Education Early Childhood Education in Aotearoa New Zealand
Linda Mitchell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0278


Aotearoa New Zealand is a small island country located in the southern Pacific Ocean. Eastern Polynesian migrants came in canoe groups probably in the 13th century CE, and the first settlers and Indigenous people were Māori. In 2020, the population is nearly five million, and is ethnically diverse. Early childhood education (ECE) covers the period from birth to age 5 years. Recently, for policy purposes, ECE services have been categorized broadly as teacher-led and parent/whānau-led (extended family) to differentiate between how the services operate and are funded. A teacher-led service is one where one or more qualified teachers are responsible for the overall program in the service. They are required to have a person responsible who is a registered, early childhood education qualified teacher (equivalent to a three-year specialist degree or diploma) and meet the government’s regulation that 50 percent of required staff must hold this recognized qualification. There is now a funding incentive for teacher-led services to employ 80 percent or more of staff with this recognized qualification. In 2019, 96 percent of services had a teaching staff qualification rate of over 80 percent. In addition, there is a current policy shift toward teacher-led services employing 100 percent of staff with this qualification. Within the teacher-led grouping, education and care centers (childcare centers) cater to the largest number of children and offer full-day, sessional, or half-day provision. Home-based services (family daycare) provide for an educator to work with children in the educator’s home or the child’s home at hours to suit parents; 70 percent of education and care and 92 percent of home-based services are for-profit, owned, and managed by private companies or owners. Kindergartens mainly operate under a school-day or sessional provision and cater for children aged 2 to 5 years. The Correspondence School is a distance education service, and is directly provided by the state. Parent/whānau-led services have high levels of parent or whānau involvement in providing education and care for children. They do not have to meet teacher registration targets, but the licensed parent/whānau-led services have their own service specific–qualification requirements. Kōhanga reo (Māori immersion language nests) were established in 1982 and have been described as “the most vigorous and innovative educational movement in this country (dare I say in the world).” They offer total immersion in Māori and foster Māori language, cultural identity, and self-determination. Pacific Early Childhood Groups are total immersion or bilingual in their home Pacific language. They may be sessional or full day. In sessional playcenters, parents undertake curriculum implementation, management, and administration, and are trained through the Playcentre Federation. Sessional playgroups are also run by parents, but parents require no training.


Academics and researchers have been prolific in writing about ECE policy in Aoteroa New Zealand, tracking policy advances and losses in relation to principles of children’s and women’s rights, equity and social justice, and analyzing what might make for a fairer system; see section Politics and Advocacy. This section is a highly selective dip into some of these writings. It offers historical and political accounts of the origins of ECE in Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1880s and shifts that occurred up to the 2010s parallel to changes in government. Helen May has spoken, advocated, and written most extensively about the history and politics of ECE in Aotearoa New Zealand. May 2015 discusses the colonial context and establishment of the first missionary infant schools for Māori children in the 1830s, and subsequent ideas of free kindergartens and of creches and the care of children. May 2013 traces the beginnings of infant schools and ECE from the arrival of the first missionaries to the end of the Second World War, and the influence of thinkers and practitioners, mainly from Europe, on concepts of childhood. These accounts are interwoven with discussion of historical events. May 2019 follows on with an account of ECE in postwar New Zealand. She describes the significant expansion of ECE after 1945, and the emergence in the 1980s of Te Kōhanga Reo as an assertion of tino rangatiratanga (absolute authority over their lives and resources) aimed at revitalization of Māori language and culture. The book is also a record of social movements and the shifting language of debates, from “social progress” in mid-century, to the economic terminology of the 1990s, some “cautious” consideration of the young child citizen in the 2000s, followed by the rhetoric of “risk”, the “vulnerable child” from 2009, and a new story covering the later 2010s. The linking of policy change, language of debates, and research agendas from the 1970s is also analyzed in Smith and May 2018. Meade 1990 writes of the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and publication of the government policy document Before Five that promised equal status for ECE with other education sectors. Dalli 1993 focuses on the economic imperatives driving ECEC policy in the early 1990s and the erosion of gains in state responsibility, funding, and quality in that era. May 2008 analyzes the 2005 twenty-hours-a-week free ECE as only “on the way” to matching rights of the school-aged child. Mitchell 2015 argues that a shift has occurred from 2000s to 2010s from a child-rights to an interventionist approach. Some current policy issues are canvassed in McLachlan, et al. 2018 (quality) and in Mitchell 2019 (for-profit provision).

  • Dalli, Carmen. 1993. Is Cinderella back among the cinders? A review of early childhood education in the early 1990s. New Zealand Annual Review of Education 3:223–252.

    This article refers to the optimism of the late 1980s, following the integration of childcare and education services, three-year integrated EC teacher training, the policy report Before Five, and promises to redress ECE funding inequities and improve quality. Dalli traces changes from a Labour to a National government and policy shifts from 1991 that reduced ECE funding, bulk-funded kindergartens, and diminished staffing and qualification standards. Dalli argues these shifts had an economic imperative and threatened to erode earlier gains.

  • May, Helen. 2013. The discovery of early childhood. 2d ed. Wellington: NZCER Press.

    This book on the discovery of new ideas concerning the institutional care and education of young children introduces key figures of the Enlightenment in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. It discusses how missionaries first transported the progressive notion of infant schools as an experiment for educating young Māori children apart from their whānau and outside the kainga (home). It then canvasses the influence of progressive ideals on new kinds of ECE institutions.

  • May, Helen. 2015. Nineteenth century early childhood institutions in Aotearoa New Zealand: Legacies of enlightenment and colonisation. Journal of Pedagogy 6.2: 21–39.

    DOI: 10.1515/jped-2015-0011

    May discusses the colonization and settlement of Aotearoa New Zealand by European settlers, and Enlightenment views of the young child as a potent force in realizing possibilities for progress. She traces the development of the 19th-century infant school, kindergarten, and creche, and the forging of new understandings of childhood and its institutions that would improve the chances of both settler and Indigenous children.

  • May, Helen. 2019. Politics in the playground. Rev. ed. Dunedin, NZ: Otago Univ. Press.

    This third edition is a history of ECE in Aotearoa New Zealand after the Second World War to the first one hundred days of the Labour coalition government. May traces the language of debate from ‘social progress’ in mid-century, to the economic terminology of the 1990s; some cautious consideration of the young child citizen in the 2000s; and finally the rhetoric of ‘risk,’ the ‘vulnerable child,’ and a new story covering the 2010s.

  • May, Helen. 2008. Towards the right of New Zealand children for free early childhood education. International Journal of Child care and Education Policy 2.1: 77–91.

    DOI: 10.1007/2288-6729-2-1-77

    This article analyzes the introduction of the government’s policy of twenty-hours-a-week free ECE for three- and four-year-olds in teacher-led EC programs. It argues that while the policy is on the way to matching the rights of the school-aged child to free schooling, it is not so bold, and raises issues in relation to the rights of children and parents, the costs of quality, and conflicting roles of government, community, and private enterprise in the provision of EC services.

  • McLachlan, Claire, Sue Cherrington, Karyn Aspden, and Tara McLaughlin. 2018. Defining quality in a divided sector: A review of policy and practice in early childhood settings in New Zealand from 2008 to 2018. New Zealand Annual Review of Education 23:111–125.

    This is a comprehensive review and analysis of major changes in ECE policy from 2008 to 2018 through shifts in government. It argues there are “competing agendas” in ECE, including between standards set in regulation and aspirations of the curriculum, and due to the demand for ECE and competition between providers; the need to ensure quality without a guaranteed infrastructure of a qualified, professionally supported, and well remunerated teaching workforce; and restricted funding for research and the type of research possible.

  • Meade, A. 1990. Women and young children gain a foot in the door. New Zealand Women’s Studies Journal 6.1–2: 96–111.

    Meade writes of the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s under a Labour government and publication of Before Five, the government policy document for ECEC in 1989, that promised equal status for ECE with other education sectors. United advocacy through a funding campaign, coupled with work from “insiders” in Parliament, resulted in funding to early childhood education being increased by 125 percent—a remarkable achievement at a time when there was pressure to reduce government expenditures.

  • Mitchell, Linda. 2015. Shifting directions in ECEC policy in New Zealand: From a child rights to an interventionist approach. International Journal of Early Years Education 23.3: 288–302.

    DOI: 10.1080/09669760.2015.1074557

    Drawing on policy evaluations and document analysis, Mitchell analyzes shifts in approaches to ECEC policy from a left-of-center government to a right-of-center government over the period 2000 to 2014. She argues that discourses of children as ‘priority’ have replaced a focus on citizenship, and a swing has occurred away from universal to targeted approaches aimed at encouraging ECEC participation for a few (i.e., from a child’s rights to an interventionist approach).

  • Mitchell, Linda. 2019. Turning the tide on private profit-focused provision in early childhood education. New Zealand Annual Review of Education 24:78–91.

    DOI: 10.26686/nzaroe.v24i0.6330

    The article analyzes evidence about problems of a market-led approach to ECE provision in Aotearoa New Zealand, which is associated with the growth of for-profit ECE provision, variable quality, and inequities in access. It draws from policy developments and solutions in Europe, UK, the United States, and Canada, to propose steps that might be taken for a democratic system of community-based and public early childhood education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

  • Smith, Anne B., and Helen May. 2018. Connections between early childhood policy and research in Aotearoa New Zealand: 1970s to 2010s. In International handbook of early childhood education. Springer International Handbooks of Education. Edited by Marilyn Fleer and Bert van Oers, 531–549. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-024-0927-7_24

    In this article, two leading researchers and policy advocates, Anne Smith and Helen May, bring their perspectives together to weave the stories of research and policy development over five eras, from research beginnings in the 1970s to the 2010s. The article describes how each policy change was connected to research agendas that were characterized by themes of equity, social justice and the rights of children.

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