolstad et al., 2012), which is symbolic of a failure to acknowledge the contribution of early childhood practice and theory to the challenging of teacher-centred pedagogies, narrowly constructed and standardised assessment tools, disconnected school-community relations, and prescriptive standardised curricula. In other words, while the government appears to be more open to many of the educational principles that have been actively developed by the ECE profession, it is unwilling to either recognise or support that on-going development.

If future policy is to take seriously its contemporary aims of “creating educationally productive connections” (Marshall-Lobb, Ngatai, & Meha, 2009, p. 13) and building “our education system and the curriculum around the learner rather than the learner having to fit the system” (Parata, 2012, p. iii) then it should take seriously the sector that has worked tirelessly to achieve these goals.

These contributions can and should be experienced as a wider education sector reflects a growing awareness that sectorial thinking is archaic. The notion of learning communities and networks encourages interconnections rather than divisions and these should be experienced during teacher education. The inclusion of ECE in the PG ITE development ensures that a strong framework for leadership of the profession is maintained, supporting research, governance and professional development.




In this brief paper we have considered two decades of significant policy change in early childhood education. These are years which have seen early childhood education take a more prominent position in education in both curriculum and pedagogical developments. It has also been a time where locally and globally the politics of early childhood moved onto formal regulatory and policy agendas. On the eve of government change five years ago, Helen May suggested that it was timely, “irrespective of the future political direction, to develop a new strategic plan underpinned by some ‘serious’ debate” (May, 2008, p. 4) on what it means to genuinely ‘participate’ in early childhood education.

Serious debate and inclusive and participatory policy development are essential to early childhood education, not the least because of the many different and sometimes contending positions that are evident in the sector. The purpose of such debate is to develop policy that remains open, that acknowledges the concerns around, for instance, methods of assessment or qualification pathways, and that recognises these differences and tensions as the very elements that have enabled a productive early childhood education community that has been of much interest around the world. Our challenge to policy actors is to more actively embody the kinds of responsive and reciprocal dialogue that is a critical element of the early childhood curriculum in Aotearoa.


1. In 2013 early childhood academics, supported by Deans of Faculties of Education throughout the country, united in lobbying the government to ensure Ministry of Education funded trials of postgraduate initial teacher education do not marginalise early childhood education.



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About the Authors

Andrew Gibbons is an associate professor of early childhood education at Auckland University of Technology. He teaches in undergraduate early childhood and primary teacher education programmes and postgraduate philosophy of education papers. He is co-editor of the Encyclopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory. Andrew’s research interests include the philosophy of early childhood education, the nature and experience of professionalisation, the work of Albert Camus, and the philosophy of technology. 

Sandy Farquhar is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education, University of Auckland. She teaches in early childhood teacher education and liberal arts programmes. Her research interests range across policy, curriculum and pedagogy. Her current research is with newly-qualified early childhood teachers.



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