Thousands of children begin secondary school each year without the reading, writing or maths skills needed to make it through. In our series 'The Primary Issue' we look at what more can be done to raise achievement for all Kiwi kids.

• Government spends $1.5 billion a year on early childhood education
• Increased participation is aimed at boosting long-term achievement and helping at-risk children
• But there is no system-wide measure on the effect services are having on school readiness
• Chief Education Scientific Advisor calls the situation "unethical"
• Multiple reports have raised concerns about the quality of literacy and numeracy teaching in the sector

The Government is pouring an extra billion dollars a 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 was 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 come amid a Herald investigation into stalling achievement at primary schools.

Ms Parata said despite the massive 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 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 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 at 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."

Rising participation

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 regularly assessed 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.

Primary children meeting National Standards after one year at school. Herald Graphic
Primary children meeting National Standards after one year at school. Herald Graphic

"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.

It said on two key indicators for quality - child to teacher ratios, and qualifications - New Zealand scored among the best in the world.

Education minister Hekia Parata said 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 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 early childhood centres educators lacked understanding of appropriate literacy teaching and learning practices.

Read more:
The trouble with NZ's primary schools
The Primary Issue: National Standards - why aren't they working?
The Primary Issue: Quality of school report cards a 'lottery'

The report noted 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 act to raise quality by regulating 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," Ms Delahunty said. "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 simply 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 plenty of 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."

Reading recovery teacher Mary Jacob working with Gabriella Brown-Letele, 6, at Hay Park School. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Reading recovery teacher Mary Jacob working with Gabriella Brown-Letele, 6, at Hay Park School. Photo / Jason Oxenham

'There's huge urgency and no holding back'

When Gabrielle Letele began at her new school this year, her mother was worried. The shy 6-year-old was struggling to learn to read and it was affecting her confidence.

"I used to wonder all the time if she was okay, if she was in classes where teachers didn't pick up on kids that were quiet," Vaimaua Brown-Letele said. "I didn't want her to be behind."

The family decided to move Gabrielle to Hay Park primary, a decile one school in Mt Roskill. Gabrielle was assessed, the school swept into action, and just one term later counts reading as her favourite thing to do with mum and dad.

"We have seen such a dramatic positive change," Mrs Brown-Letele said. "She's much happier to go to school, and she's always got her reading bag out."

The rate of children meeting reading expectations at Hay Park is 30 per cent higher than the decile one average. It also has more than 50 per cent of its students in the highest achievement bracket despite arriving with very low literacy and numeracy levels, and varying experience with early childhood education.

"There's huge urgency," principal Sheree Campbell said. "All of our staff are really aware of that. There's no mucking around. We just say, this is our starting point and there's no holding back."

The school runs a programme called Mutukaroa, a home and school partnership devised at another Auckland school, Sylvia Park, which aims to lift achievement by getting families more involved.

Because many of the parents at Hay Park have English has a second language, or different experiences of school themselves, Ms Campbell says it is important to build their confidence as well.

"They might not have a lot of money but our parents want the best for their kids," she said. "But for some parents they just don't know how to have those conversations."

Mutukaroa has a co-ordinator, teacher Tina Fortes. When children begin at Hay Park, their teacher assesses them. Ms Fortes calls the family within a week, and meets with them to run through the findings and set goals.

Families are given resources to use at home, such as board games or cards, and explained how to use to them help their children.

"It's about enabling parents, too. Teaching them how to ask questions, so they feel at ease," Ms Fortes said. "We have seen the parents change. They're more involved now. They know what they have to do to be successful."

Follow up interviews are done after 10 weeks, and new goals set. Extra support can also be provided at school - for example, Gabrielle was enrolled in reading recovery, too.

Mrs Brown-Letele said having the resources at home had been fun for the whole family, and her 4-year-old son had picked up some skills from playing along. They also used a website to look up kids' activities.

"We are so grateful to know what we can do at home, and to understand what is going on in the classroom too."

The series

• Day 1: National Standards: A failed crusade?

• Day 2: Measuring the success of Early Childhood Education

• Day 3: Teacher quality: How to raise the status

• Day 4: The problem with maths

• Day 5: Peace, war and reading