Childcare and parental leave - how NZ ranks compared to other countries

Despite increases to paid parental leave entitlements in recent years, New Zealand still ranks poorly when it comes to access to childcare, according to a new UNICEF report. 

We ranked a lowly 39th out 41 rich countries in the OECD and European Union for paid parental leave - ahead of only Switzerland and the United States. 

And the childcare that's on offer isn't as accessible as it should be, largely down to cost - we're ranked 36th there.

All up, UNICEF places New Zealand at 33rd overall in the new report, Where Do Rich Countries Stand on Childcare?

"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," said Michelle Sharp, UNICEF New Zealand chief executive. "When we invest in social policies that benefit parents and children, the whole nation benefits."

New Zealand also performed poorly in access to childcare - 27th. At present, only kids aged between three and five are funded, and even then only for 20 hours a week - not even half the time required for a parent working full-time. 

"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," said UNICEF - and that's after the subsidies. 

The Children's Commissioner said children from lower-income families had the most to gain from attending early childhood education (ECE).

"There is less to be gained from having one of the world’s highest quality ECE if its unaffordable for many," said Andrew Becroft.

"Parents should be enabled to make the best choices for their children by having the right mix of support in their child’s early years: High enough incomes to stay home when they need to, paid time off work, and affordable high quality ECE."

He said the recent move to peg financial assistance for childcare to wage growth was good, but "doesn't address the fact that it is inadequate to start with".

Parents pay about 30 percent of the cost of childcare, the rest covered by the state, Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said last year. Despite this, it can still cost parents hundreds of dollars per week, per child. 

The only reason New Zealand isn't ranked lower than 33rd overall is the quality of childcare on offer is very good, thanks to high teacher-child staffing ratios and qualification requirements. We're placed third in the OECD and EU for quality, behind only Iceland and Latvia. 

The top countries overall are Luxembourg, Iceland and Sweden, combining "affordability with quality of organised childcare" with " generous leave to both mothers and fathers, giving parents choice how to take care of their children".

The worst places were Slovakia, Cyprus and the US, where "childcare is seen more as a private rather than a public responsibility". 

Romania, Japan, Estonia and Korea have the best parental leave systems for mothers, UNICEF said, while it's best to be a father in Japan or Korea. 

The US was singled out as the "only rich country without nationwide, statutory, paid maternity leave, paternity leave or parental leave", and while some states and companies offer some leave, only about one in five workers qualify. 

The parental leave data is slightly out-of-date however - the report uses 2018 figures, when New Zealand only offered 18 weeks' paid leave. It improved to 22 in July that year, and is now 26. 

UNICEF said while it's great Kiwi mothers can now get six months off with financial support, both parents should be eligible. It's also calling for subsidised childcare to kick in once parental leave ends, not years later; public childcare offerings so low-income families can afford it; and for workplaces to be more flexible.

"It is encouraging to see many organisations in Aotearoa commit to flexible working hours and support parents in the workplace," said 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."