Unicef ranks NZ child care high for quality, low for affordability

Published on Wednesday, 18 August 2021
Last updated on Thursday, 26 August 2021

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We’re lucky to live in a rich country, here in New Zealand, with a government that recognises the importance of quality early childhood education for all Kiwi kids.

Our 10-year Early Learning Action Plan is well underway to raise quality, improve equity and enable choice, and according to a new Unicef report, we’re doing well already.

Unicef ranks New Zealand third in the world for child care quality, but this does come at a price, because the report also suggests that our child care is among the least affordable.

Here, we explore the findings in more detail, and see how child care in Aotearoa measures up globally.

How has Unicef ranked different countries’ child care and parental leave policies?

Unicef recognises that. ‘Accessible, affordable, and quality child care helps parents return to work after parental leave, improves children’s social and cognitive development, and promotes a more gender equitable society.’

For its Where Do Rich Countries Stand on Childcare? research report, the organisation assessed the parental leave and child care policies of 41 high-income countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and ourselves.

Unicef explains that, ‘The best-performing countries combine affordability with quality of organised child care, while offering long and well-paid leave to both mothers and fathers,’ and they ranked each country on these four aspects:

  1. Leave: Paid, job-protected leave available to mums and dads at a full-pay equivalent
  2. Access: Children in formal child care and education programmes under the age of three and one year before starting school
  3. Quality: Child-to-educator ratios and the minimal qualifications needed to become a teacher in formal child care
  4. Affordability: The cost of child care for two children (based on two earners on an average age, and a sole parent on a low income)

How did New Zealand measure up?

New Zealand was ranked 33 overall (out of the 41 countries), and in the individual areas, we ranked:

  • In the top third for quality (3),
  • In the middle third for access (27)
  • In the bottom third for affordability (36), and
  • In the bottom third for leave (39).

Specifically, Unicef found that:

  • Along with Iceland, Latvia, Finland and Denmark, we have the highest quality of child care. In New Zealand, we, ‘Combine a low children-to-staff ratio with high qualifications of care-givers to ensure that children get sufficient attention from trained personnel.’
  • Most countries provide part-time access to child care from the age of three, and New Zealand’s 20 Hours ECE puts us in the middle of the pack. Belgium, Denmark, Lithuania, Norway and Slovenia are the only countries that offer free child care access for under threes.
  • The bad news is that, along with Ireland and Switzerland, New Zealand has the least affordable child care for middle class families. A double income couple on an average wage would need to spend more than a third of one salary to pay for two children in full-time child care.
    Child care is a bit more affordable for single parents on a low income in Aotearoa, with about 10 to 15 per cent of their salary going towards child care fees.
  • New Zealand rated very low for leave. Stuff reports that our parental leave payment amount was the fifth lowest out of the 41 wealthy countries (equal to 8.4 weeks of a mum’s full pay), and that we were one of only four countries with no paid paternity leave (though paid parental leave (PPL) can be transferred to dads).

    It is great to see our government increase PPL from 18 weeks to 22 weeks to 26 weeks, though, and hopefully our leave ranking will rise in the next report.

Which other countries ranked highly, and poorly?

According to this report:

  • Luxemburg, Iceland and Sweden offer the best child care policies, ranking 1, 2 and 3 respectively overall.
  • Iceland ranked 1 for child care quality
  • Netherlands ranked 1 for access
  • Malta, Italy and Chile took the top ranking for affordability
  • Japan ranked 1 for leave, with Romania (2) and Estonia (3) offering the longest leave for mothers, and Japan and Korea (4) offering the longest leave for dads.

Meanwhile, Slovakia, United States and Cyprus ranked worst overall, and Unicef says, ‘Weak investments in leave and child care suggest that child care is seen more as a private responsibility.’

Across the ditch, Australia ranked 37 overall and received its best ranking (12) for quality.

This report also recognises the effect of COVID-19 on children and their grown-ups. Parents have struggled to balance work and child care, with centres closed during lockdowns and grandparent care suddenly unavailable.

And Unicef explains that, ‘While rich countries have mobilised a historic amount of funding to offset the effects of COVID-19, only two per cent of this was earmarked for child-specific social policies, and an even smaller fraction was reserved for child care.’

How can countries offer better parental leave and child care policies?

Unicef found that no one country is a leader in all four areas, and there’s room for improvement, even in ‘family-friendly countries’, like Luxemburg, Iceland and Sweden.

They’ve made nine recommendations for how parental leave and child care policies can be improved around the world (see page 25 of the report).

Back on home soil, we can be grateful that our government is committed to the Early Learning Action Plan, and Unicef NZ is also invested in early childhood education (ECE).

Unicef NZ’s Chief Executive Officer, Michelle Sharp, has told Stuff that her organisation aims to build on the increase in PPL and would like to see:

  • 20 Hours ECE being extended to cover one- and two-year-olds, not just preschoolers aged three and over, and
  • Targets introduced for increasing PPL, along with ECE affordability and accessibility.

We’re pleased that little Kiwis are receiving quality child care, and just hope Kiwi parents can receive a bit more help paying for it.




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