Participation in early childhood education

What We Have Found

Participation in ECE has increased steadily, with 96% of children starting school having attended ECE in the year ending June 2013, up from 90% in 2000.

Average hours spent per week is around 22 hours for both older (3 and 4 year-olds) and younger (2 years and under) age groups.

New Zealand is ranked in the top third of OECD countries for participation in early childhood education.

Date Updated: March 2014

Indicator Description

Three indicators have been used in this report. They are:

Prior participation in ECE, 2000-2013. This shows prior participation in ECE for children starting school. The indicator focuses on changes across ethnic groups between 2000 and 2013.

Enrolment rates in ECE, 2000-2013. This shows the number of enrolments in ECE over time as a percentage of the population. The indicator focuses on differences between years of age and compares enrolment patterns across different service types and ethnic groups. This section also compares participation in New Zealand with that in other OECD countries.

Average hours per week spent in ECE, 2000-2013. This shows average number of hours per week that children have spent in ECE. The indicator focuses on differences between years of age and service types.

Why This Is Important

Participation in high quality ECE has significant benefits for children and their future learning ability. Some studies have found that engagement in ECE helps to develop strong foundations for future learning success (Statistics NZ and Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, 2010).These effects apply to all children but may be particularly important for building academic achievement in children from poorer communities and socio-economic backgrounds (ibid, and Mitchell, et al, 2008).

ECE has been shown to positively impact literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills well into the teenage years, while other studies have shown that high quality ECE encourages the development of cognitive and attitudinal competencies, and leads to higher levels of achievement and better social outcomes (ibid, OECD, 2011, Statistics NZ and Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, 2010, and Wylie et al, 2009).

International and longitudinal studies have also found that participation in high quality ECE can translate into improved longer-term outcomes. Several studies have identified links between participation in ECE and better social and economic outcomes for children when they reach older ages (ibid). This link is, again, strong for disadvantaged children. Some studies have also identified positive relationships between ECE participation and the affect on wider societal outcomes; for example, ensuring participation in the labour force and in building labour force capability (Ministry of Women's Affairs, 2004).

ECE Participation has been identified as a key factor in supporting vulnerable children which has led to its inclusion in the Better Public Services Programme,launched in 2012. This Programme aims to increase participation in early childhood education to 98% of all new entrants by 2016 (State Services Commission, 2012).

How We Are Going

Participation rose steadily between 2000 and 2013

There have been steady rises in ECE participation between 2000 and 2013 (Figure 1). Overall, participation increased by 5.6 percentage points, rising from 90.0% of all children starting school to 95.6%.

Figure 1: Prior participation in ECE of children starting school by ethnic group, 2000-2013

European children were the most likely to attend ECE across the period, with participation rates reaching 98.2%, while Māori and Pasifika children continued to be the least likely to attend.

However, the rise in participation was greatest for Pasifika and Māori children. These groups' participation rose by 12.7 and 9.2 percentage points respectively, between 2000 and 2013. By 2013, 88.6% of Pasifika and 92.3% of Māori children had participated in ECE before starting school, compared with 75.8% and 83.1% respectively, in 2000.

The ECE Participation Programme was introduced in 2010 to improve participation in ECE, by targeting specific local areas where participation is low. This Programme is made up of various projects that aim to support Māori, Pasifika, and low-income families to enrol their children in ECE.  In 2013, 96% of children in the programme came from target groups; just over half of the participants (53%) as Māori children and 40% as Pasifika children.

There has been two distinct periods of participation growth over the last 13 years. Children in most ethnic groups maintained steady rises in participation from around 2008. The introduction of 20 Hours ECE in 2007 encouraged higher uptake of ECE across all groups of children, and accounts for much of this trend. Māori and Pasifika rates have also had larger gains since 2012, which may reflect the impact of participation initiatives introduced since 2010.

The other significant period of rise in participation was between 2001 and 2004 which was, again, especially distinct in the increase of Pasifika and Māori participation.  Much of the policy that was developed over this period was designed to increase access to and uptake of ECE for families from lower socio-economic backgrounds (Adema, 2006, and McTaggart, 2005). They included;

  • rises in funding for the Childcare Subsidy in the early-2000s,
  • the expansion of the Family Start programme in 2001, and
  • the initiation of Equity Funding for community-based services in 2002.

Enrolment rates by age

Children aged 3 and 4 are the most likely to participate in ECE.  Collectively they made up between 61% and 67% of the total number of children enrolled between 2000 and 2013.

Figure 2 shows enrolment rates (the number of enrolments as a percentage of population for each year of age. In June 2013, the rates varied from 15% for under-ones to 100% for four year-olds.  At 96%, the rates of three year-olds are close to those of four year-olds.

Because children are counted more than once if they attend more than one service, enrolment rates tend to overstate true population participation rates, and in fact can go over 100%, as they did for 4year-olds in 2011 and 2013.

The overall enrolment rate for 0-4 year-olds (weighted by their population share in 2013) has risen consistently over time.  It increased by 8.0 percentage points in the ten years to 2013, rising from 56.5% to 64.5%.  The rates rose gradually for all age groups in the early 2000's, but have kicked up for those aged one, two and three years old in recent years.

Figure 2: Enrolment rates in licensed ECE services, by year of age, 2000-2013

Population is one of the main influences on ECE enrolments. Between 2000 and 2007, the population of those aged 2 years and under grew by 5.2% compared with 0.1% for children aged 3 and 4. This partially accounts for this groups' markedly higher rise in enrolments, up 27% compared with 4% for older children over this period. Enrolment rates for younger children also rose at a faster rate than for older children between 2000 and 2007 (6.0% compared with 3.4%).

However, between 2007 and 2013, the population of children aged 3 and 4 grew faster than that of children aged under 3 (9.9% compared with 2.2%), Despite this growth, enrolment numbers of younger children grew much faster than those of older children (21% compared with 15%).This period of population growth also coincided with the introduction of 20 Hours ECE, which introduced up to 20 hours a week free ECE for children aged 3 and 4. This saw the enrolment rate for 3 year-olds jump from 90% to 93% between 2007 and 2008.

Figure 3 shows how changes in population (in this case, for children aged 3) are reflected in changes in enrolment numbers. Both population and funding changes led to noticeable increases in enrolments for children aged 3 and 4 from 2007.

Overall, the growth in enrolment rates between 2000 and 2013 has been highest for children aged one, two and three years. There was a 17 percentage point increase in the proportion of 2 year-olds enrolled from 48% to 65%. Similarly the proportion of 1 year-olds enrolled increased from 29% to 44% and the proportion of 3 year-olds enrolled rose from 85% to 96% over the same period.

Figure 3: Population, enrolments and enrolment rate for 3 year-olds, 2000-2013

Participation by type of service

Most children are enrolled in education & care services, as can be seen in Figure 4.  These services took 62% of the number of enrolments in licensed ECE services in 2013.  Kindergartens had the next largest share (17%), followed by home-based services (9%), playcentres (7%), and ngā kōhanga reo (5%).

In 2013, only two service types had a greater number of enrolments compared with 2003. In education and care services, enrolments have grown 57% over the last ten years, while in home-based services they have grown by 96%.

This is consistent with the rapid growth in the number of these services.  By contrast, enrolments fell in kindergartens (by 22%), ngā kōhanga reo (by 11%), and playcentres (by 11%).

The fall in kindergarten enrolments was due to the change from being mostly sessional services to mostly all-day services, with their number of enrolments consequently falling and their average hours per enrolment rising.

Figure 4: Number of enrolments by service type, 2000-20131

Children of different ages use ECE in different ways.  Figure 5 shows how each age group is spread across the service types.  A greater proportion of younger children use playcentres and home-based services, while a greater percentage of older children use kindergartens.  As a consequence, use of education & care services is highest for the mid-age children (two year-olds) than for any other age group.

Figure 5: Percentage of enrolments in each service type, by year of age (2013)1

ECE use also varies across the ethnic groups (Figure 6).  For Māori, 20% of enrolments are in ngā kōhanga reo, with fewer being in education & care services as a consequence.  Playcentres and home-based services are more likely to be used by Europeans than by other ethnic groups, with their use being lowest for Pasifika children.  Kindergartens are the only service type where use across the ethnic groups is most consistent, with it ranging from 17% to 19%.

Figure 6: Percentage of enrolments in each service type, by ethnic group (2013)1

Internationally, New Zealand has comparatively high ECE participation

An international comparison of enrolment rates for children aged 3-4 years shows that New Zealand ranked 12th highest across OECD countries in 2011 (Figure 7).

Overall, the average enrolment rate for 3-4 year-olds in early childhood and primary education across the OECD was 75% while the enrolment rate for New Zealand 3-4 year-olds was 90%.

Figure 7: Enrolment rates of 3-4 year olds in early childhood or primary education by OECD country, 2011.

Children are spending more time in ECE per week

The time that children spend in ECE per week has been increasing. Figure 8 shows that the average number of hours per enrolment per week rose from 13.5 hours in 2000 to 21.7 hours in 2013 (up 60%).

While historically, younger children, on average, have spent one or two more hours in ECE per week than their older counterparts, this gap has been narrowing since the introduction of 20 Hours ECE in 2007.  In 2012, average hours spent in ECE for older children overtook those of younger children.
Certain types of services tend to be used by children of particular ages which, in turn, affect the number of hours children attend each week. Kindergartens and playcentres are more likely than other services to provide shorter, sessional services which may lower the number of hours children will attend ECE, in particular where those children do not also enrol in other forms of ECE.

Figure 9 shows that kindergartens and playcentres tend to have longer hours of attendance for older children while home-based services have longer hours for younger children. In some cases, there has been some notable cross-over in the ages of children that will use certain types of ECE services. For instance, hours spent at kindergarten services increased over the period. This may be because of changes to funding criteria in the mid-2000s which led many kindergartens to incorporate all-day rather than sessional formats.

Hours spent at education and care services also increased over the period and most significantly for older-aged children, up 61% for 3 year-olds and 51% for 4 year-olds on 2000.

Average hours spent in education and care services for 4 year-olds is now at a similar level with time spent for 1 year-olds which suggests a possible change in preference for service types for the older age groups.

Figure 8: Average hours spent per week in ECE per enrolment by age group, 2000-2013

Figure 9: Average number of hours spent per week in ECE per enrolment by year of age and service type between 2000 and 2013

There have been visible changes in ECE service preference over time. These changes may be linked to how parents have been participating in the labour market, and have meant that factors like cost, flexibility in the length of sessions provided, and levels of parental involvement have become prominent in how families assess what services they use (Adema, 2006).

For instance, in the mid-1990s, session-based kindergartens that catered for older children and that had a high level of parental involvement also had higher enrolments (ibid). Today, services that offer higher levels of flexibility in the length and regularity of their services, cater for younger children, and do not require parental involvement (such as education and care and home-based services) are most popular (Ministry of Women's Affairs, 2004, Ministry of Education, 2012, Adema, 2006).


  1. Figures 4-6 exclude The Correspondence School, Hospital-based services, casual education and care services and playgroups.