Will participation in early childhood education actually reduce future crime in NZ?

The NZ Police, Ministry of Justice, and Department of Corrections recently released an evidence brief extolling the virtues of early childhood education (ECE) as a means of reducing future crime. It is great to see policy makers in Wellington waking up to the importance of ECE, something that TOP has been committed to for some time. 

However, there is one massive caveat in the research that policy makers are a little quick to gloss over. While there is some evidence that ECE can reduce crime among disadvantaged children, the key to success is the quality of the education. In our view, New Zealand ECE is often not up to the standard necessary to deliver the positive results we are after. In fact, the evidence suggests the whole way we design ECE is a bit off. High-quality ECE should support children to grow strong relationships, and be integrated with their family/whānau and community.

Regulating quality

The evidence brief defines quality education in terms of funding, hours of participation, group size, teacher:child ratios, and teacher qualifications. However, TOP argues that New Zealand’s current regulatory standards do not meet the definition of quality. Examples include:

  • up to 75 under-twos and up to 150 over-twos under one license.
  • a supervision ratio of 1:5 for under-twos and 1:10 for over-twos.
  • only 50% of educators required to hold a recognised qualification. 
  • allocated space to play per child of just 2.5m2 inside and 5m2 outside. 

These sorts of regulations sound more like battery farming kids than high-quality ECE.  

Furthermore, over half of the ECE services reviewed by ERO in 2019 were not prepared to implement the early childhood curriculum (first published in 1996 and updated in 2017), despite its international status as a world-leading curriculum.

The brief touches on the quality of adult-children interactions within ECE, which is less easily measured but in our view far more important. Indeed, TOP argues that much more emphasis should be placed on the quality of interactions with all adults in a child’s life, which is crucial to healthy development. 

We consider it insufficient to say that participating in ECE of vaguely defined ‘quality’ will reduce future crime.

Promoting development

The brief advocates social skills training programmes as a way of promoting children’s social development, e.g. teaching children appropriate social behaviours and cognitions.  However, it doesn’t consider the social skills of adult role models in a child’s life, e.g. ECE teachers, parents, family members, the wider community – even politicians!

Furthermore, the brief largely ignores children’s emotional development. For example, the importance of strong dyadic relationships (responsive, reciprocal, one-on-one) and cultural identity for children to develop the willingness and ability to engage with learning are not mentioned at all.  

Targeting disadvantaged communities

The previous Government had clear objectives to increase ECE participation of Māori and Pasifika children and children from low socio-economic backgrounds. However, many of these children are now being systematically removed from their dyadic relationships, families/whānau, communities, and cultures and put into institutional – often culturally insensitive – care situations. Yet, as David Wastell and Sue White argue in The Policy Press, “removal is not a risk-free, brain-boosting antidote to disadvantage and dysfunction […] we need practical help for families rather than a moral panic about damaged brains”. 

Evidence shows that such interventions work best if the ECE setting is high quality and accompanied by other supportive services, such as parent education. For example, programmes like Incredible Years Parenting or Ngā Tau Mīharo ō Aotearoa (which incorporates a tikanga approach) provide a social return almost quadruple the investment. Thus, intervention-only models are less effective than approaches that include wrap-around services and family support, and enable collective growth for vulnerable families. 

Furthermore, beneficiaries are currently penalised if they choose to care for their own children.  Those who do not take “all reasonable steps” to enrol their child in a recognised ECE programme can have their benefit reduced by 50 per cent. This policy undermines trusting and respectful relationships and the principle of integration between beneficiaries and ECE services. It also fails to acknowledge the intrinsic value of parents as educators. 

TOP would remove the penalty for beneficiaries whose children do not attend an ECE centre, and incentivise centres to offer culturally sensitive community events to build awareness of and engagement in ECE among vulnerable families and communities.

In many non-Western cultures, communities share responsibility for raising children and enable learning by involving children in everyday activities. Learning spaces are not purpose-built, artificial, and segregated, but rather integrated – with older and younger children teaching each other skills like tolerance, patience, perseverance, and problem-solving. Learning through observation, rather than questions and verbal explanations, is valued in many of these cultures.  

TOP sees the current approach of removing children from their communities, families/whānau, and cultures as insensitive, colonial, and bordering on supremacist. It instead advocates a community-wide, culturally sensitive approach to educating children in vulnerable communities.

Justifying a care and community focus in ECE through neuroscience

The evidence brief draws on Ministry of Education publications and some peer-reviewed intervention-oriented articles to substantiate the statement that “early childhood education is an effective way of boosting the cognitive and academic skills of children prior to formal education”.  However, none of the references consider child development from a neurological perspective, which applies to all children not just those from disadvantaged backgrounds. TOP believes this should be considered in any discussion of ECE, but especially for more vulnerable children.

All human brains develop in the same sequence, from the brainstem that ensures survival and stores anxiety or arousal/stress, to the diencephalon for movement, to the limbic system for emotion, to the neocortex for thinking, memory, empathy, planning, imagination, and more. 

The timeframes in which children go through these developmental stages depend on factors such as birth order, gender, life experiences, and prevalence of toxic stress. As each section of the brain comes online, the other sections are still developing, but in a less concentrated way. 

However, if the survival brain is aroused, the cortex can’t function effectively. In other words, when humans are highly stressed, they can’t think properly. If children are highly stressed, the rest of their brain won’t develop properly. 

During the early years, dyadic relationships are the most important component of every child’s development in terms of social, emotional, academic, health, and wellbeing outcomes throughout life. In fact, a warm, nurturing, loving relationship with a consistent primary attachment figure is the single most important determinant of resilience and lifelong success. 

The importance of parents and family/whānau in early childhood development is well documented and practical steps can be taken to foster communicative, dyadic relationships between adults and children. Adults need to exhibit a caring presence in the moment. Most parents innately love their children, but not all adults know how to demonstrate love, depending on their own upbringing. Some adults are naturally ‘present’ with children as part of their personal demeanour, while others may need to learn to be aware of and alert to their communicative actions (verbal, non-verbal, listening). 

Evidence shows that community-led initiatives are well placed to meet the diverse social and emotional needs of children, as such services grow the wider family/whānau and community in the process of caring for the children. Therefore, TOP aims to keep children with their family/whānau for as long as possible while investing in community-led initiatives, starting with vulnerable communities.

TOP’s solution

TOP would give a universal basic income (UBI) to all families with a child under three (or from the point they have a new child under the age of six come into their care). The UBI would initially be $200 per week for three years, up to a total of $31,200 (compared to a maximum of $15,230 for ‘top earners’ under the current paid parental leave system). 

Families/whānau would also have the option of front-loading the payments for the first year of the baby’s life and taking less later on, e.g. $400/week for the first year, $200 in the second year and $0 in the third year. 

The UBI would replace paid parental leave and parental tax credits. These entitlements perpetuate social imbalance because they are linked to previous earnings, despite the fact that the cost of raising children is similar for all families/whānau. The UBI would enable all parents to decide how to approach parenthood.

Overall, the interdisciplinary approach of the NZ Police, Ministry of Justice, and Department of Corrections is to be commended for moving beyond the historic 'tough on crime' rhetoric. However, TOP would like these policy advisers look deeper into what drives crime, and think beyond their own perspectives to find solutions that support rather than punish individuals who commit it. Relationships matter at all stages of life, not just in the early years. 

Showing 7 reactions

  • bob Atkinson
    commented 2020-02-07 09:29:47 +1300
    Reading your Thriving Families Policy document I am still impressed as I was before the last election. My only gripe is your proposal to introduce yet another means test. Getting rid of means testing for child benefit and making it fairly generous makes great sense. Even if you hate children it still makes sense as just about the best way a country can invest its taxes. But introducing a means test into national super is a step backwards. One that will be appreciated by accountants and lawyers and tax officials but not good for NZ. I concur with your view that we should give more to children and therefore will need to give less to retirees but this can be achieved without a means test.
    First point: your proposal to set super to a standard $200pw saves money and simplifies matters by removing the ‘married’ status mean test which will stop our bureaucrats having to decide whether pensioners living together are having sex. Second point: the age of entitlement should be altered; it ought to be related to life expectancy; I suspect promising on average 15 years of superannuation would suffice but if it was too expensive just cut the number of years until you can afford the increased funding for children.
  • bob Atkinson
    commented 2020-02-07 08:07:45 +1300
    I’m reading Mr Mate’s website and have no idea whether his views are generally accepted or not. On the first page he writes ""Rather than an inherited disease, Attention Deficit Disorder is a reversible impairment and a developmental delay, with origins in infancy. It is rooted in multigenerational family stress and in disturbed social conditions in a stressed society."" and in my limited experience ADD is a problem found in wealthy families only and first born children and has little relationship to multigenerational family stress. In fact it is almost a sign of minimal financial stress so not supporting the concept of a UBI that you and I believe in.
    Searching for the word ‘dysfunctional’ I found "" Very few individuals or families are not touched by at least some aspects of mental dysfunction, some periods of the discouragement, disconnect …"" and that makes sense. So if mental dysfunction can exist and it is just a random effect then there will be in a country with over a million families some unfortunate families where every single adult family member is suffering from it – that leads to our dreadful statistics for children being killed by family violence (frequently after prolonged severe torture) and the high child suicide figures. Yes a UBI will not make things worse and even may make things better but you are dreaming when you think it will solve our problem. And your own preferred expert admits ‘dysfunction’ exists. You believe every child is apart of a community but you also seem to believe every community is healthy. I just wish you were right.
  • Naomi Pocock
    commented 2020-02-06 22:15:18 +1300
    Bob, re ‘vulnerable’ vs ‘dysfunctional’ terminology, I would point you towards Dr. Gabor Maté (, who has a very different way of viewing ‘dysfunction’. The superannuation (or Elders UBI) is well explained on the last page of the UBI and Thriving Families Policy document ( I hope you find this useful. Ngaa mihi nui.
  • bob Atkinson
    commented 2020-02-03 21:15:43 +1300
    Naomi: I think you are very optomistic in thinking you can means test Super without the pensioner (such as myself) finding ways round it. Maybe if you are clever it will take several years but it will happen – for example many more 65 year olds having big holidays when they retire to make certain they get into the poor category. The solution to funding by transferring funds from Superannuation is to change it to be for a period deducted from average lifespan – so promise say 12 or 15 years Super on average – that would change the date of entitlement (to maybe 67 or 70 as per other countries) and secondly reducing the amount given – I cannot understand why my full UK pension is less than my NZ pension despite Britain being wealthier per capita. The admin costs for means testing will be a real pain. [Incidentally I doubt I’m in the top half of superannuation].
    Yes a UBI for kids will be good. Making it universal gets my strong approval. And in so far as it will help families it will reduce dysfunctional families. If you think it along with massive increase in govt interference with poor families will solve it you are day dreaming. Yes lets spend more and certainly have a UBI but please be realistic – the fact you use the word ‘vulnerable’ instead of the accurate ‘dysfunctional’ does reveal you being just a little out of touch with reality.
    I will accept that dysfunctional families can be rescued – just realise it will take generations not a few months of more bureaucrats knocking on the door.
  • Naomi Pocock
    commented 2020-02-03 18:23:19 +1300
    Thank you for engaging with the discussion, Bob, and for your comments. It’s great to hear that you support our high-level ideas. There are lots of underfunded programmes /organisations available to help vulnerable (or in your words, ‘dysfunctional’) families – the government just needs to prioritise them. In the meantime, we do hope our unconditional basic income for families will make a big difference in these families lives. Just to clarify, the UBI for families won’t increase taxes, as it’ll be paid for by means-testing the top half of superannuation.
  • bob Atkinson
    commented 2020-01-29 22:39:47 +1300
    Having made a good point about the penalising of beneficiary parents who do not send their children to ECE the language goes way over the TOP (to coin a phrase). ""TOP sees the current approach of removing children from their communities, families/whānau, and cultures as insensitive, colonial, and bordering on supremacist. It instead advocates a community-wide, culturally sensitive approach to educating children in vulnerable communities.""
    My granddaughter attends an excellant pre-school and has done so since she was two. But the reality is they are merely child-minding and her mental development for good or bad is almost entirely result of her parents with a little assistance from her grandparents. Her pre-school happens to be multi-cultural for children and supervisors and is all the better for that. The word ‘colonial’ in this context means ‘outsiders thinking they know best’ and that is precisely what you are doing. I haven’t a clue where you get ‘supremacist’ into it – seems like shouting abuse rather than proposing better policy.
    You have good policies – just improve how you defend them.
  • bob Atkinson
    commented 2020-01-29 22:16:36 +1300
    ""Thus, intervention-only models are less effective than approaches that include wrap-around services and family support, and enable collective growth for vulnerable families. "" True and easy to say. However as my social worker friend says some families are totally crippled with drug addiction and mental health problems in every adult. Do not criticise the removing of children from their mother and/or father without first reading about the shameful number of children killed, tortured, brain-damaged, etc in New Zealand. Every time I think about the Kahui twins I feel sick.
    ""Every year about 10 children are killed by a member of their own family and dozens more end up in hospital with serious injuries. Between July 2016 and July 2017, 13 children aged between 10 and 14 killed themselves."" Unfortunately intervention models are needed.
    Policy that introduces a generous universal child benefit will help reduce the problem by strengthening the family bonding but it will not eliminate problem families. It would be good to have wrap-round services and support for vulnerable families but some are not vulnerable they are simply totally dysfunctional.
    The argument for a UCB is it will help all families and especially the working poor. I’m totally in favour even if it means substantially increasing taxes.