2020 Early Learning Services Complaints and Incidents Report

This report summarises complaints and incident notifications received by Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga | the Ministry of Education in 2020 about licensed early learning services including, education & care, kindergartens, home-based services, kōhanga reo, playcentre and hospital-based services.

The Ministry received no complaints or incident notifications relating to certificated playgroups in 2020.

An early learning service complaint is any communication received by the Ministry from a person who is unhappy, concerned or not satisfied with a situation, process or decision at a licensed early learning service or certificated playgroup. We receive complaints from a range of people, including parents, whānau, early learning staff and members of the community.

We assess each concern we receive 1, investigate against the regulations if necessary and act on our findings when intervention is required. We take all complaints seriously and work with the service concerned to ensure children are participating in quality early learning environments. More information on our complaints process for early learning can be found on our website.

We are responsible for ensuring all licensed and certificated services are meeting regulated standards. Managing and responding to complaints and incident notifications is one way of meeting this responsibility.


1 Complaints that haven’t yet gone through the service’s own complaints process may be resolved by referring the complainant back to the service’s process in the first instance. However, if the complainant is not willing to discuss their complaint directly with the service we will take further steps to investigate the complaint.

Licensed Early Learning Services complaints in 2020

In 2020, there were 4,662 licensed early learning services operating in New Zealand.2

Our licensing criteria require all licensed early learning services to have a complaints procedure in place that is on display for parents, caregivers and visitors to the service. Most complaints should be able to be resolved directly between the complainant and the early learning service and will not require Ministry intervention.

We have no record of number, type and outcome of complaints resolved through services’ internal complaints processes. This report only includes complaints that were escalated to the Ministry.

If a complainant is not satisfied with the service’s response to their concern, they can complain directly to the Ministry. This can be done anonymously should the complainant wish.

The complaints received in 2020 identified that a small number of services did not meet our expectations for providing children with quality education and care. We have worked with these services to improve quality and implemented a formal regulatory response where required. A summary of all complaints received in 2020 has been published alongside this report.

Complaints received 

In 2020, we received 409 complaints about licensed early learning services. These complaints were made in relation to 350 services, or 7.5% of the licensed early learning sector.

The number of complaints decreased by six (1.4%) between 2019 and 2020 and the number of individual services that we received complaints about decreased from 354 services in 2019 to 350 in 2020 (1.1%). This represents a slight decrease in the percentage of services we received a complaint about from 7.6% in 2019 to 7.5% in 2020.

Complaints investigated

We assess every complaint to determine whether further investigation is required to address the complainant’s concerns. 

Children’s education, safety and wellbeing are the key drivers of any investigation into a complaint. In 2020, we investigated 86% (353 complaints) of all complaints received against the regulations. 

The remaining 56 complaints (14%) did not require further action. These complaints were either:

  • referred to the service’s complaints procedure and managed directly between the service and complainant;
  • resolved by the service provider before an investigation could be undertaken;
  • referred to another agency that can most appropriately respond to the complainant’s concerns where the complaint was not related to licencing criteria; 
  • unable to be investigated due to insufficient information from the complainant; or
  • withdrawn by the complainant and we were satisfied the complaint did not indicate a risk to the education, safety or wellbeing of participating children.

Complaints upheld 

A complaint is upheld when, after investigation, we find that the service did not meet regulated standards or we assessed that improvement was required in a particular area related to the complaint. 

In 2020, we upheld 53% of all complaints investigated (188 individual complaints out of 353 investigated complaints). These 188 upheld complaints related to 167 licensed early learning services, or 3.6% of all services operating in 2020. 

The Ministry distinguishes 25 categories of complaints (listed in Table 6 in the Appendix) and complaints can fall into more than one category. Complaints upheld in 2020 were most commonly related to the following categories:

  • health and safety – 36% (148) of all complaints received and 35% (65) of complaints upheld;
  • management and administration – 22% (89) of complaints received and 14% (26) of complaints upheld;
  • supervision – 21% (86) of all complaints received and 14% (27) of complaints upheld;
  • behaviour management – 17% (69) of all complaints received and 12% (23) of complaints upheld, and; 
  • ratios – 16% (65) of complaints received and 13% (24) of complaints upheld. 

Following investigation, 165 complaints (47% of complaints investigated) were not upheld. A complaint is defined as not upheld when: 

  • we could not substantiate the complainant’s concerns following the investigation process; and/or 
  • the issue the complaint related to did not amount to non-compliance with the regulatory requirements.

While our investigation may lead to a complaint not being upheld, many services choose to further strengthen areas of practice to exceed regulated standards. For example, a service may choose to undertake an internal review of relevant policies and procedures, participate in professional learning and development or work with the complainant directly to strengthen relationships.

Table 1. Total number of complaints received, investigated and upheld between 2013 – 20203

  2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Complaints received 246 360 342 331 338 429 415 409
Complaints investigated 162 205 183 245 296 390 370 353
Complaints upheld 79 106 104 163 166 220 213 188

Graph 1. Total number of complaints received, investigated and upheld between 2013 – 20204

Graph showing the evolution curve of complaints received, investigated and upheld between 2013 and 2020

Responding to complaints

Our approach to managing and responding to complaints is informed by the nature and severity of the complaint and whether the service has a history of regulatory non-compliance. In many cases, services will proactively identify steps to address a complainant’s concerns and it is not necessary for us to intervene further.

The Ministry can take a range of regulatory actions when responding to and managing complaints about licensed early learning services, including:

  • providing the service with advice and guidance;
  • undertaking a review of the service’s policies and procedures;
  • working with the service to identify areas of improvement to implement within a specified timeframe;
  • providing ongoing monitoring and support for the service, including government funded professional learning and development – namely Strengthening Early Learning Opportunities (SELO); and/or
  • implementing a response that impacts the service’s licence as detailed below.

Implementing a regulatory response

When we identify that a licensed service is not meeting one or more regulatory requirement, the service may be placed on a provisional licence or have their licence suspended or cancelled. Situations where we take this approach include concerns for the safety and wellbeing of children, the standard of curriculum and education provided by the service or on occasion when a complainant made a serious allegation of non-compliance that warrants investigation.

In 2020, 12% (41 services) of all early learning services that we received complaints about had their licence amended to provisional, or had their licence suspended or cancelled as a result of one or multiple complaints, or as a consequence of unrelated issues identified during our investigations5:

  • 33 services were placed on a provisional licence – a service that is placed on a provisional licence must demonstrate compliance with specified conditions within a prescribed timeframe before being returned to a full licence;
  • 14 services had their licences suspended – the service is not able operate until they demonstrate compliance with specified conditions; and
  • Eight services had their licence cancelled – a service’s licence can be cancelled if the service does not meet the conditions of a provisional or suspended licence.

Referrals to other agencies

In 2020, 57 referrals were made to other agencies in relation to 38 complaints (9% of all complaints received).

There are clear legal requirements that must be followed when the safety and wellbeing of children may be at risk, which includes notifying the appropriate agencies.

Agencies can be notified of a concern by a parent or family member, the Ministry of Education, the early learning service or a member of the public. In serious cases, we will investigate a complaint alongside agencies such as:

  • WorkSafe New Zealand when there has been a serious injury or accident;
  • the New Zealand Police and Oranga Tamariki when children’s safety and wellbeing is at risk; or
  • the Teaching Council when professional conduct or competency of a registered and certificated teacher is of concern.

In other cases, advice or support from another agency may be requested.

Trends and themes in complaints

In 2020, we received slightly fewer complaints compared to 2019. We investigated 86% (353) of complaints received and upheld 53% (188) of complaints investigated. Overall, 46% of complaints were upheld (188 complaints out of 409 received). This is a decrease of 5% compared to 2019.

The number of services that we received a complaint about has decreased by four services or 1% compared to the previous reporting year to 350. The number of services with upheld complaints continues to reflect a small proportion of the sector, at 3.6% of all licensed early learning services, compared to 4.1% in 2019, 3.8% in 2018 and 3.2% in 2017.

Table 2. Complaints received 2017 – 20206

  2017 2018 2019 2020
Complaints received 338 429 415 409
Total number of services that received a complaint 285 344 354 350
Proportion of the sector that received a complaint 6.2% 7.5% 7.6% 7.5%
Proportion of the sector with an upheld complaint 3.2% 3.8% 4.1% 3.6%

The number of complaints about abuse or neglect has decreased from 54 in 2019 to 36 in 2020 (a decrease of 18 complaints or 33%). The number of abuse or neglect complaints upheld in 2020 was five – the same as in 2019.

  • We investigated all but one complaint alleging abuse or neglect (35)7.
  • Out of the investigated complaints that were not upheld for abuse or neglect, we upheld 11 against other categories – most often against health and safety followed by behaviour management.
  • We amended the licence of seven of these services or 19% of services with complaints in this category. Two services’ licence were suspended, and one subsequently had their licence cancelled.
  • 19 complaints (50%) including allegations of abuse or neglect were not upheld against any category.

In 2020 we received 34 complaints (8% of complaints received) relating to COVID-19. Of these complaints,

  • 11 related to concerns the service was not meeting Ministry of Health requirements or Ministry guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19. All but one of these were investigated. Three complaints were at least partially upheld in relation the adherence to COVID-19 guidance and the services addressed the issues to the Ministry’s satisfaction.
  • 11 related to fees charged during periods of Alert Level 2 to 4. As the Ministry does not regulate services’ fee structure, nine of these complaints were not upheld in relation to fees8.
  • Four complaints related to lack of communication by the service about re-opening or services closures after periods of lock-down. Three of these complaints were investigated and none were upheld.


2As of June 2020, based on Early Childhood Education Census 2020 available on Education Counts(external link)

3Note that number from 2013 to 2016 may include a small number of complaints about certificated playgroups. In 2015 to 2019 we had less than five complaints about playgroups per year. No data is available for 2013 and 2014.

4Note that number from 2013 to 2016 may include a small number of complaints about certificated playgroups. In 2015 to 2019 we had less than five complaints about playgroups per year. No data is available for 2013 and 2014.

5Note a single service can have its licence amended more than once and a single complaint can lead to licence amendments for multiple services.

6Note that in 2016, and earlier years, we did not report on the total number of services that received a complaint.

7The complaint could not be investigated, because we were unable to identify the service the complainant was referring to.

8However, some were upheld in regard to unrelated issues raised by the complainant

Licensed Early Learning Services incident notifications in 2020

Licensed early learning services are required to notify specified agencies, such as WorkSafe New Zealand, New Zealand Police and Oranga Tamariki when a serious injury, illness or incident involving a child has occurred. Our licensing criteria require services to notify us of these incidents at the same time. This requirement was introduced from May 2016 for all services9. We refer to these incidents as mandatory incident notifications.

All services must have a documented process for responding to incidents and illnesses, and they must check their premises and facilities each day for potential hazards.

Many early learning services also choose to voluntarily notify us of other incidents that have occurred when children are present at the service, when they require support with a particular situation or wish to keep us informed of events that have occurred at the service. We refer to these as voluntary incident notifications.

We encourage all services to contact us should they require support or advice when managing and responding to an incident.

We assess all incident notifications received, investigate further and/or notify other agencies if necessary and act on our findings if intervention is required.

A summary of all incident notifications received in 2020 has been published alongside this report.

In 2020, we received 454 incident notifications from 371 licensed early learning services, or 8% of the sector.

As per previous reporting years, the incident notifications we received in 2020 included a mixture of voluntary and mandatory notifications. We received 261 mandatory notifications (57% of all incidents) that required notification to another agency10.

Responding to incidents

Often incident notifications don’t require any further involvement from the Ministry. In some instances, we may need to investigate an incident to determine whether the service is continuing to meet licensing requirements. In other cases it may be more appropriate for us to contribute to an investigation being led by another organisation.

Like complaints, we respond to incident notifications in a number of ways, including:

  • requiring the service to provide an incident report or evidence of mitigation of any hazards,
  • providing advice and support to the service on policies and practices,
  • undertaking a licensing assessment visit to determine if there was non-compliance in relation to the incident which may lead to implementation of a regulatory response, and/or
  • in case of traumatic events, the Ministry’s Traumatic Incident team will visit and support the service.

Regulatory response

Further action is required when, following investigation, we determine that regulated standards have not been met by the service. A service’s licence can be amended to provisional, suspended or cancelled as a result of an incident investigation.

Of all services that notified us of an incident in 202011 12:

  • 12 services (3%) had their licence amended to provisional;
  • no services had their licence suspended or cancelled.

Trends and themes in incident notifications

Incident notifications can cover a range of events that may occur at an early learning service that relate to children, staff and other adults. For example, an outbreak of illness, children leaving the premises unaccompanied by an adult, accidents, concerning behaviour of children or services reacting to misconduct of their teaching staff.

The trend in increased numbers of incident notifications over the previous two years has not continued in 2020. We received a total of 454 incident notifications, down by 2% from last year. Incident notifications were received from 8% of the sector, down by 0.1% compared to 2019.

The proportion of voluntary incident notification has decreased from 53% (248 notifications) in 2019 to 43% (193 notifications) in 2020.

The number of times other agencies were involved in an incident increased by 6.1% from 326 involvements in 2019 to 346 in 202013. This is due to increases in involvement of Health Authorities (39% increase)14, NZ Police (32% increase), Oranga Tamariki (16% increase).

Notifications to WorkSafe have decreased by 33% from 83 in 2019 to 56 in 2020. This is likely to be due to clarification of WorkSafe requirements as well as uptake by services of WorkSafe’s online tool to determine whether an incident is notifiable to them15. In 2019, 72% of WorkSafe notifications met WorkSafe’s criteria for notification. In 2020, this has increased to 88%.

Incident notifications where Teaching Council was involved reduced by 9% from 46 in 2019 to 42 in 2020.

We received six incident notifications related to COVID-19, five were related to confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 in the service’s wider community and one incident notification was regarding an injury due to incorrect use of a cleaning product that was introduced in response to COVID-19.

There had been a concerning increase in children’s fingers being caught in doors identified in last year’s report with a total number of 18 injuries in 2019. This has decreased to nine injuries in 2020.


9HS34 of the Licensing Criteria for Centre-based Education and Care Services 2008; HS33 of the Licensing Criteria for Home-based Education and Care Services 2008. All incident notifications under this criterion must be accompanied by evidence of the notification to the specified agency.

10Note, not all incidents referred to other agencies in 2019 met the relevant agency’s threshold for notification.

11Note that this includes service that had their licence amended due to breaches that were not related to the incident but identified during the visit to investigate an incident.

12Note, one service had their licence amended following two separate incidents at the service that were investigated concurrently.

13Note, that multiple agencies can be involved in the same incident

14Health authorities includes local public health units and Ministry of Health

15If the service used the online tool and received an automated message that the incident is not notifiable, this is not reported as a notification to WorkSafe.

Appendices: Data tables for licensed early learning services including kōhanga reo

Table 3. Complaints received by Ministry of Education region16

Region Complaints received Services with complaints received Total services % of total services
Tai Tokerau 11 99 223 4.0%
Auckland 132 128 1497 8.6%
Waikato 51 39 463 8.4%
Bay of Plenty / Waiariki 37 32 434 7.4%
Hawke’s Bay / Tairāwhiti 11 11 306 3.6%
Taranaki / Whanganui / Manawatu 42 27 321 8.4%
Wellington 42 36 490 7.3%
Nelson / Marlborough / West Coast 4 4 158 2.5%
Canterbury / Chatham Islands 68 55 491 11.2%
Otago / Southland 11 9 278 3.2%
Total 409 350 4661 7.5%

Table 4. Complaints upheld by Ministry of Education region17

Region Complaints upheld Services with complaints upheld Total services % of total services
Tai Tokerau 5 4 223 1.8%
Auckland 52 57 1497 3.8%
Waikato 34 25 463 5.4%
Bay of Plenty / Waiariki 17 16 434 3.7%
Hawke’s Bay / Tairāwhiti 6 6 306 2.0%
Taranaki / Whanganui / Manawatu 25 13 321 4.0%
Wellington 22 20 490 4.1%
Nelson / Marlborough / West Coast 0 0 158 0.0%
Canterbury / Chatham Islands 22 21 491 4.3%
Otago / Southland 5 5 278 1.8%
Total 188 167 4661 3.6%

Table 5. Complaints received by service type

Service Type Complaints received Services with complaints received Total services % of total services
Education and care18 353 288 2708 10.6%
Home-based 25 31 424 7.3%
Kindergarten 15 15 661 2.3%
Kōhanga reo 10 10 444 2.3%
Playcentre 4 4 404 1.0%
Hospital-based 0 0 20 0.0%
Correspondence School 0 0 1 0.0%
Unknown 2 2 n/a n/a
Total 409 350 4662 7.5%

Table 6. Complaints received19  and upheld20  by category

Type of complaint21 Description Received Upheld
Abuse or neglect Allegations of physical or emotional injuries inflicted on children, including verbal abuse, isolation of children and physical harm 36 5
Accidents Allegations of poor accident management procedures, including insufficient reporting of accidents to parents, children injuring each other and accidental injuries suffered by children 60 28
After-school care Allegations of services providing an out-of-school service for over-5s while simultaneously providing a licensed ECE service for under-5s 4 2
Behaviour management Allegations of poor behaviour management strategies used by teachers 69 23
Child leaving premises Allegations of children accidentally leaving a service due to unsecure premises or a lapse in staff supervision 5 4
Complaints procedure Allegations of dissatisfaction with the service’s complaints procedure or the response of a service to a complaint 51 11
Curriculum Allegations of poor curriculum quality, such as using inappropriate materials or poor implementation of Te Whāriki 62 23
Employment practices Allegations of wrongful dismissals, poor staff management and poor employment policies 50 8
Enrolments Allegations of service enrolment policies being unclear, changed with insufficient notice or not meeting the needs of the community 22 5
Exclusions Allegations of children or caregivers being asked to leave a service with insufficient notice or reason 10 2
Excursions Allegations of dissatisfaction with excursion procedures, including policies, staffing, communication and hazard mitigation 7 3
Fees Allegations of overcharging, lack of transparency surrounding fees and subsidies and lack of communication regarding fee changes 42 9
Fraud Allegations of services making fraudulent claims about children’s attendance to the Ministry for funding purposes 15 1
Health and safety Allegations of general problems with health and safety policies and procedures, including hazard management, food policies, child protection policies and smoking 148 65
Hygiene Allegations of poor hygiene levels including head lice, child illness and cleaning products used 25 5
Learning support Allegations of staff lacking the skills, experience or resources needed to appropriately respond to the learning support needs of children 18 2
Management and administration Allegations of problems with the management and policies of a service including staff turnover, resources, relationships with, and communication from, management 89 26
Noise Allegations regarding the levels of noise at a service. Generally received from neighbouring homes or businesses 2 0
Premises and facilities Allegations of problems with the services premises, such as lack of space, lack of heating or unsafe playground equipment 37 18
Operating outside of licence Allegations of a service operating outside of their licence, such as providing service for under twos on an over twos only licence, exceeding total number of children on the licence and operating without a licence 14 11
Privacy Allegations of children’s, parents’ or teachers’ information being shared without permission 10 4
Ratios Allegations that there are not enough staff present for the amount of children attending the ECE service 65 24
Supervision Allegations of insufficient supervision of children attending the service 86 27
Teacher suitability Allegations that staff are unsuited to care for children 26 5
Transportation Allegations of problems with a service’s transport arrangements, such as insufficient seating or insufficient supervision on transportation 3 1

The table below shows the number of complaints that resulted in a licensing amendment and the number of individual services that had their licence amended as a result of a complaint.

While some services had their licence amended as a result of multiple complaints, others had their licence amended to more than one status e.g. moving from a provisional licence to a suspension or cancellation.

Table 7. Licensing amendments from complaints

Licence change Number of complaints Number of services
Provisional licence 53 33
Suspended 27 14
Cancelled 20 8
Total 55 41

The table below shows the number of times specified agencies were involved in complaints in 2020. Note some complaints involved more than one agency. Other agencies were involved in a total of 38 complaints.

Table 8. Complaints referred to another agency

Agency Number of referrals
Oranga Tamariki 22
Teaching Council 11
NZ Police 16
WorkSafe 5
Health authorities 1
Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment 1
Privacy Commissioner 0
Fire and Emergency NZ 0
Local Council 1
Total 57

Table 9. Incident notifications received by the Ministry of Education22

Region Incidents received Services with incident notifications received Total services % of total services
Tai Tokerau 6 6 223 2.7%
Auckland 83  74  1497  4.9% 
Waikato 37  32  463  6.9% 
Bay of Plenty / Waiariki  65 52  434  12.0% 
Hawke's Bay / Tairāwhiti 69  49  306  16.0%
Taranaki / Whanganui / Manawatu 42  37  321  11.5% 
Wellington 45  38  490  7.8% 
Nelson / Marlborough / West Coast 13  12  158  7.6% 
Canterbury / Chatham Islands 80  58  491  11.8% 
Otago / Southland 14  13  278  4.7% 
Total 454  371  4661  8.0% 

Table 10. Incident notifications received by service type

Service Type Incidents received Services with incident notifications received Total services % of total services
Education and care23 40 328 2708 12.1%
Home-based 18 17 424 4.0% 
Kindergarten 23 22 661 3.3%
Playcentre 3 3 404 0.7% 
Kōhanga reo 1 1 444 0.2% 
Hospital-based 0 0 20 0.0% 
Correspondence School 0 0 1 0.0% 
Total 454 371 4662 8.0%

Table 11. Licensing amendments from incident notifications

Licence change Number of incidents Number of services
Provisional 13 12
Suspended 0 0
Cancelled 0 0
Total 13 12

Table 12. Incident notifications referred to another agency

Agency Notified Number of referrals
Oranga Tamariki  92
Health authorities 78 
NZ Police 75 
WorkSafe 56 
Teaching Council 42 
Fire and Emergency NZ
Total24 346


16Excludes Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu – The Correspondence School, which is nationwide.


18Education and care refers to teacher-led, centre-based services, excluding kindergartens.

19As a complaint can relate to more than one category, the figures in this table do not represent the total number of complaints received in 2020.

20A complaint is upheld when, after investigation, it is found that regulated standards have not been met by the service or the Ministry considers improvement is required in a particular area related to the complaint.

21There are two changes to the categories compared to 2019. The category operating outside of licence has been introduced and the previous category teacher behaviour has been removed.

22Excludes Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu – The Correspondence School.

23Education and care refers to teacher-led, centre-based services, excluding kindergartens.

24A single incident may result in referrals to multiple agencies.

Further information

Contact ECE.info@education.govt.nz or media.team@education.govt.nz

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