New Zealand’s reputation for being a world leader in early childhood education (ECE) needs to be celebrated and matched by more action and budget for educating early years teachers, according to the country’s newest Professor of ECE, the University of Auckland’s Helen Hedges.

Internationally, New Zealand’s ECE curriculum document Te Whāriki is lauded for being non-prescriptive, holistic and bicultural, Professor Hedges says.

“International educators find it very exciting,” she says. Yet within New Zealand, ECE is “still often regarded as the Cinderella of education”.

Professor Hedges is critical that ECE policy in New Zealand is yet to require 100 per cent qualified teachers. ECE in New Zealand doesn’t get as much budget for professional learning as other sectors either, nor time and money allocated for inducting and mentoring new teachers.

“If they’re qualified, they’re more interested in being ongoing professional learners. There’s an amazing number of things infants and toddlers are interested in, like the wind and rain, that require the ability to understand basic physics. Qualified teachers who are ongoing learners themselves will have more insight into how you teach these to children in ways commensurate with children’s current maturity and understandings.”

Professor Hedges’ field is related to this – children’s interests: matters they are curious about and that motivate them to engage in learning, and pursue it even when the going gets tough. This perseverance in learning is crucial to learning later in life and to success as an adult. Her research has led her to identify young children’s deep fascination with the world of adults and wanting to practise new identities as members of families and communities.

She’s been delighted to see her work picked up by teachers and policy makers. Her work has informed the indicators that the Education Review Office uses to evaluate ECE centres, and in 2016-17 and she was part of the revision team that updated Te Whāriki, the first time the curriculum document had been updated after 20 years. Professor Hedges insists that she hasn’t achieved all this alone: it’s been a privilege to be let in to the lives of teachers, children and their families to learn from them.

Since her first involvement in ECE, through being with her own children at Playcentre in the late 1990s, Professor Hedges has contributed to a growing professionalisation of ECE. The first five years of children’s lives are now widely recognised as crucial. ECE has won recognition as a skilled pedagogical practice.

For the past 30 years, she’s seen ECE operate internationally at two ends of a spectrum: those who consider teaching being about observing children play and not valuing adult involvement, to those who want to sit small children down at tables and teach them subjects like maths. Professor Hedges positions herself in the middle ground where children have play opportunities and freedom to explore their own interests, but alongside this “have high-quality pedagogical input” and for that to happen “teachers need at minimum to have a rigorous teaching qualification”.

Professor Hedges is excited about her promotion to professor, only the third current full-time ECE professorship in the country, and hopes it will bring increased visibility to the discipline in the University and additional credibility to the sector.


  1. Professor Helen Hedges reminds us in her piece: ECE – the Cinderella of Education…, that the New Zealand ECE system is one of the world’s best and yet, in true kiwi style, it is under-celebrated. There are not enough positive stories, or New Zealand research and data, that look for the great things that ECE is achieving, both in curriculum and learning outcomes for children. After all, ECE provides the foundations of a child’s future learning, and many pieces of research suggest children that attend ECE have better outcomes in later life.

    As if I didn’t need reminding about some of the quality we have in New Zealand, an old colleague of mine recently contacted me at the Early Childhood Council looking for two New Zealand ECE-qualified teachers. I spent a little while discussing the merits of our current teacher shortage, whereupon I was advised that the shortage is actually worldwide, not just limited to New Zealand. One problem we have (and an enjoyable one at that) is New Zealand-trained ECE teachers are highly regarded, and highly employable internationally.

    We also know our ECE curriculum, Te Whāriki, is looked to and replicated overseas. However, ECE in New Zealand is still a bit of a poor cousin in the NZ education system. While all the research points to the merits of participating in a quality ECE system, we struggle to survive a funding shortage for nearly a decade. ECE needs to be regarded as an equal at the education tables and funded accordingly to ensure quality remains, and there is access for all.

    It occurs to me, and I’ve said this before, that we are very good at delivering a variety of high quality ECE experiences for our youngest learners. But we are often too busy delivering ECE to stop and share the good work that is being achieved. There’s a lot of research that supports our cause, but very little New Zealand data to show the results ECE achieves. That continues to be a challenge and one as a sector that we’d love to address.

    It is my hope the expectation of the refreshed curriculum, Te Whāriki, that requires ECE services demonstrate how learning outcomes are being achieved, will also support quality and provide for richer data and research. And we may see some more positive stories about the benefits of ECE and the good work our sector does every-day.

    Thanks Professor Hedges for a great article and a timely reminder.

    Peter Reynolds
    Chief Executive Officer, Early Childhood Council


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