What you need to know about child care ratios

Published on Wednesday, 09 September 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Early childhood education (ECE) promises youngsters quality time with an engaged care-giver, and to ensure children get the attention they need, there are legal requirements around the number of adults required for the number of children attending.

This balance between carer and kid is called the ‘adult-to-child ratio,’ and ECE services should adhere to their ratio at all times – including when educators go on lunch breaks or groups go on excursions.

There are different adult-to-child ratios, depending on the age of the children and the type of ECE service, but the over-arching aim of these ratios is to ensure quality of teaching and safety of children.

That said, there is some concern that the current child care ratios aren’t fit for purpose or based on any research, evidence or best-practice. So, let’s look at the current ratios and see where there’s room for improvement.

What adult-to-child ratios are required at ECE services?

The Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations 2008 set out the legal minimum ratios and, generally speaking, an ECE service needs:

  • One adult for every five children, when they’re under the age of two and
  • One adult for every 10 children, when they’re two and over.

There are variances, depending on the number of children attending and the type of ECE service. For example, in a home-based education and care service, there needs to be one adult caring for every two children under the age of two, and one adult caring for every four children aged two and over, or for mixed ages.

To avoid over-crowding and ensure ample room to play and learn, there are also regulations around how much activity space children should have.

This means that early childhood education and care centres must offer at least:

  • 2.5 square metres of indoor space per child (not counting furniture, toilets, staff rooms etc) and
  • Five square metres of outdoor space per child (although this figure can be relaxed if children are attending for less than two hours a day).

What changes are planned for child care ratios?

The government recognises that lower adult-to-child ratios benefit young children, and one of the actions of its 10-year Early Learning Action Plan is to improve the ratios for children under the age of three who are attending teacher-led, centre-based early learning services.

To support infants’ and toddlers’ wellbeing and development, the government will use a staged approach to change the adult-to-child ratios to:

  • One adult for every four children, when they’re under the age of two and
  • One adult for every five children, when they’re two and over.

To give services time to recruit more qualified teachers, the government will:

  • Award a higher funding rate to services with the new 1:4 and 1:5 ratios in the medium term and
  • Make these ratios a requirement in the medium and longer term.

It’s hoped that the lower ratios will allow teachers to, ‘Support learning opportunities with all the children all the time;’ and the government is aspiring to a ratio of one adult to three children for under twos in the longer term.

Are these changes too little, too late?

Although the government is taking action to improve adult-to-child ratios before 2029, there are calls to change the ratios much sooner.

ECE experts and advocates are concerned that the regulations are no longer, ‘Fit for practice, if they ever were’ in light of a large growth in the number of early learning services and teachers over the last decade. And because the current requirements were inherited from 1960 and 1990 circa regulations, they’re not based on modern research, evidence or best-practice, either.

Day-to-day, ECE services have a legal obligation to meet their adult-to-child ratios, but there have been reports that some centres aren’t strictly adhering to them:

  • Some say it’s hard to find enough qualified and experienced staff to fill the ratio
  • Some are bending the rules to meet their minimum ratio obligations, e.g. a teacher might leave their door open while on break to be counted in the ratio and
  • There has been some confusion in the past about the wording of the regulations and whether a ‘person responsible’ for staff could be counted in the ratio.

On this point, the Secretary for Education has confirmed that, ‘In teacher-led, centre-based services, persons responsible can count towards adult-to-child ratio requirements while they are in contact with children’ (i.e. looking after their education and care, comfort, health and safety, and also supervising other teaching staff).

However, ‘The person responsible or coordinator of in home-based services do not count towards adult to child ratio requirements.’ 

There’s also been some concern that the current ratios may be damaging to children’s health and wellbeing.

Although the regulations talk about ‘number of children attending’ the ECE service, they don’t prescribe a maximum group size. And according to Newsroom, ‘Those working in the sector say these ratios … in some cases are actively harming children due to noise levels, overcrowding, temperatures, stress, and a lack of one-on-one attention needed to build important early relationships.’

What adult-to-child ratio is preferred by the ECE sector?

A lower ratio will give children more quality time with their adult educator, and Newsroom says, ‘Academics, teachers and advocates are now calling for a swift move to a 1:3 ratio, rather than treating this as an aspirational goal’ for under twos.

In support of this thinking, the education union, NZEI has called for the government to restore maximum numbers in ECE centres to 75 (down from the current 150) and wants the 1:3 adult-to-child ratio introduced for children aged under two.

The government has responded by saying that it is committed to:

  • Lowering adult-to-child ratios
  • Developing advice around group sizes
  • Moving towards 100 per cent qualified teachers in teacher-led centres
  • Improving teacher salaries and working conditions and
  • Developing a teacher supply strategy to combat the current shortage.

All this will take time, but it’s good to know that the government recognises the benefits of more quality interactions between educator and child and is taking steps in the right direction.

If you are concerned about the adult-to-child ratio at your ECE service, then you can raise this with your educator or centre leader to ensure your child is getting the attention they need – and are legally entitled to.



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