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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Marek Tesar, Professor, Head of School of Learning Development and Professional Practice, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland, Waipapa Taumata Rau

Despite a NZ$1 billion increase in spending on education in the 2024 budget, there was a noticeable absence of any substantial investment in early childhood education (ECE). This contrasts starkly with the money put aside for primary and secondary education, particularly in areas such as literacy.

The budget allocates $191 million over four years for ECE, and $13 million to support play centres. By comparison, Labour set aside $1.8 billion for ECE over four years in its 2023 budget, expanding the 20-hours-free scheme to include children as young as two. This policy has since been repealed by the current government.

While all levels of education are undoubtedly important, the neglect of ECE raises important questions about the educational development of New Zealand’s children, and the country’s standing among OECD countries.

New Zealand has traditionally been a strong advocate for ECE, recognising its crucial role in child development, lifelong learning and achievement.

One notable exception to the shift away from ECE in the 2024 budget is the FamilyBoost tax credit. Under this scheme, parents and caregivers will be eligible to claim back up to 25% of childcare costs (up to $75).

While the policy is a positive step, it doesn’t address core issues facing ECE, including cost and accessibility. If the government really wants improved educational outcomes across a child’s entire schooling career, ECE should be universal and free. ECE centres should be viewed as a space for education and care rather than a business.

The importance of ECE

The early childhood years are critical for brain development. Quality ECE programmes support cognitive skills, emotional regulation and social interactions, setting children up for success in school and life.

ECE centres are not only delivering education and care – they are also training our teachers. It is important to note, New Zealand’s ECE sector is largely privatised. Questions have been raised about working conditions and pay for the private ECE workforce.

Despite evidence supporting good quality and universally accessible ECE programmes, the government’s current focus seems to be on improving immediate academic outcomes in primary and secondary education – particularly in reading.

While this is important, it overlooks the foundational role ECE plays in achieving these outcomes. Without a strong early start, efforts to improve literacy and other academic skills in later years may not be as effective.

And without adequate support, children from disadvantaged backgrounds may fall behind their peers, leading to greater social and economic inequalities.

Studies show students who miss out on quality early education are likely to perform worse academically, which can have a ripple effect on their future educational and career opportunities.

In the long run, the lack of investment in ECE can lead to higher costs for remedial education, social services, and even the criminal justice system.

NZ is no longer a global leader

Other OECD countries view investment in ECE as an investment in the future workforce. Their reasoning is that high-quality early education leads to better school performance, higher graduation rates and greater earning potential.

When compared to other OECD countries, New Zealand’s current budget priorities seem out of step. Nations such as Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway allocate substantial portions of their education budgets to early childhood education.

Finland, for example, ensures all children from low income families have access to free, high-quality early childhood education and care from birth until they begin formal schooling. More affluent families contribute a portion of the ECE fees.

Finland is known for its highly professionalised ECE workforce. This approach has resulted in outstanding educational outcomes. Finnish students consistently perform well in international assessments such as PISA.

Some 30 years ago, Finnish and Scandinavian representatives were visiting New Zealand to learn from our curriculum and ECE approaches. Now we need to learn from them.

To align with best practice in other OECD countries, the government needs to revisit its budget priorities and recognise the critical importance of ECE.

This will involve not only increasing funding, but also ensuring these resources are used to provide high-quality, accessible education for all young children and families, not just those enrolled with private providers.

By investing in the early years, the country can ensure a brighter, more equitable future for everyone.

The Conversation

Marek Tesar does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Early childhood education was largely missing from the budget, undermining other education spending –,2011:article/231583