The hardest question in early childhood: Raising the profile

ACECQA’s General Manager, Strategy, Communications and Consistency, Michael Petrie, explores the importance of early childhood education and care and reflects on the communication challenges impacting the public value of the sector and its educators.

Educators always ask a lot of questions.

At a recent workforce conference on the importance of quality vocational training in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector I was asked a number of questions about changes to the National Quality Framework (NQF) and National Quality Standard (NQS), the rate of assessment and rating of services across the country, plus the ongoing training provided to the jurisdiction-based authorised officers who make those assessments.

All good questions.

However, there was one question which I found the most difficult to provide a clear answer to: “Why aren’t early childhood educators valued in Australia given the importance of the early years in the development of children?”. This issue has come up in multiple forums where my colleagues and I have spoken on the subject of the ECEC workforce.

Now, everyone reading this article will probably have an opinion on the above question. And I think there are multiple factors at play here. However, I want to focus on a high-level factor which I believe significantly influences how the public perceives and values ECEC. And it relates to the communication ‘messages’ the Australian community receives, or doesn’t receive, about ECEC.

In this regard, I want to focus on three key communication challenges I see impacting on the profile of the ECEC sector in Australia and, by association, the public value of early childhood educators.

The challenges

The first challenge is that the overarching narrative in the media and community tends to reinforce the concept of ECEC predominantly being about workforce participation and the high-level language used about the system infers it is about having your child ‘cared for’ or ‘looked after’.

For the benefit of national productivity, there is absolutely no doubt getting parents back into the workplace is a critically important outcome and the provision of subsidies, whatever the quantum, greatly assists in achieving this.

However, this is a short-term economic argument and neglects that the billions of dollars in investment being made in ECEC also has a medium to long-term economic benefit for the country – it develops children’s social and communication skills, helps them learn about and interact with the world around them, assists in the early identification and intervention options for children who are experiencing vulnerability or disadvantage, and ultimately, it provides a critical transition step for entry into primary school.

Unfortunately, there is no agreed or consistent message for the Australian public which reinforces these benefits of ECEC. Nor is there any national message for new parents regarding the importance of brain development in the first five years and the role that they as first teachers, or ECEC, can play in this phase of a child’s life. And for the economically minded within our society, who often question the level of taxpayer investment in ECEC, there is no reference or targeted messaging about the medium to long-term return on this investment for the nation. Perhaps we can do more in this area and highlight the arguments of scholars like American economist and Nobel Laureate Professor James Heckman who has argued that a dollar invested in an ECEC program can return itself more than six times.

Secondly, if it is not a workforce participation matter, the narrative tends to focus on the perceived problems associated with the regulatory system and the NQF rather than any positive contribution the ECEC sector makes to our children and society.

As we all know, bad news sells and as a sector we can be our own worst enemy in highlighting issues which are great material for news outlets. This in turn leads to the Australian community only reading or hearing about problems and issues with ECEC and the NQF, instead of the progress being made and the positives being achieved by the national quality system.

For example, ACECQA’s four regulatory burden surveys have consistently highlighted over 95% of the sector supports the NQF. So why is it then we tend to turn small administrative matters into some form of crisis that leads to a nationally syndicated news article or segment on the nightly television news? All this does is perpetuate negative connotations in the public mind about the NQF and the ECEC sector.

Finally, research that ACECQA and governments have done over the past few years has highlighted there is a language challenge between what parents think and want from early childhood, versus how we communicate with them as a sector.

Since the introduction of the NQF in 2012, a great deal of work has been undertaken with the sector and governments to communicate and educate on the national regulatory system. This has been critically important given we replaced nine different jurisdictional systems and evolved to one national law and set of regulations for ECEC.

However, ACECQA’s inaugural Annual Performance Report to the COAG Education Council highlights the challenge we all continue to have in communicating with parents.  As a sector we have tended to use professional terms like programming and practice, scaffolding, pedagogy, quality and, dare I say it, ‘education’, when communicating with parents. Many parents don’t readily relate to this terminology and, in some cases, they actually find the terms incompatible with what they expect to occur in the birth to five age group. They prefer happy, safe, playing, growing and learning. The research would suggest it is as children move into the year before formal schooling starts that most parents start to really engage and think about ‘education’ and ‘school readiness’.

We know how important language is in reaching and engaging with new parents. On ACECQA’s Starting Blocks website, we took the decision a few years ago to use the term ‘child care’ on our home page. We did this because we knew from research that this was the term parents and the community readily associated with and would therefore engage with. It is not ideal and we would like to be in a position to only use terms like ‘early learning’ or ECEC. However, our view is that at this point in time, it is more important to have new parents interact with the site and receive information about ECEC and the NQF, rather than not engage simply because they don’t initially understand what we are talking about.

Once parents move within the site, Starting Blocks deliberately introduces terms to educate the reader and reinforce alternative terms such as ‘early learning’ and ‘early childhood education and care’. However, while parents continue to hear the term ‘child care’ being used via our media and in the community, changing the terminology in Australia will be a gradual process – but it is important to work towards this outcome.

The Impact

At this point, I am sure you are wondering how these communication challenges impact on the original question about the lack of public recognition and value of early childhood educators.

Well, they have a direct impact.

If the messages being delivered and received by the broader community about ECEC are negative in tone, this in turn means there is no additional public value being created. Therefore, the community will not fully engage and educate itself to understand the importance of early learning for their children, nor the role that ECEC plays in development and supporting families and communities. This means we will not get to a point where the public values the system enough to demand continued improvement and investment in all aspects of the system, including the workforce and its educators.

Moving forward

So, how can we create a ‘step change’ in thinking regarding the broader public value in ECEC?

There is no doubt it will continue to take time. However, with the national system now embedded across the country there is an opportunity for us all to re-frame the high-level messages we want the Australian public to hear and, ultimately, understand about ECEC. Collectively we can start by:

  • focusing on positive messages, whether social or economic, to the appropriate audience that promote the benefits of ECEC for children and our society
  • partnering with each other, to stretch our limited resources, in commissioning research and developing campaigns to raise the profile of ECEC
  • re-framing our language when communicating with the community about the NQF and the NQS so they can start to appreciate how it will help parents and children
  • acknowledging where we have issues and concerns but pausing and thinking about the impact to the broader agenda of creating public recognition and value in ECEC before choosing to make public comments on secondary issues.

For our part, ACECQA will continue broadening our communication activities beyond the sector and continue to explore new channels where we can provide more information directly to parents. We already do this in a number of ways:

  • via a dedicated family website (Starting Blocks), posting on social media, engaging bloggers, attending and speaking at conferences and exhibitions
  • partnering with non-sector related groups, like Maternal and Child Health Nurses Associations and Playgroups, to provide information to families not yet in the ECEC sector and inform them of the benefits and choices available to them
  • introducing NQS rating logos so services can promote their rating to the community (to date, over 3000 services across the country have signed up to this scheme)
  • actively promoting the information of other relevant organisations, so we can help get information about early childhood into families and the community
  • undertaking and releasing more and more analysis and research reports on the NQF and the sector.

In 2018, we will continue to focus on parents and look to new initiatives for communicating the benefits of early learning plus the key aspects of the NQS in everyday language they will connect with.

There is a lot more that can be done by all of us to raise the profile and value of early childhood educators in this country. Getting the high level communication and messaging focused on the benefits of quality ECEC might just be the first step in raising public value.

Viewing excellence as a process, not a result

How can we think about excellence as an enriching process rather than a final result?

As the first family day care service in Australia to be awarded the Excellent rating by ACECQA under the National Quality Framework in 2013 – and re-awarded the rating in 2016 – Wynnum Family Day Care is passionate about sharing high quality practice and implementing a range of collaborative initiatives. This month on We Hear You, Wynnum FDC’s Educational Leader, Niki Kenny, explores some of the processes that drive the service’s exceptional practice and the principles behind them.

As passionate advocates for high quality children’s education and care, the educators and staff at Wynnum Family Day Care place great importance on collaborative partnerships and relationships with the sector, as well as sharing processes, practices, attitudes and ideals that are central to continuous quality improvement and excellence.

Relationship building

As a relationship-based service with a focus on positive workplace culture and organisational values, Wynnum FDC has developed an interview and orientation process for prospective educators that goes beyond the checking of minimum qualifications and legislative requirements, giving educators an opportunity to assess their ‘fit’ with the service’s culture.

Relationships with families are also prioritised: while it would be possible to conduct all enrolments online, the service invites all new families to attend the family-friendly office space for a face-to-face interview to build their understanding of the coordination unit and educators’ distinct, but intertwined, roles in supporting them and their child (or children).

Inclusive practices that enhance relationship building include:

  • conducting regular surveys of educators and families
  • keeping regular communication via email
  • phone and face-to-face contact, and
  • involving families in decision-making for the service.

One of the rewards of strong relationships and teamwork is longevity of educators, staff and families within the service. The sense of trust that develops over time allows the service to operate in a responsive and proactive way, as opposed to a reactive compliance model.

An example of this is when educators and coordinators work together to solve problems and overcome challenges, with honest and respectful communication. Team members are able to listen to and learn from each other, and view challenges as a learning opportunity.

Another benefit of having long-term team members is the sense of stability that leads to confidence to think outside the square and try new ideas.

Innovation and expectations

Innovation and high expectations go hand in hand at Wynnum FDC: “We set high expectations for ourselves every day – not to achieve a particular rating but in order to deliver the best service we can to our community,” said Manager Cathy Bavage.

Whether writing a new policy, changing a practice or facing a challenge, team members focus not only on what is required by legislation and regulations, but what is current best practice. For example, coordinators tend to be qualified above and beyond the minimum requirements, and have all received additional training in adult learning, to enhance the delivery of training and communications.

“We recognise that children’s learning, development and wellbeing are directly associated with quality professional development,” added Cathy.

There is therefore a strong focus not just on children’s learning but on adult learning as well. The innovative programs and business practices that arise from setting high expectations for early education and care are perhaps the most visible component of Wynnum FDC’s journey to excellence.

Reflective practice

Forward thinking and innovation are enabled by reflective practice. Daily  ‘mini’ team meetings are held in the office as a way for coordinators to share not only practical information about tasks to be completed, but also to ‘check in’ with each other about workloads and the best way to manage.

A weekly team meeting allows for extended time to review current happenings in the service, discuss how any challenges will be managed and by whom, and to reflect on practice by giving and receiving feedback. Due to the trusting relationships between educators and coordinators I mentioned previously, questions about practice can be posed without evoking a defensive response, and instead taken on board as a valuable part of continual professional development.

Bi-annual reviews of the service by an external consultant ensure reflection remains robust and critical.

Other rewards of reflective practice, apart from leading to innovative programs that enhance children’s learning and growth, include being able to constantly align actions with philosophy and to have confidence the service is working towards its vision to provide quality outcomes for children.

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An Excellent rating can be compared to an iceberg, in that the visible part (the rating) is held up by the processes and practices, which are in turn supported by the deeper underlying principles or beliefs that form the service’s philosophy.

Therefore the first steps for services seeking to enhance their rating is to develop a philosophy including the values that are most important for your context and community, followed by the processes that will best enable you to put your philosophy into practice.

Stories from the sector: Changes to the National Quality Framework

We Hear You in name and nature! We know the children’s education and care sector is always keen to hear from other educators about their practice, how they work on continuous quality improvement and the way they manage change. This month we talk to four educators about how they are responding to the changes to the National Quality Framework (NQF) at their services.

Tracy Cripps and the children from Bees Creek OSHC and Vacation Care
Tracy Cripps and the children from Bees Creek OSHC and Vacation Care
Su Garrett, Explore and Develop Annandale

As the approved provider and director/nominated supervisor at Explore and Develop Annandale in NSW, Su Garrett is passionate about creating an environment where the needs and development of each child is a priority and educators are valued as central to children’s learning. For Su, the changes to the NQF present an opportunity to reflect on programs and refine the specialty areas of her practice.

Information and resources

“The first thing we have done to familiarise ourselves with the NQF changes is to access the resources, information sheets and FAQs available on the ACECQA website and Facebook page. One resource we have found particularly interesting was the comparison between the current and revised NQS. We used this while looking at our Quality Improvement Plan (QIP) and considered how the current goals align with the changes.”

Revised National Quality Standard (NQS)

“Our educational leader has been participating in networking meetings that have focused on the NQF changes, in particular highlighting key wording changes in elements and standards in the revised NQS.

“As a team, we have started to critically reflect on a number of questions and think about whether we really doing and what we should be doing. For example, we have closely looked at the changes to the element relating to critical reflection because the new wording speaks to critical reflection driving the program. We have also thought about how we articulate this and trying to make it more explicit.”

Quality Improvement Plan (QIP)

“It has been a little bit tricky to keep working on the current QIP while also looking at what we might want to focus on as we reflect on how we are meeting the revised standards. We definitely find the revised NQS easier to read and easier for educators to engage with it, for example Quality Area 2 is just health and safety, which is simpler and easier to understand and think through with the concept.”

Practice and reflection

“We have three specialty areas that we are very passionate about: critical reflection (as I have already mentioned), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and sustainability. We are looking at the NQF changes and thinking about what has changed in relation to sustainability and cultural competence and what this means for our practice.”

Martina Hribar, All Areas Family Day Care

Martina Hribar, one of the managers and the educational leader at All Areas Family Day Care in NSW, is a keen advocate for high quality programs and practice that are respectful and responsive to the unique needs of children and their families. The changes to the NQF have allowed Martina and the other educators at her service a chance to streamline processes and establish collaborative networks.

Support and guidance

“We started our preparations for the NQF changes by linking with ACECQA about the changes to the National Quality Framework. We feel it’s good to reach out for extra support and guidance. We have followed this up with some internal meetings to answer any questions and to give educators a copy of the changes.”

Policies, forms and reports

“One of the first things we did was to head to the ACECQA website and get all the information about regulatory changes and think about what policies, forms and processes needed to be updated. One of the changes we have made is to our educator reports that support officers fill in when they conduct service visits. We have included information that sets out the service expectations, which they sign off once they have read and understood the changes. The report has been updated to reflect the language of the Early Years Learning Framework and concepts such as play-based learning – we find this helps to keep the language more consistent.”

Streamlining processes

“We have also taken this as an opportunity to look at streamlining our processes, including developing a new webpage with both an educator and a parent portal. This means that all educators have access to information – we receive a report that details who has accessed the portal. We find this really helpful as we can follow up with anyone who hasn’t logged in via email.”

Collaborative networks

“Lately, we have established a partnership with Miller TAFE. This is a really exciting collaborative network as they hold discussions to help unpack the Framework for School Age Care, which is relevant for the educators at our service who cater for school age care.”

Lisa Reidy, Uniting Frederick Street Preschool

Uniting Frederick Street Preschool’s director/nominated supervisor, Lisa Reidy, heads a team of educators who are passionate about creating a range of experiences and learning opportunities for children that encourage and foster investigation and imagination. At her service, the changes have opened up a space to discuss and reflect on planning and practice.  

Discussion and exchange

“Uniting is hosting a practice forum in October to discuss the NQF changes. I will be attending this forum along with 60 service directors and coordinators across our NSW and ACT network, where ACECQA Deputy National Education Leader, Perry Campbell, will be speaking. We will then network and think tank each quality area as a way of exchanging ideas about implementing change and continuing to enhance practice across our services. I plan to take these ideas back to my team at our next staff meeting and plan what our next steps will be as a group. Our main focus will be comparing the current and revised NQS and what this means at a service level.”

Tracy Cripps, Bees Creek OSHC and Vacation Care 

Director/nominated supervisor of Bees Creek OSHC and Vacation Care in the Northern Territory, Tracy Cripps, thrives on the philosophy, values and programs of her service where children are encouraged to build relationships and explore and extend interests and hobbies in an outside school hours context. For Tracy, the October 2017 changes have resulted in effective and active participation.

Embedded and effective change

“Our first thought about the key changes to notifications, incidents and complaints was we needed to make them a priority. We knew it was vital to embed them into our service before 1 October and to rethink the traditional method of ‘informing’ educators at team meetings (as it would no longer be the most effective method). I felt our educators need to not only be informed about the changes, but also know how they apply to our practice and where to find them in our guidance and policies.”

Active participation

“After some brainstorming with our educators, we agreed educators would create a before and after table/fact sheet showing the key changes to notifications, incidents and complaints and identify where our policies will be changed specific to our service – for example, our child safe environments policy and OHS Handbook. We wanted this to be a point of reference available in an accessible format to both families and educators. For me, when educators are active participants they are able to connect, retain and apply the information in daily practice.”

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We hope you have found these examples of interest and they have sparked some ideas to support your own service.

What will your first or next step be?

Some starting points might include:

  • discussing the changes at your next team meeting
  • reviewing your service’s Quality Improvement Plan (QIP) and considering what might be relevant for future quality improvement goals
  • unpacking what might need to change in your service as a result of the changes
  • reviewing the new Guide to the National Quality Framework and other information sheets and resources.

For more information on the changes to the NQF, head to the ACECQA website.

Further reading and resources

ACECQA – NQS Knowledge game – The Quest for Quality

We Hear You – Leaders as agents of change

We Hear You – Leading through change

Making bubbles: Scientific research in early childhood settings

In the lead-up to National Science Week, Little Scientists Australia talks to We Hear You about the often simple, everyday ways education and care services can integrate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) learning into their environments and programs.

Children's hands full of bubbles using chemistry outdoors

‘Look how many soap bubbles I made!’ Ben exclaims enthusiastically. Sarah, his teacher, is excited: ‘Wow, this is great! How did you do this?’ ‘I blew into the soap bubble water with the long yellow tube and now my bucket is full of bubbles,’ he replies. ‘This works much better than stirring it with a spoon’. ‘I have an even better idea!’ Ben’s friend Julia says. ‘You could stir really, really fast with an egg whisk. I am sure that makes the most bubbles!’ Sarah has an idea: ‘Well, these are some interesting assumptions, but wouldn’t it be good to test what actually works the best?’ The children are excited about Sarah’s suggestion and want to explore this question in a more scientific way.

Sarah, the educator in the soap bubble story above, is an example of many Australian early childhood professionals who are strong advocates of co-construction and inquiry-based, child-led learning. More and more education and care services across the country are integrating scientific exploration and discovery into the children’s routine, based on the strong belief they benefit tremendously from early opportunities to discover the world in an open and creative environment.

Little Scientists Australia offers a professional development program for teachers and educators to support the implementation of inquiry-based STEM learning. The program offers a range of hands-on workshops designed to encourage and promote scientific investigation while giving insights in educational concepts and methods. A key concept of Little Scientists is an inquiry-cycle approach which supports structuring children’s discovery process.

To demonstrate how scientific research in an early childhood setting could be done, let’s return to our soap bubble example:

In the morning, Sarah and her preschool group explored and played with home-made soap bubble liquid: blowing, stirring and shaking the liquid. Sparked by Ben’s discovery that blowing into the liquid worked better than stirring, the group decided to investigate further. Drawing on the previous scientific explorations and experiments facilitated by Sarah, the children knew how to proceed:

  1. First they came up with a question to investigate: ‘How can we make the most bubbles?’
  2. Secondly, the group hypothesised what method they believed could result in the most bubbles. A critical part of research is identifying the children’s assumptions and to hypothesise individually which method will work best and why.
  3. At this stage, the children were almost ready to try things out and to experiment, but first they had to agree on preparations and how to document the results: ‘What items will be used to produce bubbles? What materials will be needed? Where should the experiments be conducted – inside or outside? How can they document their results?’ The children decided to draw pictures of the different experiments and take photos or make videos of the most impressive ‘soap bubble mountain’. There are countless ways to document, for instance co-constructed and dynamic approaches such as Claire Warden’s Floorbook Approach.
  4. Once they agreed, they were excited to start exploring and experimenting! This was (and almost always is) the most extensive phase of their research. The children had various attempts and setbacks. At one point the group split into smaller ‘research teams’ and some children left the group. For three days, all the bubble experiments were on hold because the children were distracted by jumping in the rain puddles…Then one of the children brought in a picture of the world’s biggest soap bubble and suddenly the research was back to full speed.
  5. Scientists of all ages are excited to see the results of their experiment and to share them with their peers. Our Little Scientists from the bubble experiment were no different: They observed their experiments and Sarah encouraged them to describe the outcomes to the others in the group. This step offers various opportunities to engage children in the process while supporting their communication skills and language development: ‘What have you noticed? Has something changed? Why are you surprised about the result? What could we try next?’
  6. When the children were satisfied with experimenting, observing, describing and documenting their findings, they reflected on the outcome and discussed their initial assumptions: ‘Could the initial question be answered? Did the yellow tube really work much better than the stick, even if you stir as fast as possible? And how did Julia’s egg whisk perform in the overall ranking? Did the children have any further questions, and did they think their research could be improved? The children came up with plenty of input, new ideas and assumptions for further bubble experiments…

Learning opportunities like the soap bubble experiment arise every single day. Most young children make numerous investigations and ask inquisitive questions about everything. And how do educators and families respond? We often don’t know what to say because we don’t have an adequate answer or have never thought about this before. The good news is – if we implement an inquiry-based learning approach – it doesn’t matter! It might even be an advantage not to know the answer. Scientific exploration and research give children and adults the opportunity to explore, to problem-solve, to cooperate with others and to be even more excited and curious about the world around us.

A provocation to take back to your next team meeting might be how the educators in your service are engaging with STEM in their programs.

Little Scientists is one of various organisations across the country providing fun and engaging events for children during National Science Week (12-20 August 2017).

To learn more about the Little Scientists, their professional development program and the Little Scientists Conference for early childhood educators and teachers in September, visit the website.

Start a conversation about quality

In this month’s We Hear You blog, we look at how children’s education and care educators can shine as professionals, translate the sometimes complex language of the sector, help families better understand their child’s potential and explain how this work supports children’s physical, emotional, social, language and cognitive development. 

The education and care sector has demonstrated professionalism and dedication embracing the concept of continuous quality improvement and new national standards introduced under the National Quality Framework (NQF) in 2012. Over the years, the commitment shown by the sector has opened up a community dialogue about the importance of education and care for children’s holistic development, and the progress the NQF has made in raising the professional status of educators.

Why is it then that relatively few parents and carers know about the commitment to quality in early childhood and outside school hours care services?

We are providing families with information about the wide range of services in Australia and the importance of quality through Starting Blocks, our family-focused website. We also publish the ratings of services on the national registers and the Starting Blocks website. This empowers families and carers to make informed choices when selecting a service for their child and helps them to understand the critical elements that make up a good quality service.

Recently, we collaborated with states and territories to develop new logos to help services and providers promote their commitment to quality and their overall rating to families. We want the new logos to help parents and carers to be more confident in their selection and to appreciate the professional role of educators in meeting the needs of their children as unique learners.

NQS quality areas and quality ratings

Educators are the vital first point of contact for families seeking education or care. They trust you to look after their children – to keep them safe, happy and developing skills appropriate to their age and interests.

Building close relationships is what great educators do really well – engaging with families about their expectations, providing regular updates and sharing children’s experiences – and is a key component of the National Quality Standard. These close relationships present opportunities to discuss the importance of quality practice and how a high quality service, in turn, contributes to their child’s smooth transition to, and success at, school.

Your service’s rating logo also provides a chance to educate families and the community about the wonderful work you do in your service as a professional educator. These are opportunities too good to miss.

Visit the Starting Blocks website for fact sheets and infographics to share with families. Like the Starting Blocks Facebook, Instagram page and ACECQA Facebook page for regular updates and information.

We improve what we measure

In her first We Hear You blog as the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) Chief Executive Officer, Gabrielle Sinclair shares her thoughts about the National Quality Framework and a recent visit to the Northern Territory.

One of ACECQA’s functions is working with regulatory authorities to educate and inform services and the community about the National Quality Framework (NQF).

Since 2012, educators, services, schools and governments have undertaken a significant journey in implementing the new laws, regulations and the National Quality Standard.  While it took time to get across the detail of the new national system, over 88% of services have now been assessed and rated, with 73% rated Meeting National Quality Standard or above. Over the next five years, our challenge is to continue the quality improvement journey and support parents and carers as well-informed consumers of education and care services for their children.

In my new role as ACECQA CEO, I am learning a great deal from you about the diversity of communities across Australia; the unique circumstances in which services operate; the rich experiences of families; and the way we all respond within a national framework.

Recently, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to meet with the Northern Territory Minister for Education and speak at the 2017 Leaders’ Conference in Darwin. I was impressed by the determination to raise quality in the NT and the unique way leaders in both sectors were enriching children’s experiences and improving learning outcomes.   The continuous quality improvement journeys shared by Principals Leah, Joe and Graham, highlighted the critical fact that good leadership is all about results.  To achieve better results, they spoke of giving a voice to the expertise and knowledge of early childhood educators, teachers and local families.  They reflected on the immense value of listening to and understanding the perspectives of children.

During my visit to local services, I met with very insightful educational leaders who were deeply connected with their local communities.  At Nightcliff, there is a strong partnership between the early learning centre and the school with the aim to give young children a seamless experience from long day care to preschool and on to school and outside school hours care. The results are tangible. The physical and sector barriers are being removed; the early learning centre and the school are sharing quality resources; families are welcomed; and the focus is very much on building confident, enthusiastic young learners.

In both education sectors and in every jurisdiction, we are listening to inspiring educational leaders who share their stories.  Although each experience is unique, a common reflection is that improved, sustained results are unlikely to happen without a commitment at the highest level; a deep understanding of the NQF and the roles we all have; a determination to improve beyond a single point in time; respect for the early childhood profession; and genuine partnerships with families and the community.

We have learnt so much since 2012.  It is worth sharing our own NQF journeys with others – across services, sectors and borders – and with our families.  It is a truism that everything that gets measured gets better and, as Joe reflected, do our children deserve anything less?

Bush Kinder

Rhonda Livingstone, ACECQA’s National Education Leader, speaks with Tina Thompson, Koori Preschool Assistant at Berrimba Child Care Centre in Echuca, Victoria about their bush kinder program.

bush-kinder-hero

Every Monday at Berrimba Child Care Centre, children aged three and above are taken into the bush for a three hour program of exploring and activities. These visits provide opportunities for children to connect to the land, live their culture and explore nature, as well as scientific and maths concepts.

Tina Thompson, Koori Preschool Assistant at the service, says the program fits well under the Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework by linking with the five learning outcomes identified.

Tina spoke to me about the smoking and Welcome to Country (in language) ceremonies that educators and children collaboratively participate in to recognise the traditional owners and to cleanse their spirits. She talked about the valuable opportunities for children as they play and explore in the bush, giving time to leave behind any troubles they may be experiencing. Tina explained how “children need to know their culture, identity and be strong and proud, knowing and valuing their rich culture”.

Science is a feature of these excursions into the bush with lots of discussion about the natural creations. For example, children were fascinated with the drying mud; Tina laughingly reported that children, at first, thought it was chocolate. The children talked and theorised about where the water goes. “It is really important to get our culture back and being out in bush kinder is a great way to connect with the ancestors and to thank Mother Nature for all the beauty around us,” said Tina.

img_0293An example of an effective learning experience occurred when children at the service learned how to make a canoe under the guidance of Uncle Rick, an esteemed Aboriginal elder and strong male role model in the community. Educators take iPads to record the rich learnings, and share these with families and others in the community. “Children are learning about sustainability. Aboriginal people for generations have only taken what they needed; it is important for children to learn to respect and care for nature and follow in the footsteps of their ancestors,” she added.

Last year, the children made a humpy (a shelter) in this beautiful natural environment. The educators were available to help and guide but the initiative, ideas and problem solving came from the children. “They are amazing,” Tina noted, explaining how they cooperatively gathered the sticks and worked out how to build it so it would stay up. During each visit, they would add to the structure, help each other, and play in and use it in a variety of ways, allowing each other space to explore, work and play.

“We might turn over a log and study the bugs, but we don’t take them away,” she said. “We talk about our totems and why we don’t eat our totem. We don’t take the bugs, insects, stones, sticks or anything we find, just study them and marvel in the beauty of nature.”

“We have a lot of strong leaders in our community and children in our service are showing skills that will make them great community leaders of the future, leaders who can advocate and fight for the needs and rights of our people. The children are teaching their parents and family members.”

The identified benefits of the bush kinder include:

  • increasing evidence that children’s inner wellbeing is benefitted by being outdoors as the natural environment enhances their health, learning and behaviour by supporting personal and social development, as well as physical and mental health
  • the sense of calm and restoration gained from spending time in the bush
  • providing children with a connection while they are young, and the hope they will build a sense of belonging and respect for the country as they grow.

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Back at the service, educators can regularly be observed putting ochre (traditional Aboriginal body paint) on the young children and babies, and singing songs in language and dancing along. Tina pays respect to her colleagues Leona Cooper (jokingly called Boss Lady) and Joyce Ward, two women strong in their culture and relentless advocates for their families and community. These women work long and hard to ensure no child falls through the cracks and to advocate for these opportunities to continue to enrich the lives of children in the Echuca community.

To finish, Tina draws my attention to a quote from Jenny Beer (from the Aboriginal language group Wergaia):

“…if we don’t learn our language, then our kids, in future generations will be like us, looking for our identity, going through that identity crisis.”

Further reading and resources

Nyernila – Listen continuously: Aboriginal creation stories of Victoria

Forever Learning – A digital story from Berrimba Child Care Centre