The provision of high-quality, affordable, accessible and available early childhood education benefits both young children and their parents, and ultimately the community. Workforce participation of parents of young children is a critical aspect of workforce participation.

Participation in the labour force

By OECD standards New Zealand has a relatively high rate of women’s participation in the workforce, but has lower participation rates than the OECD average for women aged 25-39. 90 “Labour force participation decisions are partly influenced by the cost of childcare relative to the potential income from paid work, as well as the availability and quality of childcare. Apart from considering the financial implications of participating in the labour force, individuals also weigh up the non-financial implications for their family, including the well-being of the child.

A simple labour supply model predicts that a childcare subsidy (or ECE subsidy) would increase the labour force participation of mothers with young dependent children as the subsidy has the effect of increasing the net return that mothers can get from working. Furthermore, if the quality of ECE is high and is perceived by parents to be beneficial for their child, then take-up of ECE is likely to be higher as well.” 91

National Conversation about Work

Many working parents told the Commission that they are unable to realise full employment because there are no early childhood education centres in their locality. For example, in the Maniototo area, a group of women are trying to establish an early childhood education centre which will enable them to return to work, better integrate the migrant community and provide local children with early childhood education. The situation in rural communities is especially acute. Army personnel in Waiouru spoke about the need to provide childcare for staff deployed in the field and to accommodate older recruits.

In some rural communities we heard that skilled migrants had been successfully recruited but were not able to be retained because their spouses were not able to work, often because childcare was not available. We heard that the lack of available childcare was one of the reasons new Coasters leave the West Coast. One half of a couple would gain a job and the whole family would relocate. At some point the “trailing spouse” sought employment and found that she (usually) could not access childcare when and if she found a job. One West Coast mother said, “There’s a one-year waiting list for the local childcare centre and it’s open from 8:30-4:00.”

Early childhood education opening hours did not always match working patterns, with shift workers finding access to dependent care arrangements particularly challenging. In other cases, the cost of childcare is prohibitive.

People on low incomes, such as cleaners in the Hutt Valley and bank workers in Taranaki, said that the prohibitive cost of early childhood education meant that parents had to use informal arrangements or choose not to participate in the labour-force.

Early childhood education provision

The following figures were obtained from the 2009 Childcare Survey.92 Formal care arrangements are more common than informal. The most common formal care arrangements are childcare centres93 and the most common form of informal arrangements is care by a grandparent.

Table 34: Types of early childhood education and care arrangements

Accessibility and affordability

New Zealand spends half the OECD average on children from birth to five years.94 According to a recent briefing paper95 the cost of ECE relative to income has been steadily falling and fell significantly in July 2007 as a result of the 20 hours ECE policy introduced at that time. The significant reduction in the relative cost of ECE is likely to have had an effect on labour force participation decisions, or affected the composition of employment. The paper asserted that supply is thought to be “more or less keeping pace with demand” nationally, and data such as time on waiting lists and occupancy rates for services suggests that “capacity is not a significant problem in the sector at a national level.” However, the briefing paper notes “The Ministry’s anecdotal information, from parents, services and Ministry of Education staff – is that it is difficult to find a place in ECE, or at least a place that parents find acceptable”.

The Salvation Army’s most recent report on inequalities and early childhood education notes an increase in commercial early childhood centres where “centres have been established in commercially viable communities and as a result there has been an uneven distribution of facilities…Children most at risk of educational failure and women with the lowest rates of labour force participation are most likely to live in the same communities most poorly provided with ECE services.” 96

The New Zealand Childcare Survey 200997 reported that 14.5% of parents experienced difficulty getting childcare. The most common difficulty was lack of available care on the days or at the times needed (29.2%) and affordability (23.7%). Parents experiencing difficulty were much more likely to be mothers (22.1% of mothers compared to 7.2% of fathers) and sole parents (26.4% compared to 13.0%).

The survey found that the majority (70.5%) of parents who experienced difficulty getting childcare while working or seeking work reported consequences as a result. “Almost half (48.7%) of those who had childcare-related difficulties had made changes to their usual work as a result. Another 28.9% turned down paid work, 23.7% stopped searching for paid work, and 20.9% were prevented from making changes to their usual work. An estimated 6.4% of these parents resigned from paid work as a result of childcare difficulties.”

Sole parents had more work-related consequences which included: they stopped searching for paid work (43.2% of those who experienced difficulty), made changes to their usual work (40.8%) and turned down paid work (35.7%). Sole parents were also more likely than those in two parent families to resign as a result of difficulties with childcare.

Quality childcare

As the Treasury paper quoted earlier observed, quality ECE which is considered by parents to be beneficial to their child is more likely to be taken up. May and Mitchell98 report that “a consistent finding from international research is that while good quality care and education enhances social, dispositional and cognitive outcomes for children, poor quality care and education may be detrimental.”

Quality indicators in early childhood education are predominantly about the teachers. The Ministry of Education states, “Quality (in ECE) is achieved through a number of factors such as the interaction of the ratio of trained adults to children, the number of children (or group size) and the qualification levels of teachers. One of the ways to improve the quality of early childhood education is to increase the number of qualified and registered early childhood education teachers.” 99

A recent Ministry of Education study emphasised the importance of quality in relation to education and care of the under twos as well: “The four-decade legacy of research emphasis on structural aspects of quality for ECS has recently been applied to under-two-year-old provision and consistently suggests that higher quality care is associated with more positive outcomes and fewer negative ones (Jacob, 2009; NICHD, 2004). Quality in these studies is defined as: • more highly-educated caregivers who promote positive social interactions, and • lower ratios of children to caregivers.100

In recent years teachers in early childhood education have been recognised as comparable to their counterparts in primary and secondary schools. At the time that pay parity was achieved the president of NZEI Te Riu Roa said “Pay parity acknowledges that the work early childhood teachers do is as important as their colleagues in primary and secondary schools.”

Changes to early childhood education funding announced in the 2010 budget has seen funding levels reduced for many centres including those staffed 100% by qualified ECE teachers. From February 2011, the funding rate for registered teachers was lowered and given only for up to 80% of a provider’s registered teachers.

Centres with fully qualified staff (25% of all day kindergarten and ECE services) have experienced a reduction of 12% of their funding. Those at the next funding band (above 80% and below 100% fully qualified staff) have lost 5%. A total of 41% of all day kindergartens and ECE services are in this second category.101

A survey conducted by the NZCA found that “Since the funding changes had been announced services reported that a total of 1,161 children have left the 199 services that responded (in addition to children leaving to start school or moving to another ECE service). Respondents expected this pattern to continue.” 102

Future action

Ensure that children of working parents have access to affordable, quality early childhood education in all areas of New Zealand, including provincial, rural and poorer communities.