Key Points:

New Zealand has an appalling child poverty rate, spends too little on early childhood services for which there is unequal access, and lags far behind other developed nations in parental leave provisions, according to a new report.

In a United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) survey of how 25 wealthy nations treated their young people, New Zealand scored better overall than other English-speaking countries, but had a long way to go to match the best.

The Child Care Transition compared 24 OECD countries plus Slovenia on 10 benchmark indicators outlining basic minimum standards for the care and protection of children.

The "transition" in the title referred to the majority of the current generation of youngsters being the first in the developed world to spend a large part of their early childhood in some form of out-of-home childcare.

Whether the transition proved to be an advance or a setback in years to come, would depend on the response of policymakers, the report said.

New Zealand was placed seventh equal, with Nordic countries and France topping the list.

New Zealand rated reasonably well in the early childcare education rankings, scoring six out of 10.

However, its child poverty rate was more than double the minimum standard and the country languished near the bottom of the table on "effective parental leave" - a measure of leave duration multiplied by per cent of salary paid. Only Australia and the United States did worse.

With public expenditure on child care and pre-school education services at just 0.4 per cent of GDP, New Zealand was placed 19th and well below the OECD average, trailing countries such as Mexico, Portugal and Hungary on public spending.

Unicef recommended 1 per cent of GDP as an appropriate level of expenditure.

New Zealand also scored poorly on a measure of near-universal outreach of essential child health services.

This measure included infant mortality rates, low birthweight, and immunisation coverage for children aged 12-33 months.

New Zealand was 19th on infant mortality, 10th on low birthweight, and 24th in terms of immunisation coverage.

At the heart of the report was the significant trend in wealthy countries for very young children to be cared for outside the home.

Approximately 80 per cent of the rich world's three- to six-year-olds are now in some form of early childhood education and care.

For those under the age of three, about one quarter across the OECD use childcare, the survey found.

Unicef NZ domestic advocacy manager Barbara Lambourn said the report sounded "a clear warning" about the need for New Zealand to improve its performance for young children.

"It is a major cause for concern that New Zealand fails to meet four of the basic minimum standards set out in the report, placing at risk positive outcomes for future generations."

As for paid parental leave, the OECD average is now close to one year, but New Zealand pays out for only 14 weeks.

The economic pressures to return to work early were felt most by the poorest families, who had the least resources available to secure high-quality childcare, Ms Lambourn said.

"Although it should be acknowledged that New Zealand has achieved much over recent years in terms of quality and access, more attention needs to be paid to turning around our performance where it fails to meet international standards.

"Taking no action puts at risk the future of New Zealand's most vulnerable children."


Herald campaign against child abuse

The Herald is this week investigating just how bad child abuse has become in New Zealand, whether we are getting justice for the victims and what is being done to turn things around.

And we are asking you to help some of the charities which are trying to make things better.

Because for every Lillybing or Nia Glassie, there are thousands of other children who have been abused, neglected or maltreated by the very people supposed to love and care for them.

Below are links to stories of charities making a difference and how to donate to them.

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

Jigsaw, an umbrella group of 31 organisations
Starship Foundation
Family Works, the child and family service of Presbyterian Support Northern.

Tomorrow: Barnardos

Read all the stories in the series here