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The Best Start.
Dr Sarah Alexander.
Speaker at the Education Leaders Forum 2017 “Life passages and learning paths”.
Rotorua, 23 – 24 August 2017.  


There has been a social and political shift from viewing parents as neglecting their children if they are in paid employment and use childcare to regarding them as harming their child’s future if they don’t. With more than 96% of children in licensed educational care services before they start school we need to consider more closely how this actually affects children. How much participation is too much, too little, too early, too late, is the quality right? As children progress through the school years and become young adults how can we be sure they have had the best start and what else could be done to make this possible?

This session will be part commentary and part discussion of evidence from the NZ longitudinal studies and other research, education and social policy, and experience within education.

Speech – What We Have and What’s Needed for the Best Start

Sarah Alexander
Dr Sarah

State funding of childcare centres was introduced as recently as the 1970s; called a ‘capitation grant’ it was paid direct to the service and was intended to provide fees relief for parents who met financial or welfare criteria. Most users of full-time childcare were single working parents and families needing a second income. The Free Kindergarten movement and Playcentre were the main providers of early childhood education. Most services held daily education sessions of a couple of hours for children. Service provision was driven by parents – reflecting parent demand for what parents valued and needed.  

A lot has changed since then.

  1. Today the people in the Beehive and the Ministry of Education are in the driver’s seat.
  2. Leaving a child for six or even ten hours a day at an early childhood service is promoted by the State as necessary if a child is to have a chance of doing well at school and later in life.
  3. Families who want to delay entry until their infant is older or who do not want to have their child in ECE for extended hours can have their decision criticised for other reasons too. (An extreme example is what we are seeing in Auckland at the moment with parents being accused of being anti-ECE when they try to say they do not want their kindergarten to change to 7 hour day attendance and not close for school holidays. Management is telling families they know what is best for children.  But the change appears to be of benefit only to support the managers’ own revenue and property growth ambitions).   

In NZ we have:

  • an internationally very high rate of participation in ECE – 96% of children attend ECE in the year before starting school;
  • an above the OECD average for the proportion children under the age of 3 years placed in ECE;
  • an early childhood education system that has remained impervious to social change in equality for men and women and educates children that women are best suited to childcare and men are not. NZ is now placed in the bottom half of the OECD for the proportion of male teachers;
  • a young teaching workforce compared to most other countries in the OECD – more than one quarter of ECE teachers are 30 years old or younger;
  • the highest proportion of children enrolled in government-funded private ECE operations (98% of children) out of all other countries in the OECD. (In countries such as Finland and Sweden, 80% of pre-schoolers are enrolled in publicly provided early childhood programmes);
  • major deficiencies in the monitoring of early childhood service safety for children (the Ministry of Education operates a ‘trust’ system with no regular or unannounced inspections once a service receives its life-time license to operate) and continued practice of cover-up of safety failings and cases of child harm; and
  • ECE that is among the most expensive for families to afford in the OECD (outside of the 20 hours Free ECE available to 3 to 5 year-olds).

I have talked with and seen many Education Ministers come and go over the past 30 plus years that I have been involved in the sector. A common dominator across all Education Ministers, whether Labour or National, was their desire to exert control over the early childhood sector along with growing the supply and uptake of services by parents to meet party objectives.

You may remember Labour Leader Helen Clark as Prime Minister talking about her intention to see ‘dawn to dusk’ childcare available for working mums – some commentators thought this to be akin to an orphanage approach.

National in government continued with the spin that Labour had earlier used that more ECE and an earlier start in ECE would advantage children’s educational achievement. It set a public service target of 98% of children in ECE.  ECE had never been compulsory for children to attend but National made it compulsory for families receiving a benefit, with a penalty of 50% dedication in payment should this ‘social obligation’ not be met.

National’s interest in early childhood education is linked to the labour market and the economy and as part of this it has steered ECE toward being a private industry, whereas Labour’s traditional interest is in supporting women’s right to work through access to affordable quality ECE.

In the abstract to this presentation I put forward the questions of:  how much participation is too much? too little? too early? too late? and is the quality right?

These questions need to be raised and properly considered because:

  1. ECE is a social investment and substantial taxpayer money goes into the administration of the ECE sector and into paying providers to supply child places; and
  2. The experiences children have affect their wellbeing, behaviour, development, and how they see themselves.

Answers to some of these questions can be found in the results of a systematic review of the best evidence. 

The review points to an absence of robust NZ evidence with one exception, a 1994 paper presenting findings on the effects of ECE on academic achievement up to the age of 13 years for a birth cohort of 1265 children in the Christchurch Health and Development Study (CHDS).  The CHDS findings were ignored by policy-makers because while increasing exposure to ECE was found to be associated with small increases in academic ability and achievement scores “at best any benefits found in this study are small and it is possible that even these benefits may be due to uncontrolled factors rather than the benefits of early education.” (Fergusson, Horwood & Lynsky, 1994, p. 115)

Recently the Ministry of Education commissioned an update of the study looking at the outcome of ECE for children at age 30. The report was submitted in October 2016 but not released by the Ministry until June 2017.  It summarises the evidence on the ‘benefits’ for children of ECE attendance instead of a broader ‘effects’ focus.  The results show ECE attendance is related to slightly higher secondary school achievement and earning higher wages at age 30 years.  However because nearly all of the children in the study sample attended a sessional Free Kindergarten or Playcentre at the time, the results can be taken to provide justification for sessional hours of ECE (not full-day childcare) in community-based services with parent involvement and learning alongside their child (this was the form that these ECE centres took then).

This latest report from the CHDS reiterates what the 1994 paper said regarding reading too much into the finding that ECE is related to any academic benefit. For example, it may be that parents who value education are those who are most likely to choose and support ECE; or that ECE has an influence on parents’ expectations for their child’s achievement in the years after leaving ECE; or meeting other parents and engaging in family activities at Playcentre or kindergarten may affect parent’s own sense of well-worth and confidence which has a positive effect on parenting. We know from international research that family features and the quality of the home learning environment are much more strongly related to child outcomes than ECE features.

So how can we be sure today that ECE provides children with a good start to education and to life?  The research tells us that the answer is not as simple as maximising children’s exposure to ECE or as simple as ensuring that the quality of ECE is high. While ECE with high standards can make a difference, the positive effects on children’s academic achievement can wash out overtime if ECE has not made a difference to the environment that children go home to or if children go on to attend an academically less effective school.

Longitudinal studies have pointed to factors related to outcomes that are important to address in policy and decision-making on how, when, where and what ECE children participate in.

In his presentation Phil Silva, founding director of the Dunedin Longitudinal Study mentioned the importance of expressive and receptive language for child outcomes.  I’d like to pick up on this and relate this factor to ECE as it should underpin decisions on group-size to ensure there is opportunity for one-to-one dialogue between a teacher and child.  It should also underpin decisions on staffing including teacher-child ratios and the employment of permanent full-time teachers as opposed to contract staff, relievers and shift-workers to support attachment and consistency of relationships and shared experiences. In a study of interaction between 200 under two-year-old children and their teachers at early childhood centres one third of children were observed to have experienced no joint attention with their teachers (Smith 1999).  Unfortunately, policy-makers have ignored the research. More recently, the maximum number of children in a setting was increased from 50 to 150 children and from a maximum of 25 to 75 infants under 2 years. 

Dr Silva also identified breastfeeding as one of the strongest factors affecting child outcomes and whether children can have the best start. Breastfeeding benefits children’s brains as well being a protective factor for children’s health. Unfortunately most ECE provision is set up to support parents leaving their infant and services are not required to be breast-feeding friendly

In her presentation Associate Professor Susan Morton, who is leading NZ’s latest longitudinal study “Growing Up in NZ”, mentioned a high rate of bullying experienced by children in the early childhood years. This has also been reported by parents to the My ECE parent website and it needs to be brought into the open and addressed for the wellbeing of children affected by bullying, to prevent more children from being bullied and to address early the problem behaviours of those doing the bullying.     

In 1980 Phil Silva published a paper about child experiences and activities with checklists for children up to age-5.  He noted from a study of the developmental characteristics of children who were pre-term or small for gestational age that “child experiences had the greatest impact on child intelligence of all the variables studied” (p. 13).  Some of the experiences children may have been expected to have then included: listened to a radio, been to visit trains at the station, been to a large store, visited Santa Claus, visited a museum, been to a puppet show and been on a hike (3 miles +).

John Pierce of Think Tank Analytica completed a 2-year study on the costs of child Poverty in NZ. He told us that for children, the consequences of poverty are more related to ‘poverty of experiences” because these are the factors that influence their future opportunities, rather than directly to low income. Most commentary (and research) suggests that the middle class will always do better at school and in jobs later because they have books at home and parents who talk to their youngsters and take their children on outings etc.  Children going into ECE, earlier and for long hours might not be the solution to raising ‘cultural capital’ in households that do not have the money to buy books, whose parents have low-self-esteem and un-developed parenting skills.  If parents have to find “incremental money for childcare and incremental money for transport costs – and if you are going to be worse off personally in a financial sense by taking a job like that and secondly your child is likely to be worse off and deprived of his/her parent’s care and attention in their formative years then this may not be the best outcome for society.”

There are two points I would like to finish with. The first is that in any debate about the hours that children spend in ECE we need to consider what experiences children would have had, had they not been in ECE.  Care does not always need to occur in the formal setting of an ECE centre. We need to be looking at how ECE can more closely provide the range of experiences that children may otherwise be missing out on and also at how ECE can support parenting and the child within the family.  This could for example, mean a re-think in how ECE is offered – could home-visiting and support by teachers be reintroduced?  What about sharing some of the ECE funding with families to subsidise the cost to parents of being involved in their child’s ECE for some of the time during the week?  Or to enable shared childcare between parents in children’s own homes to take place? 

The second point is that there is a need for transparency in the experiences that children have in ECE. It should not be the case as it is now of putting a child in ECE under the promise that it will benefit the child if the child is then frequently sick, falls behind in language development, is bullied, experiences serious harm – and if parents are more stressed, have less time to spend with their child, and families are no better off financially.  Alongside this is a need for honesty in Ministry of Education publications and promotional materials in regard to public disclosure of the risks, alongside the benefits, of ECE so everyone is better informed and risks can be mitigated. 

Viewing children’s participation in ECE in terms of child experience is important to ensure they experience the best start. This will help us to have a better knowledge and understanding of how well ECE not only equips children for making academic progress through the school system but can also be great for their mental and physical health, social and language development and individual wellbeing within their family.


Fergusson, D.M., Horwood, L.J. & Lynsky, M.T. (1994). A longitudinal study of early childhood education and subsequent academic achievement. Australian Psychologist, 29(2), 110-115.

Horwood, L.J, & McLeod, G.F.H. (2017). Outcome of early childhood education in the CHDS cohort. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Silva, P.A. (1980). Experiences, activities and the pre-school child: A report from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary study.  Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 5(2), 13 – 19.

Smith, A.B. (1999). Quality childcare and joint attention. International Journal of Early Years Education, 7(1) 85 – 98.

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