According to a new UNICEF childcare report, Where Do Rich Countries Stand on Childcare?, New Zealand ranks 33rd out of 41 European Union (EU) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
Produced by UNICEF’s Office of Research – Innocenti – the report ranks countries across the OECD and EU based on their national childcare and paid parental leave policies. These policies include the accessibility, affordability and quality of childcare for children between birth and school age.
“In order for tamariki to have the best start in life, we need to ensure parents have the support they need and can access affordable and quality childcare,” says Michelle Sharp, UNICEF New Zealand CEO. “When we invest in social policies that benefit parents and children, the whole nation benefits.”
The highest-ranking countries in the league table combine affordability with quality of organised childcare. At the same time, they offer long and well-paid leave to both mothers and fathers giving parents a choice in how to care for their children.
UNICEF rely on the most up-to-date available data. This means pulling from: 2018 data for paid leave for mothers and fathers; for quality and for the SDG indicator; 2019 data for enrolment of children under the age of 3; 2020 data for two affordability indicators. UNICEF NZ commends the New Zealand Government for implementing more recent legislative changes including the increase of paid parental leave to 26 weeks, but is calling for significantly more investment and policy change.
UNICEF advocates for at least six months of paid leave for parents, yet only half of the countries in the report offer 30 weeks or more leave at full pay for mothers. In New Zealand, mothers are entitled to 26 weeks paid leave, and partners are entitled to 2 weeks of unpaid leave. By comparison, Japan ranks high in the report for leave entitlement, with fully-paid parental leave of 36 weeks for mothers and 30 weeks for partners.
Childcare affordability is a key barrier for parents, compounding socioeconomic inequalities within countries. In high-income households, nearly half of children under 3 attend early childhood education (ECE) and care, compared to less than 1 in 3 in low-income households. In Ireland, New Zealand, and Switzerland, a couple of average income would need to spend between a third and a half of one salary to pay for two children in full time childcare.
There are concerns that these figures will mean that tamariki may be missing out on their right to access quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education due to the affordability. Many OECD countries are providing more affordable childcare than in New Zealand. In Aotearoa, parents are entitled to 20 hours of free ECE per week for children between the age of 3 to 5 years.
In comparison, Denmark has unconditional free access (provision free of charge for all children of the concerned age group) and the age group is vast (starts before the age of 1 and lasts up to the age of 5).
New Zealand ranks 36th in the report on affordability, however we rank third on the quality of childcare. This includes a 6.5 child-staff ratio and a Bachelor’s degree as minimum qualification for ECE teachers.
Family-friendly policies provide tamariki with a strong foundation and NZ corporates have a significant role to play in supporting parents as they return to work.
“It is encouraging to see many organisations in Aotearoa commit to flexible working hours and support parents in the workplace,” says Michelle Sharp. “We can learn from the highest-ranking countries in the league table and ensure our tamariki in Aotearoa have the same chance at success. Well-supported whanau will undoubtedly help to strengthen our economy.”
UNICEF works with governments, civil society, academics, and the private sector – which plays an important role in influencing policies – to advocate for greater investment in families.
UNICEF offers guidance on how governments and the private sector can build on their childcare and parental leave policies, including through:
A mix of paid maternity, paternity and parental leave for mothers and fathers in the prenatal period and the first full year of a child’s life;
Parental leave that is gender-sensitive and gender-equitable to ensure neither parent is overburdened with home care;
Affordable childcare that starts at the end of parental leave, so there is no gap in available support;
Accessible, flexible and affordable quality childcare available to all children irrespective of family circumstances;
Publicly- provided and regulated childcare to facilitate access to low-income families and ensure standards in provision;
Investment in the childcare workforce, their qualifications and their working conditions, to encourage the highest possible standards;
Encouragement of employers to provide inclusive and gender-sensitive paid leave entitlements, flexible work arrangements and childcare support systems; and
Alignment of childcare services with other family care policies, such as universal child benefits, to strengthen the childcare portfolio, and reduce the risk of children’s existing inequalities being replicated in public childcare settings.
About the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti The Office of Research – Innocenti is UNICEF’s dedicated research centre. It undertakes research on emerging or current issues in order to inform the strategic directions, policies and programmes of UNICEF and its partners, shape global debates on child rights and development, and inform the global research and policy agenda for all children, and particularly for the most vulnerable. Please visit: www.unicef-irc.org.