Choosing an early childhood education provider

Complaints about the quality of early childhood education are on the rise. So how do you know you’re leaving your child in safe hands and which service will work for your family?

Kindy child talking to teacher

Once upon a time, your child’s first steps towards schooling would probably have been taken at the local kindy. But that’s no longer the case.

With more than 5,000 early childhood education (ECE) providers open for business, it may seem like you’re spoilt for choice.

However, not all providers are getting pass marks from parents. Last year, the Ministry of Education received complaints about 345 ECE services - up from 286 in 2017. It found problems that needed fixing at 176, while 11 others ended up closing their doors.

Most complaints were about health and safety, the ability of staff to manage children’s behaviour, and staffing ratios. There were also problems with employment practices and services’ complaints processes.

Audit reports published by the Education Review Office (ERO) can give you information on how well a service is delivering (see “Do your homework”). But there are other questions you’ll need to ask when choosing your ideal ECE provider. Will your child enjoy it? Do the hours work for your household? Can you afford it? And does the service have room for your child?

Things to consider

Although Eva Zwinnen was still pregnant with her eldest son when she enrolled him in a centre, he was 17 months old before a spot became available.

Libby Manley and her children
Libby Manley and her children

Wait lists were an issue for Libby Manley too. She had to enrol her daughter with several early childcare providers and took what days were available.

“It was hard to find a place for under twos in Wellington,” she said.

While enrolling early should be a priority according to our mums, as well as checking out the ERO reports, they had other tips to help you choose a quality ECE provider.

Ask around

Chatting to parents in your community is a great way to learn about your local ECE options.

They can help fill you in on how things work from what the staff are like to whether their kids ate food provided.

“Both my kids have been at centres where lunch was provided and while it was convenient, my children often didn’t eat it. I would have preferred to send them with a lunchbox,” Libby said.

In comparison, Eva’s children enjoyed meals the chef at their centre prepared.

Other things parents can help fill you in on are sleep routines, mealtimes, how the service accommodates toilet training, whether they provide nappies and what happens when children get sick.

Visit more than one centre

You should visit several centres for at least an hour each time. “While you’ll be watching your child to see how they’re responding to the centre, it’s also important to watch the teachers,” Libby said.

All ECE providers should deliver a curriculum that supports a child’s interests, strengths and needs.

“Ask the teacher whether they enjoy working there. If the centre isn’t a harmonious place to work, there may be increased staff absences and relievers filling in so your child may not have consistent carers.”

Get the details

When you visit, check details of the centre and how it works. Key questions to ask include:

  • What’s the ratio of adults to children?
  • How many staff are qualified early childhood teachers?
  • Are children separated by age or is it mixed-age?
  • How do you cater to each child’s differences or preferences?
  • Are there activities outside the centre? If so, do they cost extra?
  • What are the security measures?
  • What happens if you make a complaint?
  • What’s the pick-up process?
  • What happens if a child becomes upset while at the service?
  • What will my child learn?
  • How do I get updates on my child’s progress?
  • Does the centre offer 20 hours’ ECE when my child turns three?
  • How much is it, what sessions are available, and is there a wait
    list?

All ECE providers should deliver a curriculum that supports a child’s interests, strengths and needs. They should also take into account what parents want their child to learn. If the centre is bilingual or follows a specific teaching philosophy, such as Montessori or Reggio Emilia, ask how that fits into the curriculum.

Some ECEs show your child’s progress through learning stories.
Some ECEs show your child’s progress through learning stories.

Providers show your child’s progress through learning stories. These stories can be collated in a profile book or on a website. Some providers use apps, such as Educa or Storypark.

Eva’s children had portfolio books and the centre had a website that featured stories about the children.

Both parents were amazed with the detail and effort that was put into their children’s portfolio books. “The detail in the individual learning stories is incredible, and they are always linked to curriculum goals and outcomes. I know the teachers often do these stories in their own time,” Libby said.

Your options

Before you start wading through the options, you should think about the kind of service you want. Are you happy dropping off your child at a centre where a teacher is in charge? Or would you prefer attending with your child and becoming part of the centre’s community?

Teachers in charge

Education and care centres represent the largest chunk of the ECE sector, with more than 2500 providers. They range from centres run by community associations to nationwide chains. While each may have its own standards, all centres must adhere to regulations to be licensed.

The ministry sets the ratio of adults to children at ECE providers. For children aged two and over it’s 1:10; for under twos it’s 1:5. However, these ratios are out of step with other countries. For example, in Australia the ratios are 1:5 and 1:4. The ministry is considering reducing ratios, as part of proposed changes to ECE regulations. A decision will be made this year.

Eva didn’t like the care centre her eldest initially attended. While it was a nice centre, and met minimum adult-child ratios, she said it still “felt like too overwhelming”. As a result, she ended up changing providers.

Regardless of total staff numbers, at least half must have a bachelor in early childhood education (a requirement to be a registered ECE teacher).

Education and care centres may run all-day sessions (from 7am to 6.30pm), flexible hours or both for children ranging from birth to primary school age.

Kindergartens

There are more than 600 kindergartens administered by 30 regional kindergarten associations.

Most offer a school-day service (six hours) with some providing morning or afternoon sessions. While they’re open during the school term, some may close for the holidays.

“When I was a kid everyone went to kindy, but now it doesn’t suit many families because of the shorter days compared to full day centres,” Libby said.

However, one benefit of kindergartens is the price. “They sometimes ask for a donation, and if you’re enrolled for more than 20 hours there’s usually a small extra charge per hour,” she said.

Kindies can have different prices, hours, services and policies, so you’ll need to check what the ones in your area offer.

Home-based education

As the name suggests, this takes place in the carer’s home. There are nationwide organisations, such as Porse and Barnardos, as well as smaller operators that offer home-based care. Regardless of who’s running the service, it must be licensed and follow regulations.

Visiting teachers are employed by the organisation to assess the care provided and make sure the environment is suitable for looking after children. These teachers are essentially mentors who help carers deliver the curriculum and ensure children are safe and happy.

Home-based carers can only have four children aged over two or two under two at one time. Children can be enrolled for part or full days. Carers don’t need an early childhood education qualification or practising certificate, but the visiting teacher does.

The ministry’s proposed changes to ECE regulations recommend all home-based educators have a level four certificate in childhood education (in comparison, a registered ECE teacher’s bachelor degree is level seven).

Kōhanga Reo

Kōhanga provides a Māori immersion environment for mokopuna and their whānau. It was developed in the 1980s to help revitalise the Māori language and is open to all children.

Administered by the Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust, Kōhanga Reo have a “focus on whānau development and run courses to induct parents into Kōhanga Reo to begin their language journey in the Māori world”, trust communications adviser Tahuri Tumoana said.

There are more than 450 centres nationwide. Hours vary from 9am to 3pm, or 8am to 5pm.

Playcentres

They’re co-operatively managed by families and Playcentre staff. This means families are heavily involved in the centre.

There’s also support from the regional New Zealand Playcentre Federation office, which “visits centres, builds relationships and helps ensure we provide the highest quality session to children possible”, Playcentre national communications manager Claire Gullidge said.

The philosophy of Playcentres is about bringing families together, while meeting other people in the community.

It’s also an opportunity for families to learn. The federation offers workshops, first aid training and certificates in Early Childhood Education and Care.

“There is an expectation that members participate in our education programme and there are different levels of involvement,” Ms Gullidge said.

Because caregivers go along too, the ratio of adults to children is from 1:5 to 1:3.

If you have whānau close by, you can recruit them to go along if you can’t make it.

Playcentres can be a cheaper option, with many asking for only a small fee or donation.

Playgroups

They’re informal gatherings run by parents and held in community halls or churches. More than half of the children attending must have a parent with them for the session. You can pay per session – the Playgroups we assessed charged from $2 to $5 per session.

Plunket also has a network of more than 180 Playgroups. Session times and the types of groups depend on the community. Some ask for a donation to help cover the cost of morning tea.

While Playgroups aren’t licensed, they can apply to the ministry to be certified so they can receive government funding. There are Playgroups that encourage learning Te Reo and Tikanga, as well as Pasifika languages and cultures.

Education philosophies

Rudolf Steiner Waldorf schools

These schools “provide an environment that adheres closely to the natural rhythms of childhood and nature”, Janet Molloy, chief executive of Steiner Education Aotearoa NZ, said.

Children are kept in nature as much as possible and, rather than having a stash of plastic toys, the schools provide “natural materials and objects” for the children to play with. “The curriculum is rich in colour, music, movement, stories and activity.”

There are 11 Steiner schools that have ECE facilities and 12 stand-alone kindergartens, ECE centres or playgroups.

Montessori centres

The centres cater for two age groups (zero to three and three to six) so “the children learn from each other, with older children being role models for the younger children”, Montessori Aotearoa New Zealand executive officer Cathy Wilson said.

Each child learns to co-operate, respect and “celebrate each other’s efforts and to take care of themselves, others and their environment”, she said.

Montessori centres are designed so the child chooses learning activities “based on their own initiatives with gentle and respectful guidance from their teacher”.

However, each centre may apply this method in different ways, so it’s recommended you visit a few Montessori providers to see if it’s the right option for you.

Reggio Emilia centres

Based on the principles of respect, responsibility and community, the centres focus on generating a supportive environment in which children can develop their interests. The teacher plans activities based on these interests and participates alongside the child.

Bilingual language centres

More than 100 ECE providers offer bilingual centres. Samoan and Tongan are the most popular, with 26 centres available, followed by Māori (outside of the Kōhanga Reo network) and northern Chinese languages. There are also full-immersion language sessions in Tongan and Samoan.

Early care education providers compared

Want to read the full article?

  • Heaps of buying advice so you can choose with confidence
  • Independent reviews of thousands of products and services
  • Personal advice an email or phone call away on our advice line (members only).

Disabilities and learning support

As with all children, if your child has an intellectual disability, IHC recommends you start searching for an ECE provider as soon as possible.

When you visit an ECE provider, ask these questions:

  • How are children with disabilities included in the way the service operates?
  • What support is in place for children with disabilities?

“ECE providers that respect parents as partners in their child’s early learning are likely to work well for children with disabilities,” IHC advocate Andrea Jamison said.

If your child has special developmental, behavioural or communication needs, the Ministry of Education’s Early Intervention team that can help.

Free ECE care

On your child’s third birthday, the government gives them the gift of 20 hours’ ECE every week. This gift keeps on giving until they’re at school.

Caregivers can use the hours as needed but an ECE provider may require your child to attend for a minimum number of hours.

That said, not all providers offer the 20 hours. If they do, you need to fill out a form (called an attestation) where you write the hours and days you’re claiming for. Payment is then made to the provider by the ministry.

Some kindergarten associations extend the 20 hours’ ECE up to 25 to 30 each week, with some extending the free hours for children under three. However, this isn’t a set rule, so you’ll need to check with kindies in your area about their policies.

If your child is attending more than one ECE service, you can split the hours, but you need to ensure they don’t attend either one for more than six hours at a time and you’ll have to pay if you go over the 20 hours. If your regular provider closes during school holidays, you can use the 20 hours at another service – you’ll just need to complete another attestation.

Childcare subsidy

Depending on the size of your family and income, you could also be eligible for a childcare subsidy.

Administered by the Ministry of Social Development, hours paid range from nine hours a week if you’re not in work, education or training to up to 50 hours if you are.

The ministry suggests applying at least three to four weeks before your child is due to start at their provider.

Do your homework

In addition to visiting the centres, check their Education Review Office (ERO) reports. These assess and rank providers into four categories:

  • Very well placed is like an A+. It shows the centre is providing high-quality service and the ERO will leave them to get on with it for four years.
  • Well placed is a B+. The centre is doing very well and the ERO is confident that whatever elements need work will be fixed. The report will say what the service needs to improve. The ERO will be back in three years.
  • Requires further development is like a C. It means there’s room for improvement, but the ERO has confidence the service can improve with support. The report will say what elements the service needs to work on. The ERO will audit the service in two years.
  • Not well placed is an F. It means a centre is not performing or meeting its legal requirements, and ERO can’t see how it can improve without the Ministry of Education’s help. The ministry will work with the service to meet its licensing requirements.

If you’re considering a service that rated below well placed, read the ERO report thoroughly to see what needs improving, and ask staff what’s being done to address the shortfalls.

Reports can be found at the ERO website.

Member comments

Get access to comment