Private centre, home-based care, playcentre, kindergarten ... the world of early childhood education is a complex and often expensive minefield. No wonder parents and caregivers are overwhelmed when it comes to the best options for under-5s. With most mums and dads in paid work by choice or necessity, the number of preschoolers in care and education facilities is higher than ever. So what should you be looking for as a parent? Why does it cost so much? And which is the best childcare option for you and your child? The New Zealand Herald finds out in a six-part Premium series.
As life turned out, Cat Dow had to find daycare in a hurry when her baby daughter was just 11 months old.
She had no relatives available to help. Her husband Andy's parents are in Kaitaia; her own family is in Britain.
Her last job was overseas so she planned to look for a new job once her first child, Cara, was old enough.
"Initially I wasn't planning to go back till she was a year old. But a role came up. I applied, and they wanted me to start sooner than I initially thought," she says.
"I hadn't thought at all about childcare till I was suddenly needing to go back to work - so it was a bit of a shock."
Now that most of us are back at work, many parents are again looking for childcare. The options can be bamboozling. There's kindergarten, playcentre, kōhanga reo, home-based care, playgroups and, at least in Auckland, new centres with attractive names seem to be popping up on every second street corner.
To make life a little easier, the Herald has produced this interactive map below so that you can search for services in your neighbourhood and see how many children they cater for in each age group and their ERO ratings.
Like many parents looking for childcare, Dow googled. And, fortunately, she had joined an informal mothers' group so she asked around there.
The first factor she considered was location.
"I've got a lot of different childcares in my area, and also near my work, and I tried to think about which would be better," she says.
"I ended up deciding to go for one near my home, partly because my daughter is not a great traveller and I thought getting through the traffic on the way to and back from work with a screaming child wouldn't be fun."
But she didn't have a completely free choice. A traditional kindergarten, which is close to the family home in Māngere Bridge, was ruled out because it only opens from 8.30am to 3.30pm, and Dow planned to work full days, initially four days a week.
Money also narrowed her options.
"I did investigate Porse home-based education, but that ended up being a bit too expensive for us," she says. "Porse was $10 or $12 an hour, it was a lot more expensive."
(Porse owner Rrahul Dosshi says Porse educators are independent contractors and set their own fees; he says fees average $5-$8 an hour, and $10-$12 would be "at the higher end of the range").
Next, Dow took Cara to visit four centres "with a range of different feels to them".
"I just went with my gut feel," she says.
"I found the bigger ones, which were beautiful with great facilities, I just didn't get quite as good a feeling from.
"The one I settled on is close to my home, it's small, it's a renovated house. It has got that kind of home feel to it, which I really liked.
"And I liked how the lady who runs it was very willing to spend a lot of time with me as a parent and understood how I parent and was really keen to support that."
The centre she chose, The Miller Nest in Miller Rd, Māngere Bridge, is licensed for 35 children, including up to 10 under age 2. Dow was pleased that there were actually only about eight under 2, compared with 20 at another place she visited.
"It was just that it was smaller - less staff for Cara to get to know and connect with," she explains.
The centre let her bring Cara free for a week before she started officially, gradually spending more time there each day together until Cara felt safe.
Dow's first day at work was still painful.
"It was hard to start with for both of us. I think I cried all the way to work. It was tough," she says.
But the centre texted her at work through those first days, sending photos of Cara smiling and happy.
"It did take her a while to settle, maybe two weeks before dropoffs got a bit easier," she says. "They are very experienced, so they kind of coached me through that."
Dow's experience has become typical of the way things are now in New Zealand.
Moving into care
Only two or three generations ago, virtually all mothers stayed at home at least until their children started school. In 1961, only 21 per cent of women aged 25 to 34 were working fulltime, and they were mostly those without children.
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But in the second great wave of feminism, women from the 1960s onwards insisted on their right to work.
A major breakthrough came in 1988 when a working group led by Dr Anne Meade proposed funding all childcare, as well as kindergartens and playcentres, at hourly rates that were set by the Labour government of the day from 1990.
As house prices inflated to what two-income households could afford to pay, even parents who wanted to stay home with young children felt they had to go to work to pay the mortgage.
And as feminism and sole-parent benefits empowered women to leave soured relationships, governments worried by the resulting welfare bills pushed them into work. Helen Clark paid an in-work tax credit from 2005 only to couples who worked at least 30 hours a week and sole parents working at least 20 hours; and from 2016 John Key required beneficiaries to seek work for at least 20 hours a week when their youngest children turned 3. These rules are still in force.
Today, 80 per cent of women aged 25 to 34 are in paid work (fulltime or part-time), and the trend is to put children into care at ever younger ages: 69 per cent of 2-year-olds, 47 per cent of 1-year-old toddlers and 16 per cent of babies under 1 are now in care.
Only two other advanced nations have more babies under 1 in care: Luxembourg (27 per cent) and Israel (31 per cent).
A growth industry
Growing demand for all-day care has fuelled explosive growth in privately owned daycare. Enrolments in privately owned centres and home-based services have almost trebled from 44,284 in 2002, when ownership data became available, to 118,165 last year.
Conversely, enrolments have declined from 111,903 to 80,758 in community-owned services including kindergartens (down 37 per cent), playcentres (down 36 per cent), kōhanga reo (down 18 per cent) and centres owned by other community groups such as churches, councils and community centres (down 6 per cent).
The main factor driving the shift to the private sector has been the collapse of half-day, or "sessional", care. In 2002 almost half of the children were in sessional care; by last year that was down to 5 per cent, almost solely in parent-run playcentres.
Even kindergartens, which were mainly sessional in 2002, are all now classed as "all-day" services - although their hours are still mostly school-length days like the Māngere Bridge kindergarten, whereas some private services now open for as long as 7am-8pm.
Cat Dow pays $180 a week for Cara to stay at the Miller Nest from 7.30am to 4.30pm, now only three days a week.
She worked four days a week when she first went back to work, and thought about swapping with another family so they could look after Cara for four days and she could look after their child on her day off. But she dropped that idea once the reality of working sank in.
"On the one day I had at home, I just wanted to spend time with Cara," she says.
How the system works
New Zealand has a bewildering 4653 licensed early childhood services, ranging from au-pair and other home-based services where visiting teachers supervise often-untrained home-based caregivers up to kindergartens where all the staff are fully qualified.
"At the moment anyone can open a centre," says Auckland early childhood teacher Susan Bates, who runs a Facebook-based Teachers Advocacy Group for 3600 ECE teachers. "They don't need experience. All they need is money."
Actually they do need to meet a few basic conditions to be deemed a "fit and proper person" to look after children, such as not having been convicted of any crime involving harm to children, violence or fraud.
They also have to comply with conditions such as adult/child ratios (generally 1:5 for under-2s and 1:10 aged 2-plus), space (at least 2.5 square metres indoors plus five square metres outdoors per child) and temperature (at least 16C).
Although owners and managers may not be trained teachers, every service must have a qualified "person responsible", often called a head teacher, for every 50 children.
The vast majority (82 per cent) of the 200,000 children in licensed ECE are in "teacher-led" centres where at least half of the staff must hold early childhood teaching qualifications - normally a three-year degree.
Almost all of these (80 per cent of all 200,000 children) are in centres where actually at least 80 per cent of staff are qualified, because that brings in the highest state subsidies.
"Kindergartens", originally called "free kindergartens" but now serving only 14 per cent of all children, get even higher subsidies, even though they are now legally indistinguishable from other ECE centres except that they must belong to a free kindergarten association. They have been allowed to charge fees since 2008.
A small minority (18 per cent) of all children are in home-based and "parent-led" services such as kōhanga reo and playcentres, and they get the lowest state subsidies.
How to choose
Bates has worked as a reliever in more than 80 centres and warns parents not to take anything at face value.
"They look so lovely," she says.
"[But] I have seen children not being changed all day, not being fed enough, going hungry, children with behavioural issues given no attention and just yelled at, small children being shouted at, places where they just demand compliance to go through the routines."
She says there is no shortcut way to choose, such as going by type of service or ownership.
"I wouldn't say non-profit is better, because there are centres that are for-profit that are great because the management understand what they are doing," she says.
"If I was a parent, I would look for their staff turnover, their resources, the manager and the philosophy of the centre."
Reports on every ECE service are published roughly every three years by the Education Review Office (ERO), which rates them on a four-point scale of how well-placed they are to "promote positive learning outcomes for children":
• Very well placed (14 per cent of ECE services in June 2019);
• Well placed (75 per cent);
• Requires further development (3 per cent);
• Not well placed (1 per cent).
• There are also "assurance reviews" for centres where faults have been found and new centres (7 per cent combined).
ERO says it "will maintain an ongoing relationship" to fix problems at services "requiring further development". It refers the few that are "not well placed" to the Ministry of Education, which may downgrade or cancel their licences.
Parents can use the Herald's interactive map (see above) to search for services in their neighbourhood.
Similar maps are available from the Ministry of Education and on at least two sites which allow parents to post comments on each service: MyECE, run by Wellington-based Child Forum founder Dr Sarah Alexander, and CareforKids, an Australian company that has recently moved into NZ.
MyECE also publishes an annual list of all ECE services that breached regulations.
Today: Where do we start?
Tuesday: What are the options?
Wednesday: Why does it cost so much?
Thursday: How young is too young?
Friday: The big players.
Saturday: Does my child feel loved?
Read the series at nzherald.co.nz/education