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New Zealand Free Kindergarten Teachers' Association

1954 –

This essay written by Jean Simpson was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1954 – 1990

The membership and focus of the New Zealand Free Kindergarten Teachers' Association (NZFKTA) changed considerably in its lifetime. For nearly two decades its members were mainly young single women, its leaders the principals of their training centres, and its goals non-political, concentrating chiefly on training issues. A major shift in the early 1970s saw the association become increasingly feminist and political, and an industrial force to be reckoned with in the battle for better wages, conditions and status for its members. Closer links with childcare workers led in 1990 to amalgamation with the Early Childhood Workers' Union (ECWU).

From 1948 the Department of Education, representing the government as employer, had been responsible for negotiating kindergarten teachers' salaries with the New Zealand Free Kindergarten Union (NZFKU), representing the employees. The impetus for establishing an association of kindergarten teachers came in 1951 from the principals of the four kindergarten teachers' training centres, who saw it as a means of approaching the department directly to improve conditions of service.

The 1952 Principals' Conference agreed on the draft objectives: 'To advance the cause of education among pre-school children and to uphold and maintain the just claims of its members, individually and collectively'. [1] Affiliation with the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), the primary teachers' union, was proposed; however, the interim NZFKTA president, Elizabeth Hamilton, pointed out that 'Our girls are very attractive and none of them contemplates teaching very long. Consequently, it is rather difficult to get them to take a wider view of their profession.' [2] The NZFKTA did not affiliate, partly because it would have required changes to the Education Act.

At the first Dominion meeting of the NZFKTA, held in 1954, the constitution was approved and Phyllis Varcoe, principal of the Dunedin Kindergarten Teachers' Training Centre, elected president – a position she held until 1962. The founding membership was 283 – 81 percent of practising teachers. The first four branches were attached to the training centres in the main cities, but by 1965 there were seventeen branches throughout the country, with a total of 359 members.

The focus in the early years on developing quality teacher training was due to the continuing domination of the training centres and to Varcoe's leadership. In 1959 NZFKTA established 'summer schools' to counteract kindergarten teachers' limited access to in-service training. Proposals were made in 1964 to extend kindergarten training to three years and to integrate it with university courses.

The NZFKTA was not in fact able to negotiate salaries and conditions until 1958, when it was recognised as a service organisation. But as kindergarten teachers waited for their first salary case to be heard, Varcoe firmly reminded them not to permit '. . . the desire for more salary to overshadow the paramount aim – to advance the cause of education among pre-school children. In fact, it should assist us to advance this aim.' [3]

A shortage of kindergarten teachers in the 1960s caused the criteria for accepting trainees to be widened. Mature or married women were encouraged to apply, provided they fulfilled various requirements:

That she is well suited to teaching;
That her marital status does not interfere with her training;
That suitable arrangements are made for the care of her children;
That she is likely to give good service. [4]

With this change in membership came a change in direction and a more feminist perspective. During the 1970s, members wanted the organisation to be more political, to reflect its grass roots, and to improve the status of the profession. From 1975 the NZEI provided a base in Education House in Wellington, as well as secretarial services and advice.

During 1973 NZFKTA president Wendy Lee led a publicity campaign to improve kindergarten teachers' salaries, some of which were lower than the minimum adult wage. Local branches worked hard, sending telegrams and letters to MPs and inviting them to visit kindergartens, and writing press statements and letters to the editor. Although this major salary claim was finally settled late in 1974, kindergarten teachers continued to earn considerably less than primary or secondary teachers.

Lee's skilled leadership unified the NZFKTA membership, which now saw the need to expand the national office. Rosslyn Noonan, New Zealand co-ordinator for International Women's Year, was appointed part-time general secretary in 1976. Her commitment to women and children and her professional skills made the next five years a time of growth and gain for the association.

Staffing issues became a priority, and the association began developing disciplinary procedures for kindergarten teachers, an appointments and appeals scheme, and a professional support scheme. The low staff:child ratio in kindergartens also became a major concern. The Kindergarten Staffing Scheme, announced by the Minister of Education in 1983, did partially improve the ratio.

The lack of further training opportunities for kindergarten teachers continued to be an issue. In 1978 NZFKTA president Carol Garden pointed out that, 'In New Zealand we have expected those most highly qualified to be working with older school children, the slightly less qualified to be working with younger children, and the least qualified to be working with preschoolers.' [5] Years of NZFKTA lobbying finally brought results in 1978, when kindergarten teachers became eligible for Advanced Studies for Teachers courses; in 1987, the government announced an integrated three-year training course for early childhood workers.

Kindergarten teachers protesting
Wellington members of the Kindergarten Teachers’ Association resort to public protest following an unsatisfactory round of award negotiations, November 1985.

Membership continued to grow as the organisation responded to the changing political environment. In 1986 NZFKTA and ECWU held the first hui for Māori kindergarten teachers and childcare workers; outcomes included Māori representation on the NZFKTA executive, the formation of a rūnanga of Māori early childhood workers, and a conscious commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi. The association strengthened its relations with other early childhood organisations; in 1989 it co-ordinated the Campaign for Quality Early Childhood Education, which promoted increased funding for all early childhood services.

In 1988 the State Sector Act and the education policy changes announced in Before Five heralded a new era of industrial relations and professional challenges for kindergarten teachers. That same year, the NZFKTA codified and registered the first Kindergarten Teachers Award; in 1989 it concentrated on writing submissions and on its membership of each of the Before Five Working Parties.

In 1990, after wide consultation with branches, NZFKTA and ECWU amalgamated to form the Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa (CECUA), giving workers in early childhood care and education a strong united voice. In 1992, the union had 1450 kindergarten members – 95 percent of all kindergarten teachers.

Jean Simpson

1990 – 2018

The amalgamation of the New Zealand Free Kindergarten Teachers Association (NZFKTA) and the Early Childhood Workers Union to form the Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa (CECUA) in 1990 had been a thoughtful and strategic response to the competitive and divisive policy environment which emerged in the 1980s.

An unrelenting drive to privatise kindergartens continued during the 1990s, as fee charging in free kindergartens became permissible, bulk funding replaced direct salary funding, and kindergarten funding levels were virtually frozen. This occurred in a wider context of cost cutting and restraint. As a group of CECUA members sang in a protest song in Cuba Mall in Wellington, ‘It’s hard to tighten your belt when you’re wearing nappies’. The union strategy was to hold together collectively in order to fend off the new right agenda.

In 1994, CECUA amalgamated with the New Zealand Educational Institute (the union covering primary teachers and school support staff) to form NZEI Te Riu Roa. This became the union for early childhood teachers, educators, primary school teachers and support staff in education.

From the 1990s to 2009, kindergarten and early childhood teacher union members harnessed support from families and community, and worked with national early childhood organisations and academics to influence policy change through collective action. Not all policies were resisted during this time; notably, CECUA welcomed the development of the new early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, and organised presentations and discussions of the draft document at an ECE curriculum conference in 1993. But for unwelcome policies, the union used a form of resistance politics to critique and oppose the ECE policy status quo, organise alternative policy framings, and advocate publicly and with political parties for their adoption.

One influential union-initiated project was developing the report Future Directions, undertaken in collaboration with representatives from the seven largest national ECE organisations representing the diverse ECE service types. The project group reviewed ECE in Aotearoa New Zealand and developed ‘proposals on the structures and funding required to ensure quality education for young children’. [6] Widespread understanding and support for these proposals was built through a formal submission process and membership discussion. The report launch at parliament before the 1996 general election was followed by a sustained union campaign to keep its proposals in front of the public and politicians. Support was generated by days of action, street theatre, media statements, and a petition personally delivered to every MP by kindergarten and early childhood teachers and parents.  This project directly influenced the development and policies of the long-term governmental strategic plan for ECE, Pathways to the Future: Ngā Huarahi Arataki, implemented from 2002 to 2009.

Pay parity poster
Poster produced for childcare campaign mounted after kindergarten teachers won parity in 2002.

A second striking union achievement came with a pay parity settlement for kindergarten teachers in 2002 and a partial pay parity settlement for early childhood teachers in 2004. In 1999, experienced registered teachers with a degree, on the best union negotiated collective agreements in the childcare and kindergarten sectors, earned 52 percent and 46 percent respectively below comparable teaching positions in the school sector. Meticulous planning and organisation went into the campaigns for pay parity, with different pathways planned for each group. Achieving pay parity for kindergarten teachers involved an economic argument for this government spending; [7] securing an increase in funding for kindergartens through a seventeen month campaign, undertaken in collaboration with the kindergarten employers’ organisation, the NZFKU; a job evaluation to compare the skills, experience and qualifications of kindergarten teachers relative to primary teachers; and use of the same imagery and message, that children’s shoe size shouldn’t shape salaries, successfully used in the primary school teachers’ pay parity campaign.  Kindergarten teacher pay parity was agreed in August 2002, with a four-year phase-in. The fact that the Secretary for Education was a party to this agreement bound the government to negotiate and pay costs for the kindergarten teachers’ employment settlements.

From 2009, NZEI Te Riu Roa campaigned for increasing early childhood funding, reinstating targets for staffing ECE centres with 100 percent qualified teachers, and improving staff:child ratios. Improving pay rates remained a priority, and in 2018 the union embarked on preparing a claim for pay equity for everyone working in ECE.

These union proposals and campaigns were developed through participation in shared endeavours that had as their goal the construction of a more socially just ECE system. They demonstrated the role and contribution of the kindergarten and early childhood teachers’ unions, not only to improving pay and employment conditions, but also to promoting a better ECE system for children.

Linda Mitchell


[1] 1952 Principals' Conference minutes, ATL.

[2] Elizabeth Hamilton, correspondence, 1952, ATL.

[3] Phyllis Varcoe, NZFKTA newsletter. May 1958, p. 2.

[4] Department of Education circular, 1962.

[5] Carol Garden, NZFKTA submission to the Review of Teacher Training, 1978.

[6] See Early Childhood Education Project, 1996.

[7] Written by CTU economist Peter Harris. See NZEI Te Riu Roa, 1994.

Unpublished sources

New Zealand Free Kindergarten Teachers' Association, Pre-School Education, 1970–1979; KTA News, 1981–1989

Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa, Double Take, 1990–1992

Published sources

Burns, J., Kindergarten and Primary Teachers: A Comparison of their Work, Top Drawer Consultants, Wellington, 1999

Davies, Sonja, Bread and Roses: Sonja Davies, Her Story, Australian and New Zealand Book Co. Pty Ltd/Fraser Books, Auckland, 1984

Department of Education, Before Five: Early Childhood Care and Education in New Zealand, Department of Education, Wellington, 1988 [placed between Davies and Early

Early Childhood Education Project, Future Directions: Early Childhood Education in New Zealand, NZEI Te Riu Roa, Wellington, 1996

Early Childhood Quarterly, 1976–1983; Childcare Quarterly, 1984–1990; Te Tīmatanga, Spring 1990

May, Helen (Cook), Mind That Child: Childcare as a Social and Political Issue in New Zealand, BlackBerry Press, Upper Hutt, 1985

May, Helen (Cook), 'Growth and Change in the Early Childhood Services', in Sue Middleton, John Codd, Alison Jones (eds), New Zealand Education Policy Today, Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, Wellington, 1990

Mitchell, Linda, ‘Policy shifts in early childhood education: Past lessons, new directions’, in J. Codd and K. Sullivan (eds.), Education Policy Directions in Aotearoa New Zealand, Thomson Learning, Southbank, Vic., 2005, pp. 175–198

Ministry of Education, Pathways to the Future: Ngā Huarahi Arataki, Ministry of Education, 2002

NZEI Te Riu Roa, Kindergarten Teachers: The Case for Pay Parity - Government Spending and Public Debt, NZEI, Wellington, 1994

Smith, Anne and David Swain, Childcare in New Zealand: People, Programmes and Politics, Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, Wellington, 1988