All licensed early childhood services are required to meet regulated standards, employ qualified teachers or meet other qualification requirements, and implement a bicultural curriculum. While unified at a policy level, the early childhood education sector in Aotearoa New Zealand is diverse.
This diversity includes:
ERO’s reviews of early childhood services respond to the diversity in the sector and variations in services’ performance in promoting positive learning outcomes for children.
The Education Act 1989 was amended in 2008 to create a revised legal framework for the operation of early childhood services. This is known as the ‘2008 regulatory system’. All early childhood services will be licensed under the Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations 2008  by 30 November 2014.
Two key documents form part of the regulatory framework for early childhood services, The Licensing Criteria for Early Childhood Education and Care Centres 2008  and the Early Childhood Education Curriculum Framework.  Early childhood services must meet the licensing criteria as well as the other regulatory requirements contained in the regulations in order to gain and maintain a licence to operate.
ERO’s review process includes how the early childhood service meets the regulated standards. However, ERO focuses on the quality of care and education that the service provides.
The curriculum framework is prescribed by the Minister of Education. The Early Childhood Education Curriculum Framework is made up of the English and te reo Māori versions of the principles and strands from the early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki: He Whāriki Mātauranga mō ngā Mokopuna o Aotearoa (Te Whāriki).  All licensed early childhood services are required to provide a curriculum that meets the principles and strands of Te Whāriki.
Te Tiriti o Waitangi is a foundation document of Aotearoa New Zealand and guides education with regards to participation, power and partnership for Māori, as tangata whenua, and non-Māori as signatories to the Treaty. The Treaty provides a driving force for the revitalisation of Maori language and culture.
Early childhood services are required to provide a curriculum that acknowledges and reflects the unique place of Māori as tangata whenua. The curriculum must also help children to develop their knowledge and understanding of the cultural heritages of both parties to Te Titiri o Waitangi.
The principle of partnership in the Treaty needs to be reflected in the practices of the early childhood service. Working in partnership with Māori requires inclusive and collaborative practices between the early childhood service and whānau of tamariki Māori for the learning and wellbeing of Māori children.
Te Whāriki sets out the principles, strands and goals for curriculum in early childhood services. It seeks for children ‘to grow as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, and secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society.’ 
Te Whāriki is based on socio-cultural perspectives. This means that there is an expectation that the curriculum in each early childhood service will respond to the social and cultural values and beliefs of its community of children, families and teachers. Each early childhood service, in consultation with its community, determines its own curriculum priorities and emphases, and the learning it values.
According to Te Whāriki, the outcomes of a curriculum are knowledge, skills and attitudes that combine together to form a child’s working theory and help children to develop dispositions that encourage learning. Positive outcomes for children include high level competencies as well as more specific knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions for learning.
The valued outcomes of early childhood education vary from one family to another depending on cultural, educational and religious beliefs, as well as views on early learning. There is a broadly shared expectation, however, that early education will contribute to the growth of a secure, confident child who can communicate, learn and work with others. An early childhood service that nurtures and promotes an individual child’s growing competence to communicate, participate and learn about the world, is likely to support such progression.
Outcomes for children are not always easy to determine. Nevertheless, the focus on how well children learn is central to all ERO reviews. ERO’s methodology, evaluation indicators and professional practice refer to research on how different factors and features of early childhood practice contribute to positive learning outcomes for children.
ERO’s methodology requires early childhood services to reflect on what their intended outcomes for children are, and what they know about how well children are achieving those outcomes.
High quality early childhood education can make a lasting difference for children and act as a protective factor for vulnerable children; those at risk of poor educational and life outcomes. Research indicates that some of our most vulnerable children include Māori, Pacific, those from low income families, and children with special learning needs. The Government identifies these groups as priority learners. ERO also includes children up to the age of two years as priority learners..
In early childhood settings, priority learners will be the children the service has identified that require additional support to help them achieve equitable outcomes.
To understand and respond to priority learners, early childhood services need to have a deep understanding of the identity and experiences of these children.
Penetito  states that there is no such thing as the Māori identity, there are only Māori identities. In addition, Māori children live in and between at least two worlds. While they may position themselves differently in these worlds they are Māori , by virtue of descent and whakapapa. 
The wellbeing and learning of Māori children is located in their culture, language and identity. A child’s culture, language and identity are places where concepts of mana, wairua and mauri exist. Mana is the power and potential the Māori child brings with them.  Wairua is a concept linked to the child’s spirit and emotional stability. Mauriis observable. It is the life force and energy of the child which enables energy to be expended; the mind to think and have some control over how the body behaves. It enables the child to be vibrant, expressive and impressive. 
Ka Hikitia, the Government’s Māori Education Strategy, proposes that better outcomes for Māori learners are likely when the language, culture and identity of Māori children is acknowledged and a productive partnership is forged by the sharing of power between Māori learners, whānau, iwi and educators.
To improve outcomes for children with a Pacific heritage it is important to understand that Pacific children are not a homogeneous group. Pacific children come from diverse groups with different cultures and languages. While some Pacific children are born in New Zealand, others may be new arrivals to the country. Families hold differing belief systems about the place of culture, faith, family and education, among others.
Understanding the diversity of Pacific children is integral to understanding each child as an individual. Educators cannot simply create broad strategies or approaches to improve outcomes for Pacific children who attend early childhood services (both Pacific services and mainstream). Educators need to use their knowledge and understanding of Pacific children, their families and communities to design a meaningful curriculum and relevant experiences so that each Pacific child experiences success.
Children with diverse needs include children with special education needs or special abilities, children from low income families, children who speak English as an additional language, and children of migrants and refugees.
Services need to have practices and systems that, as far as is possible in group care, provide for children’s particular attributes and capabilities, as well as their changing circumstances and needs. The focus will be on inclusive practice to enable each child’s participation and engagement in the programme, and their further development of competence as a learner.
The extent to which the service provides for each child is likely to be a measure of the commitment the service has to equitable outcomes for all children.
Early years’ research has increasingly focused on the experiences and outcomes for children up to the age of two. It demonstrates that children at this age are highly susceptible to the negative impacts of poor quality early childhood education. On a more positive note, a recent literature review on quality early childhood education for under two year olds states:
“The evidence demonstrates that quality early childhood education at this very early age has lasting benefits for infants and their families – especially those from disadvantaged sectors – and for society. The high quality education and care of infants therefore constitutes a key investment in the future of Aotearoa New Zealand.”
Attuned adults and the provision of quality environments are now understood to have a marked impact on the development and learning of children up to two years of age. Adults are more likely to be attuned to very young children if they have responsibility for a smaller number of children up to the age of two (the recommended ratio is 1:3 adults to children), and have specialist knowledge about working with this age group.