Learnings from the 2020 ECE Census

Published on Tuesday, 13 April 2021
Last updated on Monday, 12 April 2021

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Each year, the Ministry of Education releases fact sheets summarising the results of its Early Childhood Education (ECE) Census.

The latest Census of ECE services happened back in June 2020, and the recently released fact sheets tell us a lot about ECE participation, services, teachers and language use in New Zealand.

Here, we look at the key findings of these statistical snapshots, and see what’s changed in the ECE sector year-on-year.

1. Fewer children were enrolled in early learning in 2020, but most preschoolers go to an early learning service

During the Census return week (22 to 28 June), there were 190,348 children enrolled in licensed early learning services (down from 202,772 in 2017 and 198,923 in 2019), but a large proportion of under-fives still attend ECE.

According to the 2020 data:

  • 91.5 per cent of four-year-olds were enrolled at an early learning service,
  • 86.2 per cent of three-year-olds were participating, and
  • 60.7 per cent of all children under five are enrolled in early learning

When we look at the different types of early learning services children attend, the majority are enrolled in an education and care service (with 69 per cent going to this kind of service, up from 63 per cent in 2015).

Of the remaining children:

  • 14 per cent go to kindergarten,
  • Eight per cent are enrolled in home-based care,
  • Four per cent attend a kōhanga reo, and
  • Four per cent go to a playcentre.

A small proportion of children learn with Te Kura (formerly The Correspondence School), and there was actually an increase in enrolments there, from 312 children in 2019 to 333 children in 2020. 

2. There’s been an increase in the number of early learning services, and a small improvement in adult-to-child ratios

The total number of licensed early learning services rose by 0.2 per cent between 2019 and 2020, with 4,662 services counted in the latest ECE Census:

  • 58 per cent of these were education and care services, with the number of these services rising markedly from 2,409 in 2015 to 2,701 in 2020,
  • There’s been a one or two percent increase in the number of kindergartens and home-based services since 2015,
  • The number of playcentres has decreased by five per cent since 2015 (with 404 playcentres counted in 2020), and
  • Although the number of kōhanga reo has decreased slightly since 2015, there was no change between 2019 and 2020. In both years, there were 444 kōhanga reo in New Zealand, representing around 10 per cent of licensed early learning services.

The ECE Census also looked at occupancy rates, which are a measure of how full ECE services are, and found that these rates have been decreasing in most service types since 2017.

The average occupancy rate for education and care services was 78 per cent (down from 78.8 per cent in 2019), while the figures for kindergartens and playcentres increased a little in 2020 (with kindergartens sitting at 82.5 per cent occupancy and playcentres at 48.3 per cent).

There was also a slim improvement in adult-to-child ratios, with, ‘A national average of 5.7 children per adult during each service’s busiest time, up from a national average of 5.6 in 2019.’

3. There’s been an increase in the percentage of qualified teaching staff at licensed early learning services, and new data was collected around staff members’ ages and the number of hours worked

Although the latest ECE Census showed a five per cent drop in the number of teaching staff at services between 2020 and 2019, the good news is that the percentage of qualified teaching staff has risen from 68 per cent to 72 per cent.

In a new step, the government collected data about staff members’ ages for the 2020 ECE Census, and this tells us that older teaching staff are more likely to be qualified than younger teaching staff.

Specifically, 82 per cent of teaching staff aged 61 to 70 years are qualified, compared with 56 per cent of those aged 20 to 30; and the government says, ‘This is likely because younger people often work in early learning while gaining a qualification.’

As well as collecting information about staff ages, the latest Census also included a new question about ‘total hours worked by staff.’

This data was used to calculate the percentage of working time that teaching staff spend in contact with children, and the 2020 ECE Census found that education and care teachers spend 91 per cent of their working time in contact with children, compared with 70 per cent for kindergarten teachers.

Little has changed when it comes to the gender and ethnicity of teaching staff:

  • The majority of early learning teachers are still female (women make up 97 per cent of the 30,476 teaching staff at early learning services), and
  • The majority of teaching staff identify as Pākehā (65 per cent of teachers in both 2019 and 2020).

There has been a small rise in the number of teachers identifying as Asian (17 per cent up from 16 per cent), a slight decrease in the number of Māori teachers (eight per cent down from nine per cent), and seven per cent of teachers identified as Pacific in both 2019 and 2020.

4. There’s been a decrease in the number of Asian and Pacific medium licensed early learning services, and fewer tamariki are attending kōhanga reo

The ECE Census asked about language use in early learning, and the latest data shows that:

  • The number of Asian medium services has gone down since 2018, with 35 of these services counted in 2020. An ‘Asian medium service’ spends at least 51 per cent of its teaching time in an Asian language, and this language is most commonly Mandarin.
  • There were 118 Pacific medium services in 2020 (down from 132 in 2016) and the most commonly used language was Tongan.

Although the number of kōhanga reo didn’t change year-on-year, there has been a decrease in the proportion of tamariki Māori attending kōhanga reo.

In 2020, 17 per cent of tamariki enrolled at an early learning service went to kōhanga reo (down from 19 per cent in 2015) and 60 per cent attended an education and care service.

Tamariki also attend Māori medium licensed early learning services (including education and care services, home-based care, kindergartens and playcentres) and there were 56 of these counted in 2020.

How did COVID-19 impact ECE participation in 2020?

Late last year, the Ministry of Education released its report, How Participation in Early Learning is Affected by COVID-19 and estimated that 35.5 million hours of formal ECE was lost due to the pandemic (equating to about 177 hours for the average child in Auckland, and 108 hours for the average child elsewhere).

The government says ECE participation fell sharply during lockdown and was slightly down during periods of Alert Level 2, but appears to have returned to normal levels for most children over Alert Level 1.

During ECE Census Week (22 to 28 June, 2020), New Zealand was at Alert Level 1, so we can assume that attendance numbers were fairly normal when the Census was administered, but you can read the report to see how COVID-19 affected ECE.

Even if statistics aren’t your cup of tea, the ECE Census fact sheets provide easy-to-digest data that’s for the greater good. These statistical snapshots help our government develop policy and monitor ECE across the country, and it’s great to see a high uptake of early childhood education, and an increase in the numbers of qualified teaching staff.

Bring on ECE Census 2021!


Annual Early Education Census

Further reading

Findings from the ECE Census 2019

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