How do families make choices about early childhood education?

15 May 2019
Children at a daycare
Parents start thinking about childcare and early education before the birth of their child.

New research using Growing Up in New Zealand data reveals a fascinating picture of mothers' participation in the workforce and their use of early childhood education services.

The University of Auckland and Ministry of Education study found that mothers take an average of 25-weeks parental leave after their baby is born. 

The study, funded through the Ministry of Social Development’s Children and Families Research Fund, examined families’ intentions and their ultimate decisions around childcare and early childhood education.  

The study report, Intentions and decisions about early childhood education, reveals that parents commonly start thinking about early education, childcare and parental leave before birth.

However, the choices they ultimately make do not necessarily reflect their initial intentions. 

Lead Researcher, Dr Kane Meissel, says there are a wide range of inter-related factors affecting the choices families make about early childhood education.  

“Around 84% of mothers who had indicated during pregnancy that they would use an early childhood education service instead opted for an informal arrangement, such as care by a relative, by the time the child was nine months old. 

“It was not until children turned two that mothers are more likely to engage with early childhood education services,” he says.  

Other key findings from the report include: 

  • Mothers tend to cover the difference between their paid parental leave and the total time they spent on leave with a mix of annual leave, other types of pay and unpaid leave.

  • Older mothers were statistically more likely to take parental leave.

  • Mothers with no current partner were twice as likely not to take leave.

  • Before their child was born, three-quarters of mothers expected to return to work. 

  • Women who took paid parental leave and had returned to work by the time their baby was nine-months-old had taken an average of 25 weeks leave. That meant they had extended their 14-week paid parental leave period by almost three extra months, often unpaid.

  • Regardless of antenatal intentions, use of early childhood education increases between 9 and 24 months, especially use of teacher-led, centre-based services.

  • The overall uptake of any type of early childhood education service at nine months was about 17%, but rose to 42% by 24 months.

  • Informal childcare was more likely in rural areas; among those living in the most socio-economically deprived areas; and when mothers had irregular work patterns.

  • Mothers who chose a Māori or Pasifika immersion and bilingual centre-based service did so for developmental reasons, such as their child’s language development.

The report also notes there is evidence of some inequity in access to early childhood education.  

"There may be barriers to some groups using early childhood education services.  These could include financial resources, the location of ECE centres and when they are open,” Dr Meissel says. 

He says research using the rich information collected in Growing Up in New Zealand is extremely useful for government and non-government organisations when they are designing policies and services to support children and families in New Zealand. 

In this instance, the data provided insights to the Ministry of Education, which can be used as part of the evidence base for making decisions about future early childhood services. 

You can read the full report here.