ECE Participation Programme Evaluation: Stage 3

Publication Details

This report is from the third stage of an evaluation of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) ECE Participation Programme. The overall evaluation focus is on how the Participation Programme and individual initiatives addressed barriers to participation in early childhood education (ECE) for priority groups in target communities.

Author(s): Linda Mitchell, Patricia Meagher-Lundberg, Claire Davidson, Helena Kara, Telesia Kalavite, Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research. Report for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: February 2016

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Executive Summary

This report is from the third stage of an evaluation of the Ministry of Education's (MOE) ECE Participation Programme. The overall evaluation focus is on how the Participation Programme and individual initiatives addressed barriers to participation in early childhood education (ECE) for priority groups in target communities.

The Participation Initiatives are:

  1. Engaging Priority Families/whānau (EPF) - intensive support programmes for 3- and 4-year-olds and their families/whānau, aimed at leading to enrolment in ECE, regular participation in ECE, support for learning at home and a successful transition to school. The priority for this initiative is families/whānau and whānau in the most vulnerable situations whose children are not participating in ECE and who, without intensive support, are unlikely to do so
  2. Supported Playgroups (SP) - certificated playgroups, with regular support from a kaimanaaki/playgroup educator in areas with low participation.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Intensive Community Participation Programme (ICPP) - community-led participation projects established to address the specific reasons children are not participating in ECE.
  6. 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.
  7. High-level evaluation questions are related to ECE participation, outcomes for children/tamariki, family/whānau and communities, provision of quality ECE, and the role of the Ministry of Education. In essence these aim to find out about how well and in what ways the Participation Programme has contributed to enhancing each of these outcomes, and the role played by the MOE in developing and delivering effective participation initiatives.

High-level evaluation questions are related to ECE participation, outcomes for children/tamariki, family/whānau and communities, provision of quality ECE, and the role of the Ministry of Education. In essence these aim to find out about how well and in what ways the Participation Programme has contributed to enhancing each of these outcomes, and the role played by the MOE in developing and delivering effective participation initiatives.

This evaluation report integrates findings from across the three years of evaluation to address the evaluation questions, with particular attention to EPF, FRHB, TAP and SP initiatives. The evaluation findings are analysed to pinpoint critical success factors for each initiative, what is worth scaling up and continuing, what changes could improve initiatives and how the initiatives can be designed to best meet the needs of the groups they are working with.

Key findings

ECE enrolments through Initiatives

Prior participation in ECE has increased steadily over the time the Participation Programme has been operating. The government goal, announced in March 2012, is that in 2016, 98% of all children starting school will have participated in quality ECE. The national picture of participation shows participation to be 95.9% nationally in June 2014, representing an increase of 1.5 percentage points from 94.4% in June 2010. Ministry figures show that prior participation for children in Decile 1-3 schools also increased 4.2 percentage points between June 2010 and June 2014. At least some of these figures come from children who left the participation initiatives for school.

MOE figures of enrolments through the initiatives show 3,497 active enrolments at December 2013, with 8,344 enrolments since the start of the Participation Programme. Consistent with policy intent, these were predominantly Māori (54%) and Pasifika (41%) children in low income communities. Contributing significantly to increased enrolments was the establishment of the ECE services funded through TAP initiatives. Once the establishment phase in 2011 was completed, enrolments escalated quickly, from 294 in December 2012 to 1432 in December 2013. The December 2013 current TAP enrolments comprised 40% of the total current enrolments in December 2013. EPF enrolments, for 3 and 4 year olds, have also contributed greatly to overall enrolments making up around a third of total current enrolments for 2011 and 2012 and a quarter of current enrolments for 2013.

However it should be noted that figures for some initiatives need to be taken in context. SP and HB initiatives cater largely for younger children with between 60 to 80% of children enrolled aged 2 years or less. SP and HB are offering a pathway to enrolment in formal ECE provisions. ILCCE does not work directly with families (the initiative was designed to work with ECE services to improve their responsiveness to priority families) and the factors behind a family enrolling their child in a centre in a cluster in which ILCCE was working are unknown. We do not know the reason the families enrolled their child in the centre, whether the families had already attended ECE, or the duration of attendance. Only two of the ICPP projects were directly providing some limited ECE provision (one day per week at most), as ECE delivery was not a feature of this initiative either.

It would appear the enrolment figures reflect what happened with the implementation of the initiatives. EPF and SP initiatives had a model that was easiest to set up using existing community networks and iwi-based providers. This was an extension of the work already being done by many of these providers so carried some momentum from the outset. This momentum continued to support ongoing enrolments. The HB initiative, however, faced some challenges due to initial limitations around community networks and access to appropriate caregivers, impeding enrolments. Where providers ran more than one initiative, particularly SP and EPF, this offered families choice around the type of service appropriate to them which in turn may have contributed to an increase in HB enrolments over time.

TAP-funded projects had a much slower start with entire centres being built in some cases. Delays in gaining building and resources consents and the time taken to complete projects meant that ECE enrolment figures for the first year of the initiatives were non-existent but grew quickly in the second year as projects were finished and children were able to be enrolled. TAP projects started in the first year were being completed in 2013 contributing to the escalation in numbers enrolled in 2013.

However, the Participation Programme has only limited success in sustaining ECE participation. Many children have left initiatives. While some children go on to school and others to another ECE service, we do not know where some 3006 children, a considerable number, have gone or the reasons why they have left.


  • The EPF initiative is working well in supporting participation in ECE for priority families/whānau in target communities. Cost free participation is largely enabled through the use of the '20 hours ECE' policy and EPF providers enrolling families/whānau in those ECE services which had no costs for families/whānau. In some cases, EPF workers had to negotiate with ECE services to achieve this. Children generally attend up to but not more than 20 hours a week. EPF providers were generally very positive about the effectiveness of EPF in engaging non-participating families in ECE in their local communities.
  • Knowledge of community context and issues was considered essential in not only identifying but being able to engage families in EPF and consequently in ECE.EPF providers knew families well and were often from the same ethnic backgrounds as families whom they worked with. The context of the communities required different cultural approaches to support cultural responsiveness to families/whānau enrolled in the initiative. EPF providers and the families they worked with overall considered that community involvement was integral to their organisation being able to identify, recruit and work with families/whānau in their local communities.
  • EPF providers addressed barriers to ECE participation in a variety of ways, but underpinning all approaches was the notion of brokering. That is on-going negotiation and discussion, translating the knowledge held by one party to another in order to resolve and address issues that arose in preparing families/whānau to engage in ECE services and with other family support services. Examples were given from parent viewpoints of how the brokering worked in practice: EPF providers finding out about family needs especially in relation to cost, location, transport and philosophy; discussing possible services and explaining why these might suit the family; giving information to parents in forms that were understandable; explaining why ECE is valuable for children's learning and development; and taking families to visit ECE services to see if they feel comfortable there.
  • The time span covered by EPF contracts is for the provider to work with families of 3- and 4-year-olds from the point of contact to the first three months of school. This timeframe was effective in allowing the intensive work that is needed, including regular contact with families/whānau from the point of recruitment until transition into school.
  • The time span of EPF contracts also means providers have time to develop a profile in the community, develop the most appropriate systems and processes to support their work in the community, establish networks with other community organisations essential to supporting families/whānau, including ECE services, and build trusting relationships with families/whānau. This span allows enough time to develop foundations for change within EPF families/whānau, often disengaged from education including ECE. While overall the contracting system worked well in providing adequate time to achieve the workload, one concern expressed by providers was that when EPF contracts come to an end, they may have to remove participating families from their lists before work with them is completed. At the time of reporting, negotiations are underway around renewal of contracts for EPF providers which may alleviate these concerns.
  • EPF families/whānau' engagement both with the ECE service used and in early learning in the home, can be attributed to the work of EPF providers and their ability to understand and respond to the needs within their communities, both cultural and socioeconomic. The contracting of EPF providers able to walk in two worlds was important in gaining trust with families/whānau and the resulting engagement in learning. For families, learning meant understanding the benefits of ECE in terms of understanding how children learn at a preschool age and the importance of this prior to transition to school, gathering knowledge about age appropriate educational activities and learning about incorporating learning into daily routines, and gaining the confidence to view the ECE setting as "their place". Overall, levels of engagement can be viewed on a continuum of confidence levels, with some families/whānau seeing learning as something that happens externally to them, while others were engaged in the education of the children both at home and at ECE.
  • One issue is the number of families/whānau with complex needs which means education diminishes as a priority in and amongst other needs. Increases in participation in target communities appear to have left providers the challenge of now working with those families/whānau remaining, many of whom have high needs including CYF referrals and economic issues. The time required to do this work can be significant. Provider and family/whānau interviews showed that some ECE services are not responsive to the needs and circumstances of priority families/whānau with high needs. Where ECE services are not accommodating community need, there is a place for professional development around cultural responsiveness and working with families/whānau.
  • Overall, EPF initiatives work well to address the needs of families/whānau, many with complex needs, support families on a range of health and welfare issues and ensure engagement with suitable and responsive ECE services. EPF providers were successful in developing trusting relationships with many families/whānau with complex needs. For some of these families trust in the system to work to benefit them and their children was established for the first time.


  • The FRHB initiative has had only limited success in increasing participation of priority families who do not attend ECE. It is the smallest of the initiatives with regard to numbers of children. At December 2013, only 123 children were enrolled or 3.5 percent of all initiative enrolments. The percentage of children who had never attended ECE before varied amongst the providers interviewed and surveyed from 40 percent to 20 percent, suggesting that FRHB is missing the target group for some enrolments. Families who moved from ECE to FRHB did so for practical reasons (cost, flexibility) or because of dissatisfaction with their current ECE.
  • FRHB has particular features that cater well for some families. Flexibility of hours is important for families/whānau who work irregular hours or shifts or do weekend work. It appeals to parents for its home-like characteristics and was seen as catering well for the needs of infants and for children with special educational needs (although should not been a default option for the latter). Families using FRHB said they had confidence in the carer (who might be a family member) and thought their child was safe. Some parents who had negative experiences of education services (school and ECE) preferred FRHB for these reasons. Some families had cultural reasons for liking FRHB when the caregiver was from their own cultural background. Sometimes this was a family member. Nevertheless, some providers said there was an inability to recruit Pasifika teachers and Pasifika cultural resources were scarce. Like all ECE services, being free and accessible (locally provided or transport offered) supported the sustained participation of children in FRHB.
  • FRHB providers and parents had some similar and some different views of quality. Providers emphasised curriculum principles and strands, especially a holistic curriculum, family and community, and responsive relationships, alongside structural features—educator qualifications, small group size and educator pay. Parents emphasised activities done by the child, communication, and resources available, and the structural feature of small group size. The main learning outcomes identified by providers and parents were children developing social competence, independence, self-help skills and early literacy and numeracy concepts.
  • We found that the level of training of caregivers and professional support varied amongst FRHB providers. The minimum requirements set out in regulation are for each FRHB coordinator to be a qualified and registered ECE teacher and to support caregivers by monthly visits (and take steps to observe each child), to contact each caregiver once per fortnight, and to be available to respond to parents and caregivers. Caregivers themselves are required as a minimum to have training in First Aid. Two providers in our sample went beyond these minimum requirements through more frequent contact, supporting caregivers to obtain early childhood qualifications and providing regular professional development opportunities for caregivers. On the other hand, one provider offered only the minimum and was criticised by a parent as being just a "toy drop off service". Fees/costs/low rates of pay, minimal training and the uncertainty of work for caregivers when children are withdrawn unexpectedly are resulting in poor retention and instability of educators.
  • FRHB may provide a pathway to other centre-based ECE and to school. Several FRHB parents/whānau commented that they now intended to use other centre-based ECE services prior to their child transitioning to school. FRHB providers were supporting parents/whānau to select schools, enrol children and make visits prior to starting.
  • Family/whānau engagement was variable in the FRHB that we looked at. When relatives are employed as carers, this aspect was usually strong. A provider and parents at each stage of the evaluation voiced a frustration that the FRHB model did not provide for teachers/coordinators to work directly with parents/whānau.


  • The TAP initiative has been successful in supporting ECE participation in the target communities through use of a TAP grant to build facilities or develop existing services in these local communities. By December 2013, TAP had the most enrolments over time of all initiatives. Eighty percent of children had not attended ECE before. These gains in participation are likely to endure over time since once established, the provision does not require further TAP funding, and is a resource for future generations of families in these low income localities. Extensive community consultation prior to establishing new centres took place to find out about needs. Enrolment policies have reduced barriers of cost (all TAP providers interviewed reported on ways to mitigate costs for families of ECE) and about half the providers enabled flexible enrolments that suit families/whānau.
  • All providers regarded the initiatives as working well in terms of full enrolments and participation. Providers from the bilingual services, Māori Trust board and hub services also spoke about and emphasised connections with their communities as reasons why they considered their ECE services were working well.
  • Three TAP2 services (of 16 TAP services surveyed) reported that TAP funding was used to purchase vans. Of 11 TAP services interviewed, vans were used by two TAP2 and three TAP1 service providers. Most providers used vans as needed; but in two newly built centres, 70 percent of children regularly came in a van. Transport seemed not to be needed where TAP centres are local; but the practice of providing vans and transporting children regularly needs to be weighed up against the disadvantages where parents are not directly connected to the centre, an issue raised by one provider.
  • Most providers found ways to communicate with families/whānau that would support their involvement and engagement in learning. These were through approaches that could be described as empowering and that valued what parents could contribute. Communication was tailored to the needs of families.
  • Transition to school practices is one area where there were variable practices, and some potentially unhelpful ideas e.g., narrowly focused skills teaching, suggesting a need for professional development opportunities.
  • Outstanding examples were provided of how language and culture and support for identity were woven through the curriculum by Pasifika centres and iwi-based centres that we saw. This was enabled for iwi-based centres by local whānau/hapū/iwi deciding what knowledge should be available and how it should be made accessible (Penetito, 2001). In Pasifika centres, it was enabled by having fluent language speakers as coordinators and supporting a bilingual curriculum and parents to use their language with pride. Other ECE TAP services varied in their responsiveness. We were given examples from six providers of staff drawing on the funds of knowledge residing in families/whānau and communities, employing staff from the cultural backgrounds of families/whānau, and offering professional development. But two providers gave minimal or no credit to language and culture as being important, and one of these emphasised poverty as the "common culture".
  • In common, all TAP ECE providers interviewed offered a range of opportunities for family support in addition to Early Childhood education. Some services acted as integrated hubs for services offering ECE as well as other services for families/whānau e.g., budgeting, health. Most also held a comprehensive network of relationships with services in their community they could call on if necessary.
  • Overall, many TAP funded service providers whom we interviewed offered innovative exemplars of practice and provision. Parents reported on engagement in children's learning through copying ideas from teachers, involvement in assessment, and information. Employment, e.g., as relievers, cleaners, maintenance workers, cooks, van drivers, office staff, recognised skills and was described as empowering. One parent interviewed began an ECE teacher education course. The development of a curriculum whāriki inclusive of language and culture can play a critical role in strengthening identity. The model of ECE centres as a 'hub' that houses or brings together interdisciplinary teams to support families/whānau and children would seem to be a model that is well worth pursuing. From the viewpoint of parents who were struggling in their approaches to external agencies such as WINZ, the support provided by the EPF coordinator (who was employed by the same ECE service provider) in finding out about and communicating with them was extremely valuable. It seemed that feeling intimidated or shy were some barriers to effective communication. Parents who became employed in two centres as part of the staffing, did well in their new responsibilities and one went on to further training.


  • Easy access to ECE has been supported through provision of locally based supported playgroups handy to parents in a local neighbourhood. The exception is where parents want to attend a special character playgroup such as in their home language, or are in a rural community, where travel may be needed. Playgroups are free so they have addressed cost barriers. Most are open for limited hours and a child can attend a maximum of four hours. Some providers offer more than one service and are able to match parents' needs with a mix of service types, such as kindergarten or home-based and playgroup. Playgroup works well and has addressed barriers for some playgroup parents: those who do not want to leave their child in another's care, parents who have time to be with their child in the playgroup session, and parents who have cultural reasons for wanting a community language playgroup.
  • For many children too, playgroup is the first step into formal ECE, and they go on to other services. Nearly half the families/whānau surveyed (21) said they had thought about leaving playgroup to move to a formal ECE setting. Reasons included independence for children, socialisation and a formal education programme prior to school.
  • Sustainability is a key issue—playgroups fluctuate in roll numbers. All SP providers interviewed/surveyed felt that sustainability is supported by a skilled coordinator working with the playgroup to analyse problems and plan measures to address issues. Sustainability is more likely for playgroups that have a permanent and free venue, something that only some playgroups enjoy. The cost of venues and need to pack and unpack equipment is problematic and a disincentive for playgroup parents to persist. Classrooms in school grounds offer one solution to this issue, but few playgroups were able to access these. The idea of a mobile unit with a qualified coordinator to regularly visit community centres to hold a playgroup is another way that playgroups could be supported, one that has been successfully used in the past. The coordinator would need to have cultural understanding and language to match the community.
  • Benefits for families from attending a supported playgroup were
  • opportunities for networking with others; and
  • opportunities for support from knowledgeable coordinators and a chance to take part in courses.
  • The coordinator plays a crucial role in supporting playgroup quality, and encouraging families/whānau to take part in the playgroup and early learning. Coordinators described the model as highly successful in engendering parental involvement in the playgroup and in their child's learning. Parents and coordinators alike are troubled by the future loss of coordinators as their limited contract expires. There was evidence that the curriculum understanding of some coordinators was restricted; and importantly that coordinators who are qualified in ECE, experienced and have "life skills" can work very effectively with playgroups to lift quality and parent learning. This suggests that offering playgroups access to good quality professional support and workshops by a coordinator with these attributes would help sustain the quality of learning for parents and children.
  • Resources available from Te Kura and from some providers are welcomed and used by playgroup parents; these offer ideas for activities that parents can do at home.
  • Iwi-based providers have played an empowering role in finding out about needs of whānau and constructing a curriculum for puna founded in te reo and tikanga Māori and with their own local stories. This is significant for Māori families/whānau and is contributing to a sense of identity.
  • Community language playgroups are successful in offering a service where parents and family are able to speak in their home language and contribute their cultural expertise, enabling them to uphold and strengthen their cultural values and languages. This is empowering and crucial to a strong sense of identity, both for parents and children.
  • Playgroups vary in their hours of opening, with most offering sessional ECE. Children are predominantly younger: at December 2013, 76 percent were under three years.


There is robust evidence that good quality ECE can contribute to children's learning and development and to the wellbeing of families. The Participation Programme and individual initiatives are succeeding in enhancing participation in target communities for priority families. In order to have a greater impact, several challenges could be addressed and note taken of particularly positive features.

First, the targeting of families is only partially successful within the designated localities: there are a high percentage of families "exiting" the initiatives for unknown reasons. Nor does the Participation Programme cater for priority families who live outside the designated communities.

Secondly, despite being able to place families successfully in ECE services, providers reported bypassing ECE services that they did not see as culturally responsive or welcoming, or that charged high fees. Parents reported these to be barriers that prevented them from participating.

The evaluation and international literature has demonstrated that ECE services cater well for priority families and children when they are integrated with wider services to support families. These models were seen in successful TAP services, and in ways in which EPF providers brokered help for families from family support agencies. Many supported playgroups were also providing EPF and many were involved in other initiatives and services within the community. This integrated model of operating is promoted in countries such as England, Australia and Canada and seems to be a factor in successfully working with priority families. Finally, the evaluation has demonstrated ways in which cultural responsiveness to Māori and Pasifika families can be enhanced through connections with iwi and cultural organisations, and weaving cultural understandings and local knowledge into the curriculum. Exemplars and professional development are ways that could be used to support cultural responsiveness.

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