Story: Early childhood education and care

Page 3. New developments, 1970s to 2000s

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Growing demand for care

In the 1970s New Zealand society changed. More single mothers kept their babies rather than giving them up for adoption, and women sought some measure of economic independence through paid work. Women comprised 30% of the workforce in 1971 and 39% in 1980. The percentage of mothers who had pre-school children and were in paid employment rose from 21% in 1976 to 32% in 1986. Childcare was also seen as a women’s liberation issue.

The number of children in full-time care increased from 2,807 in 1971 to 5,300 in 1981. Charitable welfare provider Barnardos started home-based childcare services in the late 1970s. The increasing availability of childcare services contributed to a decline in playcentre numbers in the early 1980s.


From 1973 the government provided a capital-works subsidy for some non-profit childcare centres and a fee subsidy for children whom welfare agencies believed would benefit from daycare. Oversight of childcare was transferred from the Department of Social Welfare to the Department of Education in 1986.

Distance learning

In 1976 the Correspondence School began offering education teaching services for pre-school children. That year there were two teachers and 50 children enrolled. By the late 1980s numbers increased to 17 teachers and 510 children. In 2009, 627 children aged five and under were enrolled with the Correspondence School.

Te kōhanga reo

Kōhanga reo (language nests) – where pre-school children and their families are immersed in the Māori language and tikanga (culture) – were a response to Māori self-determination activism, and a desire to reverse the decline in the number of fluent Māori-language speakers. Though Māori families had been involved with playcentre and similar initiatives, this was the first truly Māori-centred national childcare programme.

The first kōhanga reo opened in Wainuiomata in 1982. In 1985 there were 5,800 children enrolled at 377 kōhanga reo. By 1989, 11% of all children attending pre-school were enrolled at a kōhanga reo.

Pacific services

Lemali Tamaita a Samoa in Tokoroa (established in 1972) was the first Pacific pre-school centre in New Zealand. Others followed in the early 1980s, but they emphasised English-language education rather than Pacific languages and cultures. The Samoan A‘oga Amata, which opened in Wellington in 1985, and later in other cities, was more Pacific-centred.

Workplace services

Some workplaces opened childcare centres. In the 1970s, 25 centres were opened in tertiary institutions. The Public Service Association (PSA) union set up a centre for members’ children in central Wellington in 1981.

Commercial providers

Historically, private centres were small operations in private homes. Large commercial providers emerged in the late 1970s. The first Kindercare centre opened in Auckland in 1978. In early 2011 there were 36 centres in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch. Australian provider ABC Learning Centres opened six centres in 2003 and operated 127 in 2011. Privately owned centres made up 23% of the sector in 2002 and 41% in 2019.

Name change

In the early 1970s the term ‘pre-school’, which had traditionally been used to describe education services for children below five, began to be replaced with the longer name ‘early childhood education’. In the 2000s it was usually abbreviated to the acronym ECE.

Education and care integrated

The government’s ‘Before Five’ reforms in 1989 integrated early childhood education and care for the first time. Government funding for childcare increased, and care and education operated under one regulatory framework. From 1996 all centres delivered a national curriculum called Te Whāriki.


Throughout the 1990s and 2000s the proportion of children enrolled at kindergartens and playcentres dropped. The ‘Before Five’ reforms resulted in more choices for parents, who increasingly preferred all-day services offered by combined care and education centres. This was associated with an increase in women’s workforce participation.


Most early childhood education services are licensed – this means they have to fulfil certain requirements in staffing, curriculum and premises outlined in the Education Act 1989. Licensed centres receive more government funding than licence-exempt centres. All care and education services and kindergartens are licensed, as are most playcentres and kōhanga reo. Licence-exempt services are mainly playgroups and Pacific early childhood groups. In 2010, 82% of all early childhood services were licensed.

Kindergartens traditionally had the largest number of enrolments, but were overtaken by care and education centres in 1994. In 2010 care and education centres had 58% of all enrolments at licensed services, compared to 28% in 1990. Kindergartens had 20% of all enrolments in 2009, compared to 40% in 1990.

Playcentre enrolments declined the most and dropped from 21% of all enrolments in 1990 to 8% in 2010. Kōhanga reo grew slowly in the mid-1990s to 10% in 1995, but then proportionally declined to 5% in 2010. Home-based services grew from 0.8% of all enrolments in 1990 to 9% in 2010.

Overall, enrolments at licensed centres grew from 110,073 in 1990 to 188,924 in 2010. The proportion of children in their first year of primary school who had attended an early childhood education institution also grew from 86% in 2000 to 95% in 2009.

20 hours free

From July 2010, all three- to five-year-old children could attend an early childhood education service 20 hours a week (up to six hours a day) for free. This only applied to services led by teachers (rather than parents).

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Early childhood education and care - New developments, 1970s to 2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 20 Jun 2012