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 6-part Premium series.
Keryn Grogan tried every kind of childcare for her two children, but realised in the end that it came down to love.
Her son Xavier, now 7, stayed at a playcentre until he started school because Grogan worked only part-time and was able to spend time at the playcentre with him.
For a while she took in other children, too, as a home-based educator.
But when daughter Alice, now 5, was 16 months old, Grogan started work outside the home and placed Alice with another home-based educator.
When the family moved to another suburb, she tried a private daycare centre briefly, but felt home-based care was better because Alice could form a secure bond with one adult.
Then, when she was 3 and a half, Alice moved into a kindergarten.
"I was working more, and I didn't feel that I could give the same commitment to playcentre," Grogan explains.
The kindergarten opened only from 8.30am to 2.30pm, but Grogan and her husband made it work.
"My husband would start work really early, like 6am. I'd get them off to school and kindy, and he would come back and pick her up from kindy and pick up our son from school. We are still doing that now."
These varied experiences changed Grogan's views of what matters.
"When I had my first, one of my opening questions was, 'What do you do to get kids ready for school?'" she says.
"But my philosophy developed, and as I saw my oldest one go to school, I kind of moved away from the whole school-readiness thing.
"Most parents are concerned about that, but now I think, let's give them as much time to play as possible, because once they started school they picked up reading and writing really quickly.
"I think a lot of people think about the practical things - nappies, food, how close is it to home, the physical environment, teacher turnover," she says.
"The main thing I was thinking about is: does my child feel safe here, does my child feel secure here, does my child feel at home and comfortable and loved?"
What matters most
It's not that "the practical things" don't matter. This series has provided a map to help parents choose childcare close to home or work, and has examined " red flags " in the physical environment such as being on polluted main roads or having no natural area for children to experience nature.
• Choosing childcare: Where do we start?
• Choosing childcare: the options
• Choosing childcare: Why does it cost so much?
• Choosing childcare: How young is too young?
• Choosing childcare: price war for kids
• Choosing childcare: An insider's view
Helen May, an emeritus professor at Otago University who has spent a lifetime in early childhood education (ECE), says that when her own daughter asked for advice on choosing childcare she gave her "a long list".
"She said, 'I can't look for all of that'," May recalls.
More recently, her daughter's sister-in-law asked her the same question. This time, May acknowledged "constraints" such as suitable hours and affordable fees, but advised that the most important thing was the people who would be looking after the child.
"The first thing I always say is look at the quality of the teachers. What is the percentage who are qualified? I wouldn't go for anything less than 80 per cent," she says.
"I look through the shiny toys, they are not important. Look at the relationships: to what extent are those children getting talked to? Are the teachers listening to those children, even if the children can't speak? Do the teachers know the children?"
Nick Batley, head teacher at the community-owned Glenfield Early Learning Centre , is also a father of three young boys and is looking for childcare for his 1-year-old because his wife is going back to work.
"The first thing is, how do you feel when you walk in the door? Are the staff friendly? Is the manager helpful?" he says.
"Parents have to go in and ask questions: If the children are sleeping, where do they sleep? What are they eating? Do they have to bring their own food? What do they learn during the day? This is all age-dependent, if it's a baby it's more of a care routine."
He says in an article for this series that ECE teachers are "exiting the sector and sometimes the country" because pay rates in private and community-owned centres have fallen behind new pay scales for kindergartens .
At face value, it's hard to differentiate between centres based on qualified teachers because 96 per cent of "education and care centres", as well as virtually all kindergartens, can now say they get the top "80 per cent" state funding rate for using qualified teachers to deliver at least 80 per cent of their required staff hours for their numbers of children.
However this measure has now become meaningless, because almost all centres can also say that their staff/child ratios are better than the required minimums of 1:5 under age 2 and 1:10 aged 2-plus.
The actual average ratios for the past five years have been 1:3 under 2 and 1:6 aged 2-plus in education and care centres, and 1:7.5 aged 2-plus in kindergartens.
But most of the additional staff above the required minimums are unqualified, and there has actually been a massive increase in unqualified staff since Sir John Key's government abolished a higher funding rate for using qualified teachers to deliver 100 per cent of the required staff hours from February 2011, redirecting funding into boosting ECE in low-income areas.
We can only rely on the figures since 2014, when electronic data began, but in the five years from 2014 to 2019 unqualified teachers jumped by 60 per cent, from 6427 to 10,298.
Qualified teachers also increased, but only by 15 per cent, from 18,857 to 21,767. The proportions of qualified teachers slipped slightly from 95 to 94 per cent in kindergartens, and fell from 70 per cent to 63 per cent in education and care centres.
Does it matter?
Parent-led early childhood services such as playcentre and kōhanga reo argue that there is no need for all early childhood teachers to be qualified.
Dr Suzanne Manning, who completed a doctorate last year on the impact of state policies on playcentres , suggests requiring 80 per cent qualified teachers and 20 per cent "parents in training" and student teachers in education and care centres and kindergartens.
"I believe in the value of whānau working alongside teachers in early childhood settings, and what that does for whānau development and children way beyond early childhood," she says.
"Parents who get to know other people's children will be better parents."
But Dr Sarah Alexander of Child Forum, who wrote the Ministry of Education's "best evidence synthesis" on quality ECE teaching in 2003, argues that only qualified teachers should be counted to meet the minimum staffing ratios, and unqualified parents or trainees should be allowed only as additional staff.
"If it's an education and care service where you leave your child with other adults and parents are not involved in any substantial way as teachers, then those adults should have training in teaching and in early child development to be able to foster that child's learning and provide appropriate experiences for children," she says.
"Research has shown that where they don't have a high level of training, they can be more controlling."
Dr Sarah Alexander's Formula for Remarkable Quality Early Childhood Education and Care
1. Not too many babies and children : No hard numbers, but "do you feel there are too many children for your child, that your child looks lost in the crowd?"
2. Lots of laughter, fun, cuddles and affection : "Little kids need to have fun, they need to have enjoyment in their lives, it can't be all serious."
3. Adults provide close supervision and always know what each child is doing : "Is there a child anywhere who is not being noticed or is out of sight of any teacher?"
4. There's lots of talking, discussion and building of shared memories : "When you have an experience together, then you have something to talk about."
5. Adults hold expectations for children's learning and development : "During children's play, the teacher should be very skilled at spotting just what little bit more the kids could be doing and introducing those teachable moments."
6. There is heaps of play space inside and outside : "Children need to have access to some outdoor natural area during the day, to be able to see insects in the grass."
7. There are a variety of play areas and materials, with opportunities also for children to learn about adult work, e.g. cooking and gardening : "A well set-up play environment with different activities and different choices so a child can go around and try different things."
8. Safe noise levels are maintained : "If you have to raise your voice to be heard, that's a key indicator that it's not safe." (Exceptions allowed for short-term events such as a music activity).
9. High attention is given to correct hand-washing and hygiene practices : "Handwashing after going to the toilet, before eating and after touching your nose."
10. Children's interests, personality and family values are known, appreciated and responded to : "The child will come in and the teacher will bend down to the child and say, 'I heard your dog, (dog's name), has been sick, is he getting better?'"
11. There's always something on offer, so more choices and less down-time (less passive watching, aimless wandering and screen-time) : "The teacher will notice a child who is not included and say, 'Would you like to try this?' or, 'Shall we go and read a story?'"
12. Children's personal privacy and space is respected, such as when using the toilet or wanting to be left alone to play uninterrupted : "A skilled teacher will notice if one little boy is interfering in what other kids are doing, and will say, 'Come on, let's go and do something else instead."
Early childhood education is poised for a major overhaul in the next 10 years - if the Labour-led Government is returned in the September 19 election.
Historically, the sector has been transformed twice before by Labour governments: in 1989, when Geoffrey Palmer started subsidising all childcare not just in kindergartens; and in 2007, when Helen Clark started funding 20 hours a week free for children aged 3 and 4.
Jacinda Ardern is not offering anything quite so radical. But her 2019 Early Learning Plan proposes to give the sector an extra $5.5 billion over the next 10 years , implying a funding boost of around 30 per cent a year by 2029 on top of the $2 billion a year that taxpayers now give it.
The major proposals are:
• Restoring a higher funding rate for early childhood education (ECE) services with 100 per cent qualified teachers from next January, and requiring all teachers to be qualified by 2029.
• Improving staff/child ratios from 1:5 to 1:4 for under-2-year-olds from the middle of this decade, and from 1:10 to 1:5 for 2-year-olds by late in the decade.
• Implementing "a mechanism that improves the levels and consistency of teachers' salaries" across the sector. Pay hikes of up to 9.6 per cent from July 1 were described as just a first step towards putting all qualified teachers on the same scale.
Regardless of the election outcome, any new government will have to keep closing the pay gap. The higher salaries available in kindergartens, coming on top of a teacher shortage, are forcing private centres to pay more, and that will force them to raise fees for parents unless taxpayers help out.
A National Party education discussion document issued last November proposes to "lift minimum-pay requirements for qualified ECE staff".
However, National's ECE spokesperson Nicola Willis has said requiring all ECE teachers to be qualified is " unrealistic ".
"There are about 10,000 experienced educators currently working in ECE without formal teaching qualifications. It makes no sense to exclude them when there is such a dire lack of educators available," she said.
National has also made no promises to improve ECE teacher/child ratios. Instead, its discussion document focuses on improving quality through more spot checks of ECE centres. It has also promised to abolish teacher registration fees .
At the last election Labour's support partners NZ First and the Greens both supported restoring a higher funding rate for 100 per cent qualified teachers, and NZ First supported improving the staffing ratio for under-twos.
The Act Party would give every child $12,000 a year from the age of 2 in a student education account which can be used immediately or saved.
Monday: 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 .
Today: Does my child feel loved?
Read the series at nzherald.co.nz/education