The end of this year marks the fifth anniversary of the National Quality Framework (NQF) and I have had the honour and pleasure of being ACECQA’s Chief Executive Officer since the beginning.
Although the NQF had a long and sometimes complicated gestation, its birth on 1 January 2012 was real cause for celebration, with the years since delivering both successes and challenges.
Everyone will have their own perspectives on the NQF: what’s worked well, what hasn’t worked so well; its strengths and weaknesses. I would like to share with you what I have seen and reflected on over the past five years.
The NQF has set our sector on common ground, allowing us to have truly national conversations about our work. It makes it easier to discuss and communicate about Australian education and care.
We should rightly feel proud about the achievement of taking nine different pieces of legislation and bringing them under one national law. The support of all jurisdictions has been remarkable and how well this implementation has gone, generally, should not be underestimated.
The quality assessment and rating process, newly introduced from July 2012, is now well established and quality is improving. Key strengths of the process include the way it mixes self-reflection with external assessment; the way the standards are descriptive without being prescriptive; the detail included as part of the assessment and rating report; the information made publicly available; the responsive and risk-based approach used by state and territory regulatory authorities to scheduling and undertaking quality assessments; and of course, the emphasis on continuous quality improvement and the absence of an overly simplistic pass-fail threshold. The NQF focusses on ensuring continuous quality improvement and the results of services going through reassessment are incredibly encouraging. These results and the presence of a Quality Improvement Plan in each service mean that families can trust they are entering a sector committed to continual improvement.
The NQA ITS has developed into an exceptional business tool for services and regulatory authorities, reducing processing and application times. ACECQA regularly hears from providers about how highly they value the system and ongoing improvements and enhancements will help further embed usage across our sector.
Some critics of the proposal to implement the NQF claimed it would stifle diversity and innovation, and enforce a one size fits all approach. The reality is that national regulatory reform is more than capable of accommodating and nurturing diversity and innovation. In my work I’ve come across the pedagogical led initiatives of the Montessori and Steiner sectors, new markets in education and care management support services across the commercial and not-for-profit sectors, as well as growth in employer sponsored education and care.
Services and providers feel supported by the framework and the level of investment in workforce development continues to grow, particularly among larger providers, in a way that could not have been possible without the NQF.
To build on these successes, we should also not take for granted the distance that we have come and must continue to promote and champion the importance of education and care. This will help to banish forever the archaic notions of ‘childminding’ and that ‘proper’ learning starts at school.
The NQF is still developing and needs ongoing commitment and cooperation between our nine governments at the policy and operational level. We should not lose sight of the core objectives of the NQF that:
- children attending education and care services are safe, healthy and content
- their educational and developmental outcomes are improved
- families and carers are informed about the services they are using
- services and providers are supported to go about their business without unnecessary red tape.
These objectives should be the reference point for our ongoing activities and actions – if we are not furthering the NQF’s objectives through aspects of our work, we must refocus and reprioritise.
One of the challenges I have observed is the pace at which proposed reforms and improvements can sometimes take place.
We have learnt a lot over the past five years, moving between the critical stages of theory and practice. Sometimes what looked sensible in theory has proven impractical, clunky or unnecessary in practice. Equally, things that were not contemplated prior to the introduction of the NQF have surfaced as operational issues.
Stability and predictability are positives in any regulatory model; however the complexity of NQF governance has meant improvements that the sector and general public may expect should take months have, on occasion, taken much longer. This has the potential to be doubly disadvantageous as it can erode confidence in the efficiency and effectiveness of the national system and those that administer it. Also, the time elapsed between reviewing, consulting on and implementing proposed changes can mean that things have naturally progressed and evolved, making implementing the changes a lesser improvement.
Another challenge on the topic of speed relates to the system of quality assessment and rating. More than four years into the national assessment system, there are over 2000 services still to be rated, with more than 700 of these having been approved to operate for five years. On top of our existing challenge to accurately and effectively communicate about the value and meaning of quality assessment and rating, I am increasingly concerned that our next challenge will be defending the currency and meaning of that system if approved services have to wait four, five or even six years to receive an assessment or reassessment.
One more concerning challenge is the qualifications of educators. To help ensure the success of the NQF, we need to be able to rely on the quality of registered training organisations (RTOs) in the vocational education and training (VET) sector. If poor quality or fraudulent RTOs persist or flourish, potentially at the expense of high quality RTOs, we will face a significant challenge to the quality of NQF approved services.
I see similarities between some of the issues in the VET sector and the issues in the family day care sector. In both, there has been a proliferation of new providers, incentivised by government subsidies, with sometimes a sole focus on financial gain. Their behaviour is detrimental to the well-established, high quality providers who suffer from a loss of public trust.
While the issues in the VET and family day care sectors are not caused by the NQF, they are an issue and challenge for the NQF. Understanding that distinction and reality will help us all move forward together. The improved alignment between our sector and vocational and higher education will help, as we now have a number channels to engage with training and higher education providers at the operational and policy level.
Tackling these issues requires collaboration and a range of actions and responses. I would encourage the initial focus to be on guaranteeing a minimum level of quality and eliminating the fraudulent and very poor quality providers. I urge anyone with experience of poor quality or fraudulent RTO practice to provide ‘on the ground’ intelligence to the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) to enable them to effectively carry out their risk based regulatory activities.
By 2020 I think the key question will be: Is the NQF achieving what it intended?
We should not undersell the challenge involved in answering this question. In the short to medium term, we may only be able to answer particular aspects of it. ACECQA’s work to develop an evaluation framework for the NQF will hopefully establish a shared purpose among governments and researchers, against which a diverse range of research projects can be undertaken.
To sustain and build on the NQF, we must better understand how attendance at education and care services affects the outcomes of students in their early years of schooling, as well as the longer term effects on life outcomes. I would also like to see a continued focus on how early childhood education and care programs benefit different groups of children and families, particularly Indigenous children, children from disadvantaged backgrounds and the children of families who have recently arrived in Australia.
The focus over the past five years has been on implementing national reform. The sector, to its great credit, has risen to the inherent challenges of such large scale reform and significant quality improvements have emerged as a result. However, the value placed on children’s education and care in the wider community is lagging behind. We have an opportunity to advocate for the importance of quality education and care in the early years and build families and carers’ understanding of the NQF, in particular the National Quality Standard. In doing so, we can help shape the legacy of the NQF and better outcomes for Australian children.
Although I will no longer be part of the education and care sector, I will continue to take great interest in the progress of the NQF. We’ve come so far over the past five years and with the level of commitment I have witnessed across the country, I have every confidence that significant progress will continue to be made. And I know that ACECQA will stay true to its vision that children in Australia have the best possible start in life.
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