The early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki,has its development embedded in the post education reform period of the early 1990s. Its development spanned a period from 1991 to 1996. Extensive consultation with diverse groups in the early childhood education (ECE) sector led to a draft document, Te Whāriki: Draft guidelines for developmentally appropriate programmes in early childhood services [5] being published in 1993. The final curriculum document, Te Whāriki, He Whāriki Mātauranga mo ngā Mokopuna o Aotearoa, was published in 1996.[6]

Te Whāriki describes the curriculum as:

“the sum total of the experiences, activities, and events, whether direct or indirect, which occur within an environment designed to foster children’s learning and development.” (p.10)

It has an overarching 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.” (p.9)

The concept of the curriculum as a whāriki recognises the diversity of the early childhood education sector in New Zealand. This diversity includes the different programmes, philosophies, structures, and environments that contribute to each service’s curriculum priorities and emphases.

The curriculum seeks to encompass and celebrate this diversity as well as to define common principles, strands, and goals for children’s learning and development within which the different organisations and services are able to operate (p.17).

Te Whāriki (p.11) describes each service’s curriculum as distinctive and dependent on a number of influences, including:

  • cultural perspectives
  • structural differences
  • organisational differences
  • different environments
  • philosophical emphases
  • different resources dependent on setting
  • local community participation
  • age range of children.

A strong emphasis is placed on each service’s curriculum being responsive to the development and changing capabilities of the children at the service.

Regulations framework 2008 [7]

The regulatory framework for early childhood services was reviewed in the mid 2000s and new regulations promulgated in 2008. The 2008 regulations gave the Minister of Education the ability to prescribe a national curriculum framework for early childhood education. The principles/ngā kaupapa whakahaere and strands/ngā taumata whakahirahira of Te Whāriki were gazetted in September 2008 to come into force from 1 December 2008. Early childhood services are required to meet the Curriculum Standard[8] as part of their licensing requirements and this is assessed using a set of criteria developed as part of the 2008 regulatory framework.

The Curriculum Standard requires all licensed services to implement a curriculum that is consistent with this framework. However, they have considerable flexibility in how they do this as noted in the guidance the Ministry of Education provides for services:

The ways in which each early childhood education service works with the curriculum framework will vary. Each service will continue to develop its own curriculum and programmes that reflect the things that are important to the children, their families, the staff, the community and the philosophy of the specific setting. It is important for services to be able to identify how everything we do in an early childhood setting works towards meeting the curriculum framework for the children and families that attend. [9]

Context for the findings

Two recent reports, the ECE Taskforce report[10] and a policy profile report[11] by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), endorse the widely accepted strengths of Te Whāriki, whilst acknowledging that it is timely to take a closer look at its implementation.

In 2011, the ECE Taskforce report, An Agenda for Amazing Children, recommended that an evaluation of the early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki,be undertaken as part of recommendations to improve accountability.

The report noted that:

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. (p.106)

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. (p.112)

The 2012 policy profile report Quality Matters in Early Childhood Education and Care: New Zealand by the OECD focused on the theme “designing and implementing curriculum and standards”. The report noted that “New Zealand’s Te Whāriki is a progressive and cogent document regarding the orientation and aims of ECE”.

The report identified “potential areas of reflection”. These included:

  • improving and specifying parental engagement in curriculum development and implementation
  • addressing children’s agency more explicitly
  • strengthening the communication and leadership skills of staff.