During the Second World War some women undertook paid work previously done by men. Others were involved with voluntary and community work related to the war. This highlighted the need for childcare services, though it did not immediately result in many more. The belief that women belonged at home with their children prevailed, despite wartime conditions.
Kindergartens, with their history of supporting women in the home, argued that demand for childcare was limited, but others (such as employers) said demand exceeded supply. Government action was confined to providing funds for kindergartens running two daily sessions to extend them to one full-day session, but not all kindergartens made this change.
The number of women and children using childcare and education services was small. Nevertheless, pressure on mothers to raise children, run the home and, in some cases, work during the absence of their husbands placed childcare and education on the government’s agenda.
Education and democracy
The belief that access to education, including in the very early years, was a democratic right grew in the 20th century. In 1942 a Christchurch school committee said that ‘free education from kindergarten to university is the birth-right of all New Zealand children irrespective of financial status.’1
The first playcentre was founded by a group of Wellington mothers in 1941 and others soon followed – by 1943 there were 18 in Wellington, Palmerston North and Christchurch. Playcentre, which is unique to New Zealand, was the outcome of a discussion among friends about the difficulties mothers faced raising children, particularly when their husbands were away at war.
By 1941 more families were interested in early childhood education. Like kindergartens, playcentres emphasised the education rather than care of young children, but the role of parent educators at playcentres was a key difference. Parents, who attended on a rostered basis, acted as supervisors and could attend playcentre-run child development lectures and courses from the mid-1940s. Playcentre first received some government funding in 1946.
The government steps in
In 1945 the government appointed a committee, which included kindergarten and playcentre representatives, to investigate pre-school education. In this period, existing services covered about 5% of four year olds. The 1947 committee report affirmed the value of pre-school education and recommended a state-run and state-funded national service and teacher training programme. There was little support for childcare services – the part-day kindergarten and playcentre models, which worked best for stay-at-home mothers, were preferred.
The Report of the consultative committee on pre-school educational services (1947) hoped that a national pre-school system would encourage women to ‘give childrearing pride of place, and help shape the desire to have more children.’2 While the fertility rate almost consistently dropped from the 1870s, which caused nationwide consternation, it had actually started increasing in the early 1940s, pre-dating the increased provision of pre-school education services. The post-Second World War baby boom increased demand for services, rather than the other way round.
State control was rejected by kindergartens and playcentres. Instead, the government funded and regulated pre-school education services, which were run by the existing voluntary organisations, and the government also funded teacher training. Kindergartens and playcentres received annual grants and the government paid kindergarten teachers’ salaries.
The number of children enrolled at kindergartens and playcentres rose substantially after the Second World War – from 7% of three and four year olds in 1950, to 18% in 1960, and 35% in 1970. Once other services were counted, this rose to 40% in 1970, which was high internationally.
While the distribution of pre-schools in high-, medium- and lower-income areas was reasonably equitable, socioeconomic factors influenced who went to pre-school. In the early 1970s children from high-status backgrounds were over-represented and those from low-status backgrounds under-represented. This was a reversal of the pre-war situation.
Growth in childcare services was slow but sure in the 1950s. Growth accelerated in the early 1960s when the economy was strong and female labour was in demand. This pattern continued after the economic boom ended in the mid-1960s. By 1966 women were 27% of the paid workforce, and 41% of married women were employed.
The 1969–70 Budget provided tax allowances for families who paid for childcare services. Working women could claim up to $240 per year ($4,200 in 2021 values) for housekeeping or childcare fees. This signalled a change in the government’s attitude.
While childcare roll numbers were little more than half those of pre-school educational services (primarily kindergartens and playcentres) in 1973 – 3,771 (care) compared to 6,514 (educational) – childcare growth was more rapid. The number of children in care increased 164% between 1963 and 1972, compared to 33% for those in educational services. However, most care was still provided informally in private homes.