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Early childhood education

It is not a question of whether children are learning, as what they are learning. Children learn from their experiences whatever they are. Roberts (2006).

Early childhood is a critical time to build the foundations for future success. Effective parenting and quality ECE have positive effects that last to age 16 and beyond.

Data snapshot

  • In 2006, 24 percent of primary caregivers of Pacific children aged under five years old had no qualification. In the same year, 6.4 percent had a degree-level qualification.
  • Between 2000 and 2006, the proportion of Pacific new school entrants who have participated in early childhood education services increased by 11 percent.
  • Although participation is improving, Pacific new entrants at school still have the lowest prior participation rates in ECE (84.8 percent overall, and only 78 percent in Papakura and 80 percent in Manukau).
  • In 2008, around 11.4 percent of Pacific children in ECE participated in immersion or bilingual ECE.

At home

Of all the influences on children’s early learning, the ways parents and children relate to each other are the most important (Melhuish, 2001; Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003). This is because parents and families provide the first relationships and environments that children experience.

The educational level of caregivers, especially mothers, is linked to the rate of participation in ECE and later educational achievement. In general, the higher the educational level, the better the children’s learning environments and their later achievement.1 This is because education and income are related to the kinds of learning opportunities children may have at home, as well as parents’ confidence engaging with the education system (Wylie, 2009).

In 2006, fewer Pacific primary caregivers (usually mothers) had degree qualifications than any other group, as shown in figure 2. One in 15 (6.4 percent) Pacific primary caregivers had a degree or higher qualification compared with one in four (25.7 percent) European primary caregivers. About one in four (24.0 percent) Pacific primary caregivers had no qualification compared with one topin 10 (10.1 percent) European primary caregivers. The majority of Pacific caregivers had school qualifications (40.9 percent).

Figure 2

Graph, Qualification levels of primary caregivers of children aged under five years.

Impact of early childhood education

In the early years, the second most important influence on children’s achievement is quality ECE. Attending high-quality ECE regularly from an early age is beneficial for all children. Children from lower socio-economic communities often gain the most benefit.

High-quality ECE still benefits students’ literacy, numeracy and logical problem-solving skills to at least age 16, regardless of the students’ background (Wylie et al., 2009a). In fact, participation in high-quality ECE has more benefits to children’s learning than being cared for at home by relatives (Farquhar, 2003).

From 2000 to 2006, the proportion of Pacific new school entrants who have participated in ECE services has increased by 11 percent, significantly more than for all other ethnic groups (4 percent). However, as figure 3 shows, Pacific participation in ECE is still much lower than other groups. Figure 3 shows the proportion of children entering school at year 1, who have participated in some form of ECE between 2000 and 2009. Pacific participation in ECE has been improving over the years. In 2000, 76.1 percent of year 1 new entrants participated in ECE compared with 91.0 percent of the total year 1 population. In 2009, the participation in ECE for Pacific new entrants was 85.4 percent, which represented an improvement of 12.2 percent, compared with an improvement of 4.5 percent for the total year 1 population. Despite the improvement, the participation of Pacific new topentrants in ECE is still the lowest in the country, after Māori with 91.4 percent.

Figure 3

Graph, Participation in early primary childhood education services of year 1 entrants.

Low participation is generally due to three main factors:

  • inadequate service provision 
  • ECE services badly matched with demand (eg not appropriate for family needs) 
  • low demand from families. (Source: Ministry of Education presentation of Counties Manukau Participation Project).

Where playing is learning!

  • Successful government and community partnerships in Counties Manukau are enabling more children to access quality early childhood education.
  • The Ministry of Education, City of Manukau Education Trust (COMET) and Promoting Participation Project (PPP) providers have worked together to set up Educational Play Days in local shopping centres and malls in Counties Manukau, an area with low participation in early childhood education. These Educational Play Days are designed to increase children’s participation in early childhood education. Play activities that would be provided in good-quality playgroups2 are set out in the malls to attract families and children, and information is provided to support local families to join playgroups or set up new ones.
  • Educational Play Days have been held in Southmall Manurewa, Mangere Town Centre, Otara Shopping Centre, Papatoetoe Hunters Plaza, Papakura Shopping Centre, and Clendon Mall.
  • Educational Play Days have helped to identify 146 children who are not currently participating in early childhood education. The next step is to engage these children in playgroups or early childhood services and to work with interested families, communities, and parents to establish new playgroups.
  • Activities like Educational Play Days support community collaboration in early childhood education and will increase Pacific children’s opportunities to develop a strong learning foundation for their future.

topWith the help of initiatives such as the Promoting Participation Project, the Ministry of Education has forecast considerable improvement to Pacific participation in ECE, to 88.5 percent by 2010.

What Pacific parents want of ECE

In a survey of parents’ views about ECE, all parents thought educational outcomes were the most important from ECE, especially parents in poorer communities (Robertson et al., 2007). Cultural appropriateness and cultural connections in ECE are also very important for Pacific families (Robertson). Parents frequently choose a Pacific service because they are connected with the community that established the service through, for example, church, family, or language (Robertson). There has also been a high take-up of the 20 hours ECE policy for three- and four-year-olds by Pacific services, which makes them more affordable for parents. In addition, Pacific families who have not participated in ECE tend to participate when the ECE is connected with their culture (Dixon et al., 2007).

While culturally connected education does not necessarily mean that the teachers must be Pacific peoples, this can help. In July 2008, the second intake of students into the Diploma of Teaching (Early Childhood Education) Pasifika Specialisation programme graduated from Auckland University of Technology. The same year also produced the second round of graduates with the same qualification from Te Tari Puna o Aotearoa, the New Zealand Childcare Association. This included 27 Pacific graduates in total.3 These current and prospective graduates are expected to increase the number of Pacific registered and qualified teachers in Pacific ECE services.

In 2008 there were 115 Pacific ECE services. Most Pacific ECE services are managed and run by Pacific communities.4 Each service educates children in at least one Pacific language and culture. The first Pacific language ECE centre opened in Auckland in 1985. Since then, many new Pacific services have been licensed.

The growth of A’oga Amata, bilingual ECE Pacific services, in the 1990s shows the commitment of Pacific communities and their churches to support early learning and children’s own languages and cultures:

I strongly argue that without the church, many Pacific Island people, especially Samoans .... would have no access to early childhood education done in their own language and culture (Ete, 1993 cited in Coxon et al., 2002).

In 2009, Pacific languages were used in ECE teaching for at least 12 percent of the time in 113 licensed and/or chartered services. Well over half (70) of these services are located in the Auckland region. Of the 113 Pacific ECE services in 2009:

  • Fifty-two were immersion (81–100 percent of teaching contact time) involving 1709 children. Thirty-two immersion services used Samoan as the language of communication, 16 Tongan, two Cook Island Māori, two Niuean. 
  • The remaining 65 services were bilingual (12–80 percent of teaching contact time) involving 2008 children. Thirty-eight bilingual services used Samoan as the language of communication, 13 Cook Island Māori, six Tongan, two Niuean, four Tokelauan, one Tuvaluan and one Fijian. 
  • There were 108 education and care services (crèche).

topFor more information, see:

Of the 18,397 total teachers in licensed teacher-led early childhood services at 1 July 2009, 72.3 percent were Pākehā, 8.4 percent were Pacific, 8.4 percent were Māori, 8.5 percent were Asian, and 2.4 percent were of other ethnicity. There was a total of 1,539 Pacific teachers, of which 60.3 percent were qualified, compared with 64.0 percent of all teachers. This was a huge improvement for Pacific teachers, from 35.4 percent back in 2001.

The Ministry of Education supports the establishment of Pacific ECE services and provides targeted assistance for their ongoing development. In 2007/08 the Ministry of Education allocated planning and capital grants to community-based groups for eight Pacific services to support new buildings or upgrades and extensions of existing ECE services. This funded 235 new places for children.

In 2009, 11,060 Pacific children enrolled in licensed early childhood services. This represented a 10.7 percent increase in enrolment from 2007 figures, compared with a 5.7 percent increase in enrolment in the total population over the same period. There were 3,717 children enrolled in Pacific immersion or bilingual ECE services in 2009. This represents approximately 11.4 percent of Pacific children.

For more information, see:

Table 1 shows the numbers of Pacific children in the different types of immersion or bilingual services. 

Table 1
Participation in Pacific medium education (immersion or bilingual services)

Language of teaching
Level of Pacific medium education Total enrolments 
Total ECE services
 Under 12 percent  (12–80 percent) (81–100 percent)
Cook Islands Māori 1,271 427 25 1,723 45
Fijian 1,067 34  - 1,101 23
Niuean 687 123 59 869 20
Samoan 11,217 1,386 1,166 13,769 304
Tokelauan 441 145 22 608 15
Tongan 2,806 161 557 3,524 74
Other Pacific 224  -  - 224 7
Total Pacific 17,713 2,276 1,829 21,818 488
Source: Ministry of Education data.    

What is important for early learning

Quality teaching and learning in ECE is more about thinking and interacting than learning specific knowledge. By itself, a focus on developing skills and knowledge has only short-term benefits that fade if children do not also develop the attitudes needed to use them effectively, such as perseverance, curiosity, critical thinking, questioning, and confidence (Mitchell et al., 2008).6

topIn its 2007 report, the Education Review Office found that while many of the 49 Pacific ECE services reviewed provided programmes that were culturally enriching, many did not adequately extend children’s thinking or support questioning.

In addition to a culturally enriching programme, the Education Review Office (2007) identified that high-quality programmes in Pacific services were ones where children:

  • enthusiastically participated in devotions and mat times of an appropriate length 
  • chose what they wanted to play with from an adequate range of resources 
  • were introduced to literacy and numeracy concepts through play 
  • shared stories and music 
  • gained skills in self-care and independence, and older children helped guide and teach the younger ones.

In the sample of Pacific ECE services, the relationships between adults and children were warm, caring and respectful. Less effective practices included adults strictly controlling what children could play with and when (ERO, 2007). While the Education Review Office (2007) identified many areas of improvement between 2004 and 2007, in most cases the teaching and learning practices and environments in Pacific services did not adequately support sustained, complex play and learning, or the critical and creative thinking that are essential for success at school.

Teaching qualifications are an important indicator of the likely quality of teaching and learning interactions. Half the Pacific services had more than 50 percent unqualified teachers in June 2007, which is considerably greater than the figure of 33.8 percent for non-Pacific services. Some of these services risk closure if they do not increase this proportion (Ministry of Education data). However, between 2002 and 2007, the proportion of qualified staff in Pacific services increased from 31.4 percent to 52.9 percent. In Pacific services, 68.4 percent of staff are now either qualified or in training. The increase in qualified staff for Pacific services is greater than for other services over the last two years.

What is important for success in the education system

The transition to school, and the first years there, have a significant influence on children’s achievement well into secondary school. This is particularly so for learners from poorer backgrounds (Bishop et al., 2003; Learning Media, 2006; Rubie-Davies et al., 2006; Tunmer et al., 2003; Wylie & Hipkins, 2006).

The time from four-and-a-half to six years of age is critical for getting children underway in their school learning (Phillips et al., 2002). For success at school, children need strong oral language in their first language as a basis for developing thinking and literacy skills (Ministry of Education, 2003b). The Education Review Office (2007) states "In 14 services cultural entity was expressed through skilful modelling of language structures, extending children's vocabulary and the expectation that children would respond in the Pacific language".*  In 10 of the 49 services, adults did not use the Pacific language often or well enough for children to develop fluency.

On starting school, children also benefit from knowledge:

  • of how written language works 
  • that the spoken language is made up of sounds and words 
  • of the alphabet (spoken and written) 
  • that the alphabet relates to the sounds of spoken language 
  • of the visual features of print. (Ministry of Education, 2003b).

topThe Education Review Office (2007) found that in 11 of the 49 Pacific ECE services it reviewed, teachers used play and group times appropriately to introduce literacy and numeracy. However, in nine services, teachers used formal worksheets and copy exercises that were not appropriate for young children and did not support a longer-term interest in literacy and numeracy.

The transition from ECE to school requires significant adjustments for children and their families, particularly when a child’s experiences are not the same as school expectations. Teachers have a critical role in supporting this transition by linking the new school expectations with children’s prior experiences (Peters, 2004; Turoa et al., 2002). The Education Review Office (2009) found that over 20 percent of primary schools in its study did not know about the ECE experiences of their children, and several studies have shown that many new entrant teachers do not build on children’s prior experiences (eg, Davies, 2009).

What would make the most difference?

  • Improved interactions between children and adults that build on learning and extend thinking in the home and ECE. 
  • Increased understanding by parents and ECE teachers of how to support strong oral language in the first language with knowledge of many words, how language works, and different ways of expressing ideas. 
  • Longer-term participation in quality ECE. 
  • Increasing the quality of ECE services in communities with a large number of Pacific children. 
  • Relationships between ECE, communities and parents focused on how to help children learn. 
  • ECE teachers understanding, valuing and building on the experiences and knowledge of children and their families.

2 Structured playgroups are community-based non-profit making group of parents who come together to provide early childhood education for their children.
3 Draft Pasifika Education Plan Monitoring Report, Ministry of Education.
4 These include, but are not limited to Pacific Early Childhood Centres (PECCs).
6 Often called ‘dispositions’ in education literature and documents, such as the ECE curriculum Te Whāriki, He Whāriki Mātauranga mō ngā Mokopuna o Aotearoa, Early Childhood Curriculum.
*Sentence revised by the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs on 23 March 2012. 

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