November 2004: We Can Learn Much From Down Under

Nine lessons on early child care we can learn from New Zealand
November 1, 2004

The new federal government has promised to introduce legislation that would lead to the development of an early child care and education (ECCE) system in Canada. This is welcome news.

At present, however, despite public proclamations on the importance of early childhood education, Canada spends significantly less on early child care and development programs (approximately half-of-1% of GDP), than what is spent in countries such as France, Sweden, and Denmark that have highly developed systems. Only the province of Quebec, with its large investment in early childhood care and education programs, approaches these international standards.

In recent years, Ottawa has begun to increase spending on early childhood development through the federal/provincial/territorial Early Childhood Development Agreement and the Multilateral Framework on Early Learning and Child Care. Yet even with these increases in funding Canada still lags far behind other countries.

On a recent study leave in New Zealand, I had the opportunity to begin to learn about ECCE there and to consider what Canada might be able to learn from the New Zealand experience. To be sure, there are some major differences between Canada and New Zealand, particularly in population and geography, but there is still so much in common that a comparison of priorities, policies and programs in the two countries makes a great deal of sense. Both countries have histories of European colonization, have English as one of two official languages, hold membership in the British Commonwealth, are parliamentary democracies, and share a similar package of social programs.

1) ECE programs in Canada and New Zealand 

There is a very similar range of ECCE programs in Canada and New Zealand. These include full- and part-day child care centres for children aged 0 to 5 (in N.Z. these are called “early child development and care centres”), half-day pre-school programs for 3- and 4-year-olds (or in N.Z., “kindergartens”), family child care programs (“home-based care”) and parent cooperatives (“play centres”). As in Canada, and depending upon provincial/territorial regulations, these group-based programs can be offered by both non-profit groups and private operators. This broad range of program options enables parents to choose the kind of care arrangement that best meets their child’s and their family’s needs.

Both countries provide early childhood programs for their own indigenous populations. Maori pre-school children in New Zealand attend programs called Te Kohanga Reo, or “language nests.” These programs meet for six hours a day and serve as language immersion and school readiness programs. Taught by Maori teachers, the Te Kohanga Reo are intended to provide the children with knowledge of their own cultural heritage and their traditional language, to enhance their self-esteem, and to provide them with school readiness skills.

Canada’s federal government funds Aboriginal Head Start Programs which have similar goals in terms of teaching language, culture and history of the various First Nations communities in which they live. But these AHS programs meet for far less time (2 1/2 hours per day) than do the Te Kohanga Reo and reach only a small fraction of the Aboriginal children in Canada.

2) Accessibility to child care    

While Canada can point to a range of different kinds of child care programs, it cannot—with the major exception of Quebec—claim to provide nearly enough child care. Thus, one indicator of the health of any child care system is the number of licensed child care spaces that are created and the percentage of children in the target-aged group who can be accommodated in those spaces. In Canada, only about 12.1% of children in need of child care can be accommodated in licensed spaces. In contrast, the most recent statistics from New Zealand indicate that nearly 64% of all children in the target-age range can be accommodated in licensed spaces.

A recent survey in New Zealand showed that close to 100% of all children in New Zealand had participated in at least one kind of licensed early childhood group program at some point in their first five years of life. Parents in New Zealand have greater accessibility to and choice among a wide range of early childhood programs.

3) Government responsibility for child care

In New Zealand, all child care programs for children from birth to age 5 are administered through the national Ministry of Education, which provides direct operating funds to ECE programs, develops curricula, trains teachers, administers child care subsidy programs and special needs pre-school programs, and evaluates the quality of early childhood programs. By including early childhood care and education programs in the same Ministry that administers elementary, secondary and tertiary (post-secondary) education programs, New Zealand has placed early childhood on the same level of importance as all other educational programs in the country. The national Ministry of Education works collaboratively with local communities to provide consistent, coherent, and comprehensive early childhood education programs that maximize parental choice and accessibility.   

The situation in Canada is starkly different in three critical ways. First, federal, provincial, and territorial ministries of education have little or no responsibility for delivering child care programs for children from birth to age 5. Second, programs that are intended to support the provision of child care services at the federal, provincial, and territorial levels of government are fragmented across different ministries and departments (i.e., health, human resources, education, children and families, status of women, Aboriginal issues, adult education) which often results in serious gaps and inconsistencies in the delivery of front-line services.

A third and major difference between the two countries is the complex and confrontational relationship between the federal and territorial/provincial levels of government in Canada over such issues as levels of funding, target populations, program design, program implementation, and financial accountability. As in other areas of jurisdictional authority and funding, most notably health care, this dynamic continues to be a major obstacle to the smooth implementation of a national child care program.

4) Early childhood care and development guidelines and curricula

New Zealand has approached early child care and development through a careful and conscientious consultation process that has resulted in a vision and a plan for early child development programs. The central document produced in this process is Pathways to the Future: A 10-Year Strategic Plan for Early Childhood Education, which identifies the goals and objectives of a child care system and which spells out in great detail how these goals will be achieved and the ways in which success will be measured.

A second document of great importance is entitled Te Wharike. This is a Maori term meaning “the woven mat” and refers to the importance of integrating curriculum areas, curriculum activities, and curriculum evaluation in early childhood settings that also acknowledge the integration of children’s interests and abilities. Te Wharike is not an example of simply pushing the curriculum from the primary grades down into the early childhood years. It provides teachers and early childhood programs with a developmentally and culturally appropriate curriculum framework that allows for developing and implementing learning and play activities and ways of monitoring child growth and development. There is no parallel curriculum document or framework of this kind that I know of anywhere in Canada.

5) ECE Teacher training

In Canada, teacher training and the requirements to teach in early childhood programs are highly variable across jurisdictions, with most jurisdictions ranging from fairly minimal training to the completion of a (one- or two-year) post-secondary diploma program in other provinces.

In New Zealand, current regulations call for staff in early childhood programs to complete three-year training programs which are typically found in colleges of education that also prepare primary, intermediate, and secondary teachers. There is no difference between the training requirements for ECE professionals and for elementary school teachers. With very few exceptions, the training of early childhood educators in Canada is the responsibility of community colleges, with very few university faculties of education offering programs in this area. Universities, however, are responsible for teacher training at the elementary and secondary levels in Canada. The training of teachers in New Zealand appears to help mitigate any fragmentation of the educational systems for children older and younger than age 5, while in Canada the systems of teacher education help to create and sustain the divide between the fields of early childhood and primary education.

6) ECE Teachers’ salaries

Direct comparisons of teachers’ salaries in the two countries are complicated by the differences between the Canadian and New Zealand dollar, differences in costs of living in different parts of both countries, and the existence of a number of different collective agreements that govern salaries in New Zealand. We do know, however, that teachers in New Zealand’s half-day kindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds are paid at the same level as elementary school teachers. While teachers in full-day early child care and development centres are currently paid at a lower rate of pay than New Zealand kindergarten teachers, in the recently announced new funding agreement this disparity will be reduced by the year 2007. The provision of government operating grants that cover up to 85% of all costs in early childhood programs ensures a higher level of financial stability than does the Canadian system, which operates primarily on a user-fee model. Financial stability ensures lower turnover rates, higher levels of staff satisfaction, and higher levels of program quality.

7) Quality and accountability of ECE programs

The New Zealand Education Review Office is an arms-length, independent government agency that regularly reviews and assesses the quality of learning programs in all educational environments in New Zealand, from infant-toddler programs to elementary and secondary programs, and post-secondary programs as well. A special branch staffed by ECE professionals makes regular visits and assessments of the quality of these programs. Program reviewers use the Pathways to the Future: A 10-Year Strategic Plan for Early Childhood Education, Te Wharike, and a statement of Desirable Objectives and Practices (DOPS) to perform these assessments. The results of all assessments are publicly available and accessible to parents looking for ECE programs for their children.

In contrast, the only Canadian aspect that is even remotely comparable is in British Columbia, where licensing officials employed by the Ministry of Health and local health authorities occasionally visit child care facilities. The primary purpose of these visits is to ensure that all facilities meet minimal health and safety requirements. They do not address the program quality or content.

8) How child care is funded

Perhaps the most striking difference between Canada and New Zealand is that in New Zealand government assumes most of the operating costs of child care programs, and the level of that support far exceeds that found in Canada. The New Zealand government funds up to 85% of basic operating costs for early childhood care programs, with the balance being raised through fund-raising and nominal parent fees. In Canada, only the government of Quebec can claim to fund up to 80% of operating costs.

The mirror image exists in Canada, where neither federal nor provincial/territorial governments (again, with the exception of Quebec) provide substantial contributions to the operating costs of child care programs. In Canada, it is parent fees that typically account for up to 80% of the costs of child care programs, thus making all child care programs precariously dependent upon enrolments and a high proportion of full-fee-paying parents.

It is difficult to generate a detailed comparison of child care spending in Canada and New Zealand due to different reporting methods in the two countries, but even a global assessment reveals that Canada falls far behind New Zealand in our societal investment in early childhood care and development programs. In the current budget year (2004-5), the New Zealand government has allocated $451 million (N.Z. dollars) in direct operating subsidies to child care programs to service a population of 3.9 million. Canada has allocated a similar sum—$500 million (Canadian)—to all early child development programs in a country of 31 million.

Further: the $451 million in New Zealand is considered to be the basic operating grant, because early childhood education programs are also eligible for additional funds if they meet certain incentives to improve the quality of care through such factors as higher levels of teacher education or enhanced group sizes and adult/child ratios. This commitment of a substantial amount of additional dollars indicates three things: 1) that early childhood programs are a critical part of social and educational public policy; 2) that New Zealand has recognized the success of its early childhood system to date; and 3) that there is still room for even higher levels of success that can be met by providing additional funds.

Thus, even though the New Zealand dollar is marginally lower than the Canadian dollar (between 12-14% less), it is obvious that New Zealand is making a much more substantial investment in child care than is Canada.

9) The political will to act

It is quite clear that New Zealand has much to teach us in Canada about building a comprehensive system of early childhood care and development. While the country where The Lord of the Rings was filmed is indeed beautiful and magical, there is no magic in New Zealand’s approach to early childhood education. It is based upon an explicit commitment—often stated by Canadian politicians as well—that children’s early years are critically important to their future development and well-being. Most importantly, New Zealand politicians—unlike most in Canada—have backed up these stated commitments with significant levels of investment in early childhood programs that research has shown do indeed make a difference in the lives of young children.

For too long in Canada we have heard governments proclaim their commitment to early child development, but the expected action to back up those commitments has been disappointing. The research that proves the positive impacts of early childhood programs is in place. The existence of models of successful and effective early child care and development are also readily available. What we have lacked up to now is the political will to make the necessary investment in the lives of our youngest children.

In the current federal minority government situation, we now have a fresh opportunity to press for and demand the political will to develop action plans that can turn our oft-stated commitments to early child care and development into reality.

Our children deserve no less than our very best efforts.

(Dr. Hillel Goelman is a professor at the University of British Columbia and Associate Director of the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP). The HELP website is at