The importance of self-assessment in a culture of continuous quality improvement

ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone shares her insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest. 

‘Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement and success have no meaning’ – Benjamin Franklin

The National Quality Framework (NQF) provides a national approach to quality improvement for education and care services across Australia. A key objective of the NQF is to promote continuous improvement in the provision of quality education and care services, with one of its six guiding principles focused on the expectation that best practice underpins service provision.

Self-assessment is fundamental to an effective cycle of quality improvement and is essential to providing quality outcomes for children and families. It is an important first step in the quality assessment and rating process, incorporating continuous self-assessment, the development and implementation of a Quality Improvement Plan (QIP), assessment and rating by the state or territory regulatory authority and the publication of quality ratings, which aims to raise quality and drive continuous improvement and consistency in education and care services.

What is self-assessment? 

All education and care services must complete self-assessment to inform the development of a QIP. The Education and Care Services National Regulations (Reg.55 (1) (a)) requires the approved provider of an education and care service to prepare a QIP, which includes assessment of the quality of practices against the NQS and the regulations. The need for an effective self-assessment and quality improvement process to support continuous improvement is also recognised in the National Quality Standard (NQS). Element 7.2.1 aims to support services to regularly monitor and review their performance to guide planning and improve service quality.

Self-assessment is about critically reflecting and evaluating your service practice, recognising strengths and identifying opportunities for improvement. It should provide an honest account and informed picture of your unique service context, your current practice and the quality of education and care experienced by children and families attending your service.

The self-assessment process is the starting point for determining and planning quality improvements within your education and care service. The outcomes of your self-assessment should directly inform the development of your QIP. There should be clear links between your service’s self-assessment documentation and identified priorities for attention in your QIP.

Remember: Your self-assessment identifies areas for improvement and your QIP can then be used to prioritise these improvements.

The narrative of quality improvement

It is important that all members of your education and care service community have an awareness of the process and requirements of self-assessment. Moreover, how this process directly informs, shapes and prioritises your service’s unique narrative, and ongoing journey, of quality improvement.

The diagram below provides a useful visual reference detailing the self-assessment process. It shows self-assessment as a comprehensive cyclical process involving five steps: critical reflection of your service philosophy, self-assessment of service practice against the NQS and the regulatory requirements, identification of strengths and opportunities for quality improvement, transferal of outcomes of the self-assessment to inform the development or update of your service QIP and review and reflection of the self-assessment process. This diagram, and further information on the role of self-assessment in driving reflection and determining quality improvements, can be accessed within ACECQA’s Self-assessment Tool.

Documenting your story of continuous improvement

It is important to remember that while it is not a requirement that self-assessment documentation is submitted to the regulatory authority, you must be able to demonstrate that the self-assessment has informed the development and review of the QIP.

ACECQA, in response to sector feedback, has developed a Self-assessment Tool to support education and care services to document their unique story of continuous quality improvement.

The Self-assessment Tool is a free optional resource suitable for all service types and provides a ‘starting point’ for planning to improve quality outcomes for children and families. Services may choose to apply or adapt the Self- Assessment Tool in a way that meets the needs of their unique service context.

The Self-assessment Tool offers a process aimed at helping services to identify strengths, areas of compliance, practices that are Exceeding the NQS, and areas and opportunities for quality improvement. It is also designed to complement and contribute to the development, review and update of your service QIP. The ACECQA Information Sheet Developing and reviewing your Quality Improvement Plan provides more information on the link between these documents.

The Self-assessment Tool provides one approach to documenting your quality improvement journey. However, it is important to remember that use of the ACECQA Self-assessment Tool is not a mandated requirement and approved providers, service leaders and educators are encouraged to choose a process and format that suits their unique service context, community, and self-assessment and planning approach.

Note: An optional Quality Improvement Plan (QIP) template is available on the ACECQA website for download. The template has recently been updated to include the three Exceeding NQS themes and quick links to resources for each NQS quality area.

Reflecting on the quality of your practice

Self-assessment requires all members of your service team to understand the NQS and the related regulatory requirements to effectively reflect on and evaluate current service practice, policies and procedures.

The Guide to the National Quality Framework is a comprehensive reference document designed to help education and care providers, service leaders, educators and authorised officers understand and apply NQF. It is a vital tool in supporting the self-assessment process within your service.

Section 3 of the Guide provides useful information on the assessment and rating process – including self-assessment and quality improvement. This section also provides a guide to the NQS including introductory statements for each quality area, standard and element that describe the intent and how practices contribute to quality outcomes for all children and families. The guide to the NQS references regulatory requirements underpinning each element and includes a set of reflective questions, for each standard of each NQS quality area, that serve as useful prompts and a natural starting point for critical reflection on the ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ of your service practice.

What else could be considered?

Additional information, research and data may also be considered and contribute to effective self-assessment, examples may include:

    • Guiding principles of the NQF
    • Approved learning frameworks
    • Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) community profile information
    • Contemporary research
    • Action research
    • Professional standards e.g. Early Childhood Australia (ECA) Code of Ethics
    • Best practice guidelines e.g. Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for Children
    • Service data e.g. incidents, complaints, maintenance registers etc.
    • Feedback from regular surveys provided by children, families, educators and/or the broader community etc.
    • Compliance history
    • Previous self-assessment, quality improvement plans and assessment and rating reports/outcomes

Remember, the ACECQA website is a useful repository of free and easily accessible information that can help you to navigate and implement the NQF.

 

Self-assessment is a continuous process – ‘there’s always room for improvement’

Aristotle reminds us that ‘we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit’. Under the NQF, education and care services are encouraged to continuously focus on quality improvement. Continuous improvement, as the name suggests, involves constantly re-examining and improving practice – finding a rhythm that works for your service and making change for the better. Remember, continuous improvement isn’t about setting a high pace –  some of the biggest differences can be made through small, incremental improvements done consistently.

A key strength of the NQF is that it supports education and care services to commit to best practice and engage in ongoing critical reflection and self-assessment (as a matter of habit) to inform professional judgements and drive continuous quality improvement. Importantly, these regular habits or patterns of behaviour, when engaged in with mutual respect and collaboration, can assist in establishing a positive organisational culture focused on quality and improved outcomes for children and families.

Self-assessment is fundamental in planning for and moving towards quality improvement. Without such processes, it is difficult to gain a clear, authentic picture of what you do well and identify the areas that should be prioritised for quality improvement. However, while self-assessment is often a ‘starting point’ for reflecting on and improving current practice, it is not an ‘end point’ finalised once current service practice has been evaluated.

To be most effective, self-assessment should be a continuous, regular and systematic process of critical reflection. This requires an ongoing commitment on behalf of education and care services and teams to attend to critical reflection, analyse practice and be open to the possibility of change motivated by quality improvement and the best interests of children and families. How this is reflected in practice will look different for each service.

A collaborative process and a shared vision  

The National Regulations (Regulations 55 and 56) require the approved provider of an education and care service to prepare, review and revise a QIP. However, it is not expected that they are solely responsible for all the work, decisions or outcomes. Rather self-assessment and quality improvement planning will benefit from being a shared and collaborative process engaging everyone: the approved provider, nominated supervisor, service leaders and management, coordinators, educational leaders, educators and other service staff.

Your service’s journey of self-assessment and quality improvement should also provide an opportunity for collaboration with and input from children, families and the broader community. Each member of your service team, families, children and the community will bring different perspectives, opinions and perceptions and have something unique to offer.

A continuous, regular and systematic process of critical reflection and self-assessment can provide a rich opportunity for professional development, learning and the building of professional competency within your service. When conducted as a collaborative process of professional inquiry, self-assessment can support educators to more confidently articulate practice, share ideas, pedagogical beliefs, knowledge, and opportunities for improvement at your service. Further, a regular and coordinated approach to self-assessment can build a spirit of collegiality and professionalism, support the building of shared professional knowledge, understanding and skills and the development of shared goals and vision. When all members of an education and care service have consistency of purpose and understand what is guiding their practice, they can work together for continuous quality improvements to enhance outcomes for children.

With this in mind, why not take this opportunity to reflect on your service’s self-assessment processes by identifying both strengths and areas for improvement. Consider the following reflective questions:

  • Is a commitment to ongoing self-assessment and continuous quality improvement reflected in your service philosophy?
  • Is self-assessment an ongoing, regular and systematic process? If not, how could practice be adapted?
  • Are all members of your service community invited to have a voice, participate in and be represented in the self-assessment process?
  • How do your self-assessment processes support educators to confidently articulate professional knowledge, values and practice?
  • How does your self-assessment process support professional collaboration (element 4.2.1)?
  • How are self-assessment and a focus on continuous quality improvement embedded into your service culture?

Further reading and resources to support your practice

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