The Government is pouring $1.5 billion per year into early childhood education without pausing to measure whether the increase is helping improve children's development.
Primary school principals say despite a huge surge in pre-school participation, they are not seeing better early literacy and numeracy skills among 5-year-olds, with some worried it is getting worse.
The Government's chief education scientific adviser, Professor Stuart McNaughton, said there needed to be ways to better understand the effects of early childhood education and how well it was meeting the needs of families and children.
"I think it's unethical to not know how well we're serving our kids," Mr McNaughton said.
"We don't know in any systematic sense just what the quality really is like on the ground, other than using indicators of 'good practice'.
"We don't know as much as we should know."
The revelations about the lack of follow-up on one of the Government's most expensive education policies were revealed by Green Party questions to Education Minister Hekia Parata, and came amid an NZME investigation into stalling achievement at primary schools.
Ms Parata said despite the huge investment in early childhood, no data had been sought on the impact the policy was having on school readiness.
Critics say the variable quality within the early childhood sector is one of the reasons children arrive at school without the skills they need to make the most out of formal learning, meaning they are at risk of lagging behind.
"You don't want children at early childhood education to be sitting on the mat and sitting up straight. You want lots of developmental play. You want the opportunity to use rich language," said principal of May Road School in Auckland's Mt Roskill, Lynda Stuart.
"But you need qualified teachers to provide quality learning environments. And we're not putting money into quality ECE."
Frances Nelson, principal at Fairburn School, said they had been concerned for a long time by students' literacy and numeracy skills as new entrants, particularly in oral language.
"If anything, we would be thinking it's deteriorating. We certainly get lots of kids with learning difficulties that aren't being picked up at preschool, so they're not getting the early intervention they need."
Participation in ECE has risen steadily over the past decade. At the same time, expenditure has tripled to $1.5 billion in 2015. The Government is pushing to hit a target of 98 per cent participation, saying high-quality early childhood education could boost long-term achievement and help at-risk children.
Centres are required to be assessed regularly by the Education Review Office to ensure they meet standards. However, the last time a systematic study was done on early literacy and numeracy levels was in 2000.
It found large discrepancies by socio-economic status, with poor children more likely to be unable to complete school-entry assessment tasks such as identifying numbers, re-telling a story or knowing which way to hold a book.
Whether that has improved is impossible to tell. Currently, the only national data on early learning levels is that collected after one year of school.
It shows that over the past three years, the proportion of children at the expected levels across reading and writing in Year 1 has decreased several percentage points, while maths has stayed the same.
Those children were from a cohort with some of the highest early childhood attendance rates ever. More than 95 per cent had been to either kindergarten, educare, playcentres or other pre-school services for at least some of the two years to 2013.
"In this case, I prefer to invest" ...
The early childhood sector has long resisted any kind of formal measure of outcomes, preferring to rely on evidence from longitudinal studies which show the positive effects of early learning in later life.
John Diggins, acting chief executive at Early Childhood New Zealand, said it had generally been agreed in the education sector that children had the first year at school to settle and orientate before being "assessed" formally.
"Formal testing would encourage the teaching of a very narrow set of skills, those that are tested, rather than providing the diverse learning experiences that form part of high-quality early childhood education," he said.
The Ministry of Education said there were no current plans to collect data from every ECE service on school readiness, literacy or numeracy, and that schools could choose whether to do entry assessments.
Schools and ECE centres were encouraged to share information to support good transitions to schools.
Ms Parata said that, in government, there was always a choice between measuring things and investing in things known to make a difference. "In this case, I prefer to invest," she said.
Ms Parata said according to the Education Review Office's reviews, the overwhelming majority of early childhood service providers were meeting or exceeding the standards expected of them.
"Undermining the investment" ...
Concerns about early childhood education have been swirling since the National Government came to power in 2008, cutting incentives for all teachers to be qualified while aggressively targeting families to put their children into care.
In the past several years, multiple studies have raised concerns about huge variations in the quality of early childhood services in New Zealand, largely in relation to how well teachers were extending children's confidence and knowledge.
For example, in 2011 an Education Review Office report into literacy said at some centres, educators lacked understanding of appropriate literacy teaching and learning practices.
The report noted that some centres failed to provide interesting literacy activities for boys, while those at the other end of the scale were attempting to teach school-like lessons to very young children, turning them off learning.
A report from the Government's Advisory Group on Early Learning warned just last year the Government risked "undermining its investment" as not all teachers were required to be qualified.
"Teachers without initial teacher education may not have the conceptual tools they need to take best advantage of professional development.
"For example, professional development in key areas such as literacy and mathematics may be ineffective if teachers do not already know the core concepts of literacy and mathematics pedagogy."
Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said the Government was well aware from its own studies that poor-quality ECE could be destructive, and needed to regulate to ensure smaller group sizes, 100 per cent trained teachers, and low adult-child ratios.
"The problems in the sector have already been identified by the Ministry of Education, but no action taken," said Ms Delahunty. "It's not rocket science to work out what the solutions are."
Early childhood education expert Professor Carmen Dalli, from Victoria University of Wellington, said the issue was about more than ensuring children were ready for school.
"That is only part of the brief. We are trying to create holistically confident and competent children, and to support families," she said.
"Children have a right to the best society has to offer. And government has the responsibility to provide it for them."
Professor Dalli said it would be better to first shift to a fully qualified workforce as there was evidence that would create better outcomes for children.
"There is no point measuring an imperfect system. When we have got a system we have faith in then we can talk about the effects."
Kindy vital to teach life skills
Tauranga Region Kindergarten Association principal Peter Monteith believes early childhood education does not stop at preparing children for primary school.
He said early childhood education was also important to help children with the development of life skills.
"We focus on disposition for learning, not just the knowledge but also curiousity and investigating," he said.
"In terms of our kindergartens, they do prepare children for school and future learning."
Mr Monteith said in his experience, early childhood education allowed children to have a "very rounded education".
"It allows children to explore academically ... and to explore physically, such as outdoor areas, and encourages them to explore and get in touch with nature.
"We are not simply childcare - it's a real education focus."
He said he would be concerned if early childhood education was focused solely on primary school preparation, because that would be limiting for children.
"You might miss whole chunks."
Mr Monteith stressed how important socialisation skills were for children who were leaving kindergarten to go to a primary school.
"They're going from a school of 30 to 40 to, in some cases, 600 to 700. Socialisation is really important in early childhood education."
He said the Education Review Office oversaw kindergarten performances, which meant the education provided was being reviewed regularly.
Mr Monteith said the association gained feedback from parents in 2014 on their early childhood education, and the "data was overwhelmingly positive from parents".
"We weren't surprised, but it was heartening to have that confirmed," he said.
- Anna Whyte