Essay on Policy Design 6: Enhancing ECE through Te Whāriki

Back to the Home Page

The views expressed in the ECE Taskforce Report are those of the independent ECE Taskforce and its members. The ECE Taskforce Report does not represent the views of the New Zealand Government, the Ministry of Education or the Education Review Office. The Government consulted the public on the ECE Taskforce Report during an eight week consultation period from June to August 2011.

Ma te tika o te toki o te tangere, me te tohu o te panaho, ka pai te tere o te waka I ngā momo moana katoa
The expert way the keel of the canoe is designed and shaped helps it successfully traverse all types of water

Relevant Policy Design Principles
Submissions Summary
Proposed Policy Direction
Anticipated Outcomes of the Policy Change
Cost Considerations
The Change Process
Enhancing ECE through Te Whāriki Diagram
To download essay diagrams and the Final Report of the ECE Taskforce, please click here


A holistic, socioculturally-based curriculum is a key component of quality early childhood education provision. It can support children’s learning and development, encourage quality adult – child interactions, and lead to positive outcomes from early childhood education. A curriculum provides direction for what a society wants to encourage in its citizens, both young and old. New Zealand has a national, curriculum for zero to six-year-olds, Te Whāriki, which promotes contribution and belonging; communication (non-verbal, verbal and written); exploration (including scientific thinking); problem-solving and ongoing learning; self-motivation and self-control; empathy; confidence and perseverance. These cognitive and non-cognitive skills build human capabilities and support their transfer to new situations. Te Whāriki is considered a model of best practice, nationally and internationally, but could benefit from a comprehensive review of its implementation. We recommend that this takes place as soon as possible. A review would show whether the curriculum is being implemented, the areas that are working well, barriers to implementation, and whether further resources or support are needed. The review should cover self-review, assessment, and support for Māori children and whānau. It should also cover transition to school, sufficiency of resources, and implementation for children with special educational needs. A robust review could identify cost-effective ways to improve outcomes from early childhood education in New Zealand and the cost of the review should be able to be met within existing baselines.


The ECE Taskforce recommends:

26. a detailed, high-quality evaluation of the implementation of Te Whāriki, in particular focussing on its success for Māori and Pasifika children, children who have English as an additional language, and children with special education needs; and of the level and quality of the early childhood education sector’s assessment practices

27. evaluation of the effectiveness of the schooling sector at recognising and building on the skills and knowledge of children moving from early childhood settings to the early years of school

28. a review of the extent to which initial teacher education and later professional development prepare and support teachers to implement Te Whāriki effectively

29. development of a framework, in collaboration with the early childhood education sector, that measures the extent to which the outcomes of Te Whāriki are being achieved. This framework should be linked to sector performance monitoring.


There are many different ways of thinking about and defining ‘curriculum’, but in essence, a curriculum broadly describes what a society wants from education. Curriculum thus provides a theoretical basis, goals and philosophy for practice[1]. It includes outcomes, principles, directions and processes, and is culturally specific[2].

As noted in Essay 1: Aiming for High-Quality Services, high levels of quality interactions between adults and the children, and a connection with families (aspects of ‘process quality’) support good outcomes from early childhood education. Conversely, participation in low-quality early childhood education is potentially harmful to vulnerable children, particularly those under two years of age. We know that young children learn through their own active participation in the context of supportive social relationships and opportunities to explore. According to sociocultural theory, children come to internalise the tools for thinking they have practised in social situations[3]. Curriculum is thus a key support to quality educational provision: guiding the interactions which create good outcomes, both between teachers and children, and between services and families, thereby helping to create family support for learning.

Curriculum also:

  • expresses the nation’s aspirations for its citizens
  • links all those working in the early childhood education sector into a profession with a unified vision across diverse types of provision, and guides teacher education and professional development. (See Essay 10: Improving Staff Education and Professional Development for more about this.) This also supports high quality, and
  • provides support for nation building and a sense of our place in an increasingly globalised, interconnected world, giving us a sense of our uniqueness as a people.

Because of the influences curriculum can have on children’s learning and development, curriculum development and implementation are a matter of interest for governments.

New Zealand’s experience

New Zealand’s national early childhood education curriculum, Te Whāriki, is based on the principles of empowerment, holistic development, family and community and relationships. It is not prescriptive, and does not tell teachers ‘what to teach’; rather, it focuses on supporting learning dispositions and broad competencies that can be readily transferred to new situations (such as entry to school). It is bicultural, inclusive of all ages from birth to six, and ‘anticipates that special needs will be met as children learn together in all kinds of early childhood education settings’[4].

Research shows curricula that address motivational aspects of learning, focused on learning dispositions rather than static skills or competencies, are associated with better performance in later schooling than those that are overtly ‘academically’ oriented[5] or standards-base[6]. Examples of learning dispositions are to communicate, to be curious, and to persist with learning despite difficulties. Non-cognitive skills such as these have been shown to have a direct effect on future earnings and educational success[7].

We note, however, that the successful implementation of Te Whāriki requires that teachers are well qualified so that they can understand and implement a socioculturally-based curriculum and have good subject knowledge in a range of domains[8]. Tertiary education for early childhood education teachers is therefore essential. (See Essay 10: Improving Staff Education and Professional Development for more on this.)

Research base

In Essay 1: Aiming for High-Quality Services, we discuss the evidence from neurobiology about the way brains develop. Briefly, recent research demonstrates that early experience has a profound effect on lifelong learning[9]. Though brain development continues till adulthood, it is most rapid in infancy, and the process of synapse formation is at its peak in the first few years of life.

Information from the study of child development tells us that children’s learning at five tends to predict how well they will do throughout the rest of their educational experiences[10]. This means that if children from all circumstances in life are to have a chance to succeed, we must pay attention to their learning contexts in these first five years (both at home and in early childhood education), when their development is most plastic.

The benefits of an early start in early childhood education are particularly strong for children’s learning of new languages, for children with disabilities, and for children from low-income families, but all children can benefit. During these early years, children are not only influenced positively by rich learning environments, but they are extremely vulnerable to impoverished learning environments. This is particularly true for children during the first two years of life, and for children from already disadvantaged backgrounds.

This knowledge dovetails with information from the study of human capital, that:

  • early educational achievement can predict later educational outcomes and affect labour market outcomes[11]. Two important components required to develop human capital that go some way to explaining this are self productivity (skills developed earlier augment skills develop later) and dynamic complementarity (skills produced at one time increase the returns on investments in other stages)
  • the skills that make up human capital begin to develop in the first few years of life, so investment in these years have high returns. Early disadvantage, if left unattended, has a high cost in future difficulties for the individual and society. Investment in high-quality early childhood education has the potential to reduce these costs and promote benefits
  • investments in the early years are more effective than those in later years. (There is more information in Part One of this report on the value of investment in early childhood education.)
  • it is not cost-effective to have large differences in educational achievement and job skills in society. Low income in one generation tends to be inherited by the next unless there is intervention. The provision of high-quality early childhood Education has been shown to diminish the gap between the rich and the poor, and to minimise the disadvantages associated with single parenthood and low income[12].

Relevant Policy Design Principles

Several of our policy design principles are relevant to this discussion of child
development and Te Whāriki. They are:

  • promote economic growth
  • use government funds efficiently
  • encourage cultural diversity
  • ensure access for all, and
  • support a predictable environment for service providers.


Te Whāriki is the Māori term for the woven mat, and the use of this term recognises the bicultural nature of the curriculum, the interweaving of its principles, goals and strands, and the diversity of the early childhood education sector in New Zealand.

Te Whāriki, the national early childhood education curriculum, was launched in 1996 and is based on sociocultural theory. It focuses on providing a safe and trustworthy environment; meaningful and interesting problems; avoidance of competition and failure; opportunities for collaborative problem-solving; and availability of assistance – summarised in its aspiration for

    Children to grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society.[13]

The principles and strands of Te Whāriki were regulated in 2008. All licensed services must implement Te Whāriki, but the way they do this is left to professional judgement and input from families, whānau and communities.

Te Whāriki, the New Zealand Curriculum for schooling and mātauranga, and tertiary education goals, are closely aligned as the following image illustrates:

Figure 1: The key competencies: Cross-sector alignment

Essay 6 Figure 1

It is essential to note that the ‘Key Competencies’ listed under the heading ‘New Zealand School Curriculum’ are analogous to Te Whāriki’s learning dispositions, which are important for lifelong learning and human capital formation. Te Whāriki contains a transition to school section, which is framed as aspirations for children rather than explicit goals. However, we know little about how this is working in practice – a recent literature review[14] successfully identified strategies for supporting good transitions to school from early childhood education, but concluded that more New Zealand research and review into this area is needed.

Assessment tools

Learning Stories are a formative assessment procedure developed specifically to show the impact of the implementation of Te Whāriki on learning. They document significant learning moments in a child’s day-to-day experiences, with a focus on finding something of interest, being involved, engaging with challenge, expressing a point of view and taking responsibility[15].

Learning Stories have an important role in documenting children’s individual strengths and interests, helping teachers build on these in planning future early childhood education programmes, building children’s future expectations of success, and increasing family and whānau’s engagement in their children’s learning[16].

A series of examplars, Kei Tua o Te Pae, have been developed by the Ministry of Education and are available to all services.

Current situation

The Taskforce attempted to consider how well Te Whāriki was working to:

  • support children’s well-being, learning and development now and in the future
  • provide support for families in their primary role in caring and educating their children
  • promote the assessment of learning
  • promote learning in centres and at home
  • encourage an effective transition to school
  • align with the National Curriculum for schools.

This assessment has been difficult because of the lack of evaluative information. We note, however, that its general approach to learning, and the principles, goals and strands it contains, align well with recent research and evidence[17]. In our view, the document was prescient in 1996 as it anticipated later neurobiological and human capital findings, and the focus on intersubjectivity and motivational aspects of learning. We note also that Te Whāriki has had considerable impact and exerted a positive upward pressure on the New Zealand Curriculum for schools. We therefore do not believe that the content of Te Whāriki requires review.

A review currently in press found that, of a sample group of 32 services, implementation of Te Whāriki improved from 2004 to 2009, with 75% of services having ‘good ‘ or ‘very good’ ratings of understanding Te Whāriki but only 40% receiving the same rating for implementing a bicultural curriculum. We note that the number of qualified teachers in early childhood education – i.e. tertiary qualified educators who have been educated in Te Whāriki – has increased markedly since 2004.

The Education Review Office (ERO) has undertaken a range of reviews into aspects of early childhood education provision in recent years that provide us with useful information.

For example, in The Quality of Assessment in Early Childhood Education[18], ERO found that assessment practice in the sector was of variable quality. In Success for Māori Children in Early Childhood Services[19], ERO found that

    …although most early childhood services had processes for consulting and communicating with the families of children enrolled, less than half (41 percent) were using such processes to identify and respond to the aspirations and expectations of parents and whānau of Māori children… The challenge for services was to understand the need to shift management and educators’ thinking and practice from having processes for all children (and their parents and whānau), to understanding the need to listen and respond to whānau expectations for their children. Just over a third of services were focused on assisting Māori children to become competent and confident learners… Managers and educators in many services need to recognise the importance of acknowledging Māori children’s cultural identity and heritage. Reflecting on and questioning their practices in supporting Māori children to experience success as learners, is part of this challenge.

In Implementing Self Review in ECE Services, ERO found that

    Although the level of understanding about self review and the quality of its implementation varied across and within different service types… [we] found no significant difference between types of services. The wide variation indicates there is still much work to be done to build capacity in effective self review in all early childhood services.[20]

These pieces of information, while valuable, are insufficient for an informed assessment to be made. Our analysis from the available information including the submissions we received, is that there may be:

  • some issues around transition to school: this includes how schools cater for children starting school and their families as much as what happens in early childhood education
  • a need for resources to be provided in a broader range of languages and for additional resources for working with children with special education needs to be developed
  • a need for assistance to services to implement the bicultural nature of Te Whāriki
  • a need for assistance to services to help Māori achieve educational success as Māori, and
  • a need for better self-review by early childhood education services and more robust quality assurance. This could include re-shaped licensing and monitoring processes as well as professional development and resources.

Submissions Summary

The majority of submissions, including academic submissions, supported Te Whāriki in its entirety and the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) highlighted a 2010 sector-wide forum in which attendees showed unanimous support for it. Many submissions appreciated the model for its innovative, bicultural, holistic and contextual nature and the broad support it enjoys. However, one submission, also from an academic, was critical of Te Whāriki, saying it contained little in the way of activity planning guidelines and lacked performance measures, including assessment of learning outcomes.

Other submissions suggested that the fundamental principles of Te Whāriki should be retained but a review should be undertaken to look at inclusion and human rights. Kei Tua o Te Pae, the examplars for assessment provided by the Ministry of Education, were largely supported.

While not specific to curriculum, IHC’s submission noted that children with special educational needs are not fully supported in early childhood education. This is an area in which curriculum can have an impact by supporting teachers to work well, and to feel confident that they can work well, with all children.

Proposed Policy Direction

We have found nothing to detract from the widely-held national and international view that Te Whāriki is a profoundly important document that is fit for purpose and meets our society’s needs as well as the needs of a diverse early childhood education sector. We do, however, believe that its implementation, which began in 1996, should be reviewed in order for strengths and weaknesses to be identified and learned from.

We have identified some areas that should be focused on in a comprehensive review: transition to school (in which we include the school sector as well as the early childhood education sector’s contribution to smooth transitions); resources in languages other than English; working with children with special educational needs; assessment practices; self-review; creating and supporting aspirations for Māori children; and the current state of quality assurance for the whole sector. (Further information about this last point can be found in Essay 9: Improving Licensing Processes and Performance Reporting.)

We have also identified a need for a monitoring framework to be developed to capture the extent to which the outcomes of Te Whāriki are being achieved: at a sector level, a service type level, a service level and at a child level. This idea is also discussed further in Essay 9: Improving Licensing Processes and Performance Reporting.

Anticipated Outcomes of the Policy Change

Ensuring Te Whāriki is being fully implemented will improve outcomes from early childhood education, and have positive results for children, family, and society as a whole. It will promote several of our policy design principles:

  • The review of Te Whāriki will help,strong>promote economic growth. Research universally finds that good outcomes arise only from good-quality early childhood education and our proposals promote quality of delivery.
  • The review of Te Whāriki will contribute to the efficient use of government funds. The point of a review is to ensure that the curriculum is serving its intended purpose and supporting high-quality outcomes in early childhood education. By contrast, funding poor-quality early childhood education can have little effect at promoting good outcomes and can even lead to poor outcomes.
  • The review of Te Whāriki and provision of resources in a broader range of languages, for use by bilingual and immersion services will help encourage cultural diversity. Our recommendations call for more support for services to work with children from non-English speaking backgrounds and with special education needs.
  • The review of Te Whāriki will ensure access for all; supporting the creation of welcoming educational settings and ensuring that children’s cultures and skills are respected and maximised.
  • The review of Te Whāriki will further support a predictable environment for service providers by providing further information about best practice, and helping to ensure that initial teacher education will be well focused on helping early childhood education teachers deliver quality educational opportunities to the young.

Cost Considerations

These proposals have no net fiscal effects. Review of Te Whāriki and the production of resources in a range of languages are both within the normal business of the Ministry of Education and should not require additional funding. We note that improving curriculum implementation would be a cost effective way of improving outcomes from early childhood education.

The Change Process

A more detailed discussion of the phases and rationale for phasing referred to in this section can be found in Part One under Leading Change Processes.

Recommendation 29 of this essay (creating a measurement framework) is core to the way we are thinking about improvements in research, monitoring, data collection, and performance reporting. It links to recommendations across other essays on the same topic. As noted in Part One, this will be a key focus for phase two of the change process.

We have also recommended (recommendation 26) that a review of the implementation of Te Whāriki, commence in the near future. Many of our other recommendations hinge on the completion of this review. Our recommendations relating to how well transition to schools is managed (27) and how Te Whāriki is taught in initial teacher education and in professional development (28) are essential components of the review.

    One submitter said, ‘After every kindy session my child sits down with me and tells me who she has played with and what they have done. She is now heavily into music – singing kindy songs practically every day.’


1. Laevers (2004) cited in L. Miller & L. Pound (2011). Laevers, F. (2004). The curriculum as a means to raise the quality of early childhood education: A critical analysis of the impact of policy. Keynote lecture, EECERA, 14th annual conference, University of Malta.

2. Mitchell, L., Meagher-Lundberg, P., Mara, D., Cubey, P. & Whitford, M. (Forthcoming). Locality-based Evaluation of Pathways to the Future: Ngā Huarahi Arataki: Integrated report 2004, 2006 and 2009. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

3. Smith, A. B. (1998). Understanding children’s development: A New Zealand perspective (4th ed.). Wellington: Bridget Williams Books.

4. Ministry of Education (1996). Te Whāriki Early Childhood Curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media, p11.

5. mitchell, L., Wylie, C. & Carr, M. (2008). Outcomes of Early Childhood Education: A Literature Review. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

6. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2006). Starting strong II. Early childhood education and care. Paris: OECD, p136.

7. Cunha, F., Heckman, J. J., Lochner, L., & Masterov, D. (2005). Interpreting the evidence on life cycle skill formation. British Educational Research Journal, 30(5), 713-730.

8. Smith, A.B. (2011). Relationships with People, Places and Things: Te Whāriki. In L. Miller & L. Pound (eds.), Theories and approaches to learning in the early years (pp. 149-162). Los Angeles and London: Sage.

9. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development. Cambridge, MA: Center on the Developing Child at Harvard; Dalli, C. E., White, J., Rockel, J., Duhn, I., Buchanan, E., Davidson, S., Ganly, S., Kus, L. & Wang, B. (2011). Quality early childhood education for under-two year olds: What should it look like? A literature review. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

10. Pascal, C. E. (2009). With our best future in mind: Implementing early learning in Ontario; Report to the Premier of Ontario by the Special Advisor on Early Learning. Ontario: Government of Ontario.

11. Krueger, A. & Lindahl, M. (2001). Education for growth: why and for whom? Journal of Economic Literature 39(4), 1101-36.

12. Esping-Andersen, G. (2008). Childhood Investments and Skill Formation. International Tax and Public Finance (15), 19-44.

13. . Ministry of Education (1996). Te Whāriki: He Whāriki Matāuranga mō ngā Mokopuna o Aotearoa – (Early Childhood Curriculum). Wellington: Learning Media, p9.

14. Peters, S. (2010). Literature Review: Transition from Early Childhood Education to School. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

15. Carr, M. (2001). Assessment in early childhood settings: Learning stories. London: Chapman.

16. Clarkin-Phillips, J. & Carr, M. (Forthcoming). An affordance network for engagement: increasing parent and family agency in an early childhood education setting. New Zealand: author.

17. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2006). Starting strong II. Early childhood education and care. Paris: OECD, among others.

18. Education Review Office (2007). The Quality of Assessment in Early Childhood Education. Wellington: Education Review Office.

19. Education Review Office (2010). Success for Māori Children in Early Childhood Services. Wellington: Education Review Office, pp 1, 2, 17.

20. Education Review Office (2009). Implementing Self Review in Early Childhood Services. Wellington: Education Review Office, p1.

Back to the Home Page

Posted by Zainab on 27/05/2011 in


Member Login