In 2011, the ECE (early childhood education) Taskforce report, An Agenda for Amazing Children,[1] recommended an evaluation of the implementation of the early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki.[2] In response, ERO conducted a national evaluation that investigated:

How effectively are early childhood services across New Zealand determining, enacting and reviewing their curriculum priorities to support education success for every learner?

Findings from this national evaluation are published in two reports. This report, Working with Te Whāriki, highlights the different ways services are working with the early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, and discusses the emerging themes and challenges associated with implementing this curriculum 17 years on from its publication. It complements a companion report, Priorities for Children's Learning in Early Childhood Services (May 2013).

In this study, ERO found that most (80 percent) of the 627 early childhood services reviewed in Terms 1, 2 and 3, 2012, were making some use of the prescribed curriculum framework[3] of principles and strands in Te Whāriki. In these services the principles and/or strands were most evident in their philosophy statement and in planning and/or assessment processes. A few services (10 percent) were working in depth with Te Whāriki, exploring the underpinning theories and using it as a basis for evaluating their curriculum. The remaining services (10 percent) were making limited use of Te Whāriki. For these services Te Whāriki was not well understood and less visible in documentation and practice.

For many services, Te Whāriki was seen as a ‘given’ and leaders and teachers referred to it as ‘everything we do’ and ‘who we are’. Most services had linked their statement of philosophy to one or more of the principles and/or strands. The notion of Te Whāriki as a philosophical curriculum was widely held, particularly with regard to the principles. Services were comfortable with the framework of principles and strands and saw it as accommodating their particular approach and associated practices.

Although services are required to implement the prescribed curriculum framework of principles and strands from Te Whāriki, some services were quite selective in the way they did this. These services chose to focus on one or two of the four principles, most commonly relationships and family and community, and on one or two of the five strands, most commonly wellbeing and belonging. The principles and strands were often referenced in documents as a way of services showing that they were working with them, but practice was often far removed from the intent. In a few services, their broad interpretation of the principles and/or strands accommodated inappropriate practice such as highly teacher-directed activities and/or routine-focused programmes.

The extent to which particular educational philosophies, theories or approaches[4] were integrated with Te Whāriki and embedded in practice varied considerably across the early childhood services in this evaluation. While some services based their curriculum solely on the principles and strands of Te Whāriki, others used Te Whāriki as a basis for integrating other philosophies and/or approaches with varying degrees of success.

The findings of this evaluation highlight some concerns about how Te Whāriki is being implemented in early childhood services. These relate to the broad nature of the framework of principles and strands and how this accommodates a wide range of practice, including poor quality practice. The findings also suggest that for most services Te Whāriki is not used to reflect on, evaluate or improve practice. On a broader level, the findings raise questions about the purpose and nature of curriculum in early childhood education. In this report ERO has looked at how services were enacting their curriculum priorities and emphases and the place of the prescribed curriculum framework of principles and strands in that process.

As already noted, most services (80 percent) were implementing a curriculum that linked in some way to the principles and strands of Te Whāriki. However, Te Whāriki as a curriculum document, along with the prescribed framework of principles and strands and the regulated Curriculum Standard, does not provide the sector with clear standards of practice for high quality curriculum implementation. Hence this report highlights the ways services were working with Te Whāriki, rather than evaluating the effectiveness of its implementation.

This report poses challenges for policy makers and the early childhood education sector. These include:

  • the longevity of curriculum and at what point a curriculum should be reviewed or revised.
  • whether there is sufficient coherence and alignment between the prescribed curriculum framework (currently the principles and strands of Te Whāriki), and the regulated Curriculum Standard and associated criteria.
  • the implications of having a non-prescriptive curriculum that is reliant on the professional knowledge of those who implement it.

The conclusion section of this report discusses these concerns and challenges in the context of ERO&rsqu