By: Isaac Davison

A typical Kiwi child on their first day of school gets a ride with their parents and lives no further than 5km away.

They are in a state school and have around 25 classmates. They will be ready for school, having spent some time in preschool, and take less than a month to adjust to their new routine. They get free milk every morning.

There is a relatively high chance they will have at least one developmental problem. And there is also a strong chance they will change schools within a year, or get a change of teacher.

These are some of the latest findings from a major Government-backed study which tracks 7000 children to find out what is is like to grow up in New Zealand.

The latest report was compiled from interviews with mothers when the children were six years old, and focuses on their transition to primary school.

In broad terms, the new Growing Up in NZ report paints a positive picture. Nine out of 10 parents were satisfied that schools were meeting their children’s needs. Three-quarters of children were ready for school on the day they started, and were often excited at the prospect.

“Overall most children are thriving and doing well,” said the study’s director Susan Morton, an associate professor at the University of Auckland.

“And I think that’s important because so often we focus in on the negative things that happen for a portion of our children and forget that in general things are working quite well.

“In this case, the transition to school for these children and their first year of school is largely reported as being successful.”

There are a few causes for concern. Nearly every child got a check-up before they began school and some of the problems identified – especially weight problems – were not always followed up by the time they turned six.

A relatively high number of families moved within their child’s first year of school, making it harder to give them a stable education. It was also common for teachers to change.

Parent’s satisfaction with schooling was uneven. Mothers from non-European backgrounds were less likely to feel that schools met their cultural needs.

And poorer families or families with Maori, Pacific or Asian backgrounds were over-represented in some of the most negative aspects of the study.

While the results were largely positive, there remained thousands of children growing up in poverty according to Government figures.

Photo / Supplied

The Government has previously estimated there were 150,000 New Zealand children living in material hardship, while 160,000 lived in low-income households (before housing costs were included).

Sticking to her election promise, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set a goal to reduce the number of children living in material hardship by 30,000 and reduce the number in low-income households before housing costs were included by 70,000 over three years.


Nearly all of the 7000 children had what is known as a Before School Check, a free health and development check-up available to all four year-olds in New Zealand.

A quarter of them were found to have developmental concerns, most commonly sight or hearing problems. These were problems which would usually require an intervention before they started school.

But referrals for treatment were patchy. Children with eye problems got referred for additional services 80 per cent of the time, but children with weight problems were only referred for help in 20 per cent of cases. Only a third of kids found to have behaviour problems received some form of intervention.

And the most important factor in how well they adapted to their new routine was their teacher.

In a worrying statistic for the researchers, a quarter of children’s teacher changed within their first year. For 12 per cent of children, their teacher changed more than once.

“That’s something we would really like to avoid for children in their first year at school, given how important that seems to be for perception of the children’s transition,” Morton said.

“You’d have to say those sort of figures suggest that there are some things we could still do better as we transition them into formal schooling.”


Researchers were also surprised by how many of the 7000 children also changed schools in their first year.

Two-thirds of them had already moved houses at least once before they were five years old.

“I guess we had anticipating that when they started formal schooling that might slow down somewhat,” Morton said.

“So I guess one of the … surprising things was 12 per cent of children had experienced a change of school, usually one but in some cases more.

“That’s worrying in terms of how we provide continuity of education opportunities for those children.”

There were no easy fixes for high levels of transience.

Morton said authorities would have to think about how they could provide services which met the needs of an increasingly mobile population.

“Because traditionally we’ve offered education in a very geographically stable sort of way,” she said.

“Increasingly we are all being challenged about how we provide continuity of engagement in education for children and families who are likely to be moving.”

The typical class size was between 20 and 25 children, though larger classes were becoming more common because of what are known as Modern Learning Environments (MLEs).

A quarter of children had experienced MLEs, which use more open, flexible classrooms, often with more than one teacher, and encourage use of modern technology.

“Parents are reporting that they are seeing some good outcomes in terms of socialisation and specifically in terms of numeracy,” Morton said.

“It does seem there is some good news for those environments early on.”

Small class sizes were important for parents, but ranked below a range of other factors when it came to picking schools, including resources, reputation, location and their approach to bullying.

Just 3 per cent of children cycled to school, while 15 per cent walked and the vast majority – 68 per cent – went by car.


There is a note of caution about the results. The latest study is based on the parents’ perception of how well their children are doing, and parents have tended to adjust more quickly and easily to their children’s transition to school.

It will now be measured against responses from the children themselves.

“It’s going to be really interesting to see if the children’s views concur with those of their parents,” Morton said.

“Particularly where parents are reporting issues like bullying or engaging in school – whether the children back that up and think the issues are as great as their parents do.”

It is also the first time the researchers have used an electronic questionnaire rather than face-to-face interviews, which led to a slightly lower completion rate.

The families that did not respond were more likely to be poorer, uneducated, and identify as non-European. That meant the results could be slightly rosier than the reality.

Morton said they hoped to catch up again with those missing families again when their kids were aged eight years old.


Sahib Maman’s first day of school was harder for his dad than for him.

“It was very emotional to see your kid start something new and fresh in life,” said father Ranjeet.

“I was more emotional than my missus.”

Sahib adjusted quickly to classes at St Pauls Primary, a state-integrated Catholic school in Massey.

He is inquisitive and enthusiastic: “His teachers say ‘he is killing us with questions’.”

Ranjeet, who works in a bank, said the smooth transition to primary school was partly thanks to his son’s daycare, which prepared him for the step up.

“For the kids who were joining school, they would go into a separate group and get them to bring lunches and do separate classes to get them all prepped for school.

“They would have activities like bringing your bag, hanging it up. So when Sahib did join, he was quite comfortable, we didn’t have any challenges with him adjusting to school.”

His parents also met the teachers and the principal, which gave them confidence Sahib would be looked after.

The family, who moved from India 12 years ago, are not Catholic but they chose St Paul’s because they wanted some structure and discipline. The closest school had no uniforms and was “a bit rugged”, Ranjeet said.

They were willing to travel a bit further but other schools in West Harbour and Hobsonville were out of zone.

The school is just 1.5km away but, like most parents, they drive him there. He started in a class of around 25 kids, but is now in a smaller one.

Sahib likes video games and is obsessed with cars. He collects Hot Wheels and loves watching Formula One – especially the crashes.

However, his current choice of vocation has not thrilled his parents.

“I think he said he wanted to be bus driver,” Ranjeet laughed.

“We’re not going to spend a lot of money on his education for him to become a bus driver.”

Source: NZ Herald

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