A spike in the number of complaints being made about early learning services is likely to be the tip of an iceberg.

Complaints to the Ministry of Education jumped 50 percent in 2014 to 360, and those about understaffing almost tripled. The ministry attempted to play down the figures, putting it down to families being encouraged to complain.

But NZEI members report that it is difficult to make a complaint about a service, with the onus on families to raise and resolve issues within centres.

Staff report that they are too frightened to report legal breaches as the ministry requires that they give their name and other details, which would make them readily identifiable to an owner. Staff fear losing their jobs or hours if they complain, yet NZEI and Child Forum surveys indicate that between 12% and 24% of services regularly fail to meet legal child-to-adult ratios.

NZEI members are calling on government to hold an independent inquiry.