ECE Participation Programme Evaluation

Publication Details

The Early Childhood Education (ECE) Participation Programme was set up in 2010, and focuses on increasing ECE participation in areas where children are not participating in quality ECE before starting school. These are largely Māori and Pasifika children, and children from low socio-economic communities. The initiatives set up under the Participation Programme contribute to achieving the Government’s Better Public Service goal that in 2016, 98% of children starting school will have participated in quality ECE.

This baseline report on the delivery of ECE participation initiatives details findings from a stage one evaluation of the programme, completed by the University of Waikato. It looks at initiatives started in 2010/2011. Further stages of the evaluation are underway.

Author(s): Linda Mitchell, Patricia Meagher-Lundberg, Maretta Taylor, Toia Calcutt, Telesia Kalavite, Helena Kara, and Vanessa Paki, University of Waikato.

Date Published: July 2013

Executive Summary

This report is of the first stage of an evaluation of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE’s) Participation Programme. This programme comprises of a package of six initiatives to increase participation in ECE in target communities where the greatest number of children without prior ECE participation live. The aim of the programme is to increase the number of children participating in quality ECE by 3,500 by the year 2014, and to prioritise communities with the greatest number of children who do not have prior ECE participation. Funding of $91.760 million was allocated for participation initiatives in Budget 2010.

MOE data shows lower participation rates for Māori and Pasifika children compared with European/Pākehā children nationally and in the target communities. There are proportionally more children aged zero to four years in the most deprived localities in New Zealand,1 and children from these localities also have lower rates of ECE participation. Ka Hikitia sets a target for prior ECE participation of 95% Māori children starting school. Currently the figure is 90.3%. The Pasifika Education Plan targets for the period 2009—2012 had been reached in 2011 when data was gathered for the project. However, the Pasifika Education Plan targets for Pasifika children were revised for the period 2013-2017 and aim for the proportion of Pasifika children starting school who have participated in ECE to increase from 86.2% in 2012 to 98% in 2016. Priority children are deemed to be non-participating Māori and Pasifika children, and children from low socioeconomic communities.

The participation initiatives are:

  • Engaging Priority Families (EPF)—intensive support programmes for 3 and 4-year-olds and their families, aimed at leading to enrolment in ECE, regular participation in ECE, support for learning at home and a successful transition to school.
  • Supported Playgroups (SP)—certificated playgroups, with regular support from a kaimanaaki/playgroup educator in areas with low participation.
  • Flexible and Responsive Home-based Services (FRHB)—aim to either expand existing services and community agencies into home-based ECE delivery or to transition informal care arrangements into licensed and certificated ECE environments.
  • Identity, Language, Culture and Community Engagement (ILCCE)—support packages providing identity, language and culture professional support for clusters of services that have available child spaces and are not responsive to their community.
  • Intensive Community Participation Programme (ICPP)—community-led participation projects established to address the specific reasons children are not participating in ECE.
  • Targeted Assistance for Participation (TAP)—grants, incentives and partnership opportunities to help establish new services and child spaces in those communities where new child places are needed most and are not being created quickly enough.

The participation initiatives are being introduced in waves over 2010 to 2014. The targeting of particular initiatives within target areas is based on a needs assessment and local MOE knowledge.

This evaluation report covers only the first stage of the Participation Programme, focused on initiatives started in 2010/2011. The main focus of Stage 1 was to examine how the participation initiatives were working early in their development to address barriers to participation and increase ECE participation for Māori children, Pasifika children and children in low socioeconomic areas where initiatives were operating. The initiatives were in their early stages and were not expected to have large numbers of children enrolled in them. There were limitations on the number of families who could be involved.

Later stages will include the initiatives that were started in 2010/2011 as well as others starting later. This report provides a baseline picture of participation against which change can be gauged, and of barriers and enablers to participation, whether and how the participation initiatives are reducing barriers, and the effectiveness of the programme to date. Subsequent stages will review and build on previous stages and shift in focus. Stage 2 will focus on responsiveness to the needs of the child and their family/whānau, responsiveness to child and family language and culture, and parent engagement in ECE. Stage 3 will examine ECE service quality, services engaging parents in ECE learning and services making connections between the child’s ECE learning and home learning. Stage 4 will evaluate how the Participation Programme and initiatives have contributed to learning outcomes for children and a successful transition to school. The role of MOE will be examined in each stage.

The evaluation is intended to support MOE decision-making and planning. It is being led by an Evaluation Working Group of MOE officials and University of Waikato staff. In this baseline stage, data was collected from five sources:

  • MOE data on enrolments;
  • interviews with MOE national and regional staff;
  • a survey of all participation initiative providers and interviews with staff from a sample of each type of initiative;
  • a survey of families engaged in the initiatives and interviews with families from three of the initiatives (SP, EPF, FRHB); and
  • interviews with parents attending the Pasifika Festival and Polyfest whose children do not participate in ECE.

Key findings are as follows:

MOE’s provisional data shows the targets and number of children enrolled in ECE through five participation initiatives, their ethnicities and the age groups in which they fell. TAP is not included because few of the building programmes had been competed in these early stages. Already over 1,000 children have been enrolled in ECE through the initiatives within the target communities. The intended children and communities are largely being reached, although targets for overall enrolments have not yet been achieved.

Child enrolments as of December 2011 were predominantly through two of the five initiatives. Over half of all enrolments (52%) were in Supported Playgroups with the EPF initiative accounting for 38%.

Table 1: Overall enrolments in ECE from five ECE participation initiatives at December 2011
Initiative Targets for 1st yearEnrolments%
  1. Includes children currently enrolled and those who have exited to go to school or another ECE; excludes children registered in EPF but not yet enrolled in an ECE service.
  2. *These numbers are very low because these 2 initiatives, ICPP and HB had just started in 2011.

There were 394 enrolments in EPF of predominantly 3 and 4-year-olds, a group most likely to benefit from ECE. The 535 enrolments in SP were mainly aged zero to two years. Enrolments in SP and ILCCE had surpassed targets. EPF which requires much time to recruit families into ECE fell short of targets as expected. HB1 was still very new and the ICPP initiatives had just completed their scoping phases. It was therefore too early to evaluate them in terms of changes in participation. There was an evident connection between the design of the initiatives, the timing for the development of each and the participation outcomes.

Overall the total number of Māori enrolments was higher than enrolments for other ethnicities, being nearly one and a half times greater than Pasifika enrolments, seven times greater than those of European/Pākehā and nearly nine times greater than Asian enrolments. EPF and SP each contributed around half of the total Māori enrolments, and half of Pasifika enrolments. Therefore the initiatives are reaching the target families (non-participating Māori and Pasifika, and socioeconomic). However, some MOE regional staff expressed caution about targeting too tightly—it could mean that some children who could benefit from the additional support provided by these initiatives to engage in ECE would not attend ECE prior to starting school. MOE staff felt that Māori children would be more likely to live outside designated areas than Pasifika children. Rural areas with wide geographic coverage often do not meet criteria but nevertheless families have need of support to access ECE and other services.

Community data and local knowledge are key factors in determining the nature and placement of initiatives, according to MOE staff. This is because community knowledge offers a locally informed perspective not only about local families (who may have recently moved into an area), but also about what provision might suit and support those families. This provision may not be those initiatives currently available through the Participation Programme. Some participation initiative providers and some families spoke of a mismatch between the initiative and what they thought should be offered, such as an integrated ECE centre instead of a Supported Playgroup and a centre-based ECE service instead of home-based delivery.

Often the main barriers to participation did not reside within the “priority family”, but within the ways in which the early years settings were organised, funded and provided. Main barriers identified by MOE staff, providers and families, prioritised in order of frequency, were:

  • cost, high waiting lists and lack of transport;
  • provision that does not meet needs of families in terms of hours and location, or is not responsive to culture and language aspirations; and
  • personal barriers including shyness, lack of confidence, past negative educational experiences, family wanting to be “under the radar” of notice from government agencies.

Providers said that many families faced multiple barriers. Barriers of cost and unresponsiveness made it not possible for EPF providers to place children in some existing services, although some EPF and the ILCCE providers were able to work with services to encourage more flexible provision to meet family needs and offer different fee structures.

Providers used a range of strategies to find families and tailored the strategies to the distinctive composition of each community. All identified that they needed to have knowledge of the cultures, languages and beliefs of the “priority” families, and the community organisations, social and health services, schools and ECE services in each community. Providers emphasised the value of being in the community, knowing the community well, and being able to communicate with families in their home language. One of the strong tools in recruiting families was said to be “working collaboratively with other agencies that are working intensively with families in the home”, including health services. Connections were made with community organisations attended by families such as marae and local churches. Events attended by families, including sporting and cultural events and play days at the local school, were forums where families were recruited. Parents surveyed were usually directly invited by the provider to participate.

EPF was addressing the widest range of barriers. EPF providers knew the families well, spent time with them and were trusted. Their relationship enabled them to play a brokering role in terms of access to ECE, cost, transport, motivation and supporting families in housing and welfare issues. Indirectly, improving a family’s living situation can help address barriers to participation; for example, improving a family’s financial situation through cheaper housing can help address a cost barrier. EPF providers knew the ECE services in the community well and were able to help families work out what would suit them and support them to visit and enrol. The Early Learning Plan which all EPF providers were required to develop with the family was of some benefit in setting goals for children’s learning, but several parents who were interviewed and surveyed were looking for more direct support on activities they could do to help their child learn at home, whether or not they attended ECE. They wanted this from the EPF provider, which some were offering, and/or the ECE service their child was attending.

SP offered access to an ECE service that supported children’s socialisation, and gave advice with parenting. SP are valuable in communities where parents are wanting to stay with their children. Providers who offered health, welfare or educational services and had close relationships with organisations offering these services were able to provide wider family support. Parents whom we interviewed commented on the value of learning for themselves from participation in SP in areas as diverse as literacy, administration skills and parenting. However, some parents and providers pointed out limitations to the SP model, including the quality of playgroup education. Suggestions were made for SP to be just one of a range of ECE options provided from an ECE centre so that parents might choose the service most suited to them or move from a playgroup to a teacher-led ECE service. SP can play a valuable role as a stepping stone to moving into a licensed ECE service.

FRHB is generally provided close to where families live and can reduce barriers of accessibility to ECE and transport. FRHB educators and parents could be matched to ensure the provision was culturally suitable. Providers said that families who wanted their child in a home setting liked FRHB, and that some families who wanted to be “under the radar” of notice from government agencies also preferred FRHB. However, one of the small number of families interviewed (3) would have preferred a centre-based option but could not access this because of cost and waiting lists. Several of the seven FRHB providers who were surveyed said another type of provision was preferred by families, and two of the families would have liked parenting support from the coordinator themselves in their own home rather than support going to the caregiver.

The ILCCE initiative had started only four months before the evaluation data was gathered. Through a needs analysis and professional development, providers were working with specific centres to improve cultural responsiveness. Centres were selected by MOE on the basis that they were a cluster in a community with significant numbers of children not participating in ECE and had spare capacity, but those approached were not obliged to participate. Initial scoping was done to gain perspectives from community, families, staff and management. Providers who knew the community and delivered other initiatives in the community were able to use feedback from families in their ILCCE work. Providers’ focus included helping centres to make their environment a welcoming place for local families, professional development around language and culture, and supporting changes to centre operation and policies to reduce costs for families.

TAP-funded provision was also new. Building projects were not yet under way or barely completed. The main participation barrier the provision may address is access to local ECE provision in a community where participation is low. TAP projects are designed to be responsive to community needs and offer opportunity for new forms of provision to meet needs.

ICPP scoping had been undertaken in three areas, and the scoping providers gathered valuable information on barriers to participation, discussed above, and possible solutions. The next phase of the evaluation will show how ideas from the scoping are used in community action plans. A general sentiment was that a community consultation model would be valuable for all policy development and implementation. Through better planning processes throughout communities, MOE could match supply with demand and work more effectively. The range of Participation Initiatives allows some different solutions. However, planning also involves consideration of existing service operation and the mix of ECE services in each community being matched to need. Participants supported the idea of ECE services serving as community hubs for early education and a range of family support services, as is being provided through some TAP grants.

Overall, participation initiatives that were based in the community, had access to or provided a range of services (family support, ECE, cultural) and had well formed community connections, were able to use their networks to access families, support them in family issues and engage them in discussions about ECE. This community connectedness was key to the successful recruitment of families into ECE. Providers who were contracted to offer a number of initiatives could offer choice for families and use resources and knowledge gained in one initiative with another. The successful providers had a holistic view of families, seeing them not only as parents of preschoolers. Two characteristics of participation initiative staff stood out as critical. One is the “professionalism” and approachability of staff. The second is the cultural fit between the staff and families. This suggests that collectively within the participation initiative staff team, there needs to be a sound professional base, a range of expertise and cultural fit with families.


  1. Based on comparison between Ministry of Health deprevation index and 2006 Census population data.

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