Failing services is failing to understand – the emphasis is on continuous quality improvement

we-hear-you-blog-karen-curtisAustralian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) Chief Executive Officer Karen Curtis addresses the importance of continuous quality improvement under the National Quality Framework (NQF).

One of the most important aspects of our system of assessing and rating the quality of education and care services is its emphasis on continuous improvement. This is deeply embedded within the NQF, starting with the requirement for all services to have a Quality Improvement Plan in place.

ACECQA’s latest published Snapshot, based on data as at 30 September 2016, shows that, of the 15,429 services approved to operate under the NQF, 83% have been assessed and rated, with 71% rated at Meeting the National Quality Standard (NQS) or above.

1
2

As you can see from the information above, most jurisdictions have assessed and rated more than 80% of services in their state or territory and the focus for some, particularly those that have assessed and rated more than 90% of services, is increasingly upon reassessing services.

When state and territory regulatory authorities undertake quality assessment, the goal is to drive the quality improvement of services, improve outcomes for children and make meaningful information available to families and communities.

To make the best use of available resources, regulatory authorities take a responsive, risk-based approach, focussing on services in need of quality improvement. This typically results in more frequent assessments of services that do not meet the NQS, as well as potential reassessments of services that have experienced significant changes or adverse events. As at 30 September 2016, a total of 1332 reassessments had taken place. Almost two thirds of these resulted in a higher overall rating being given, with the most common improvement being services moving from Working Towards NQS to Meeting NQS.

3

The NQS is made up of a series of standards and elements and it is at the element level where we get a comprehensive picture of quality improvement. To date, 75% of reassessments have resulted in a higher number of elements being assessed as met. On around 100 occasions there has been a very notable improvement in performance, with 21 or more elements on aggregate moving from being assessed as not met to met.

In contrast, just over 10% of reassessments have resulted in a lower number of elements being assessed as met. On seven occasions, there have been marked deteriorations in performance, with 21 or more elements on aggregate moving from being assessed as met to not met.

capture

More than half of reassessments have resulted in between one to 10 elements on aggregate moving from being assessed as not met to being assessed as met. My previous article, which looked more closely at the nature and diversity of the Working Towards NQS rating, is relevant to this, in particular the high proportion of services that are rated at Working Towards NQS due to not meeting a low number of elements.

When looking at changes in performance at reassessment, it is also informative to examine individual elements to see which are most and least likely to exhibit improved performance. We can do this by looking at the number of times an individual element has changed from:

  • not met to met
  • met to not met, or
  • continued to be assessed as not met.

Of  the 10 elements most likely to exhibit improved performance at reassessment, two each are from standards 5.1, 6.2 and 7.1:

  • Element 5.1.2 (children’s interactions with educators)
  • Element 5.1.3 (support for children to feel secure, confident and included)
  • Element 6.2.1 (recognition of families’ expertise and shared decision making with families)
  • Element 6.2.2 (availability of current information about community services and resources to support families)
  • Element 7.1.2 (comprehensive staff induction)
  • Element 7.1.3 (continuity of educators and co-ordinators)

At the other end of the spectrum, of the 10 elements least likely to exhibit improved performance at reassessment, three are from Standard 2.1, and two each are from standards 2.3 and 7.3:

  • Element 2.1.1 (support for children’s health needs)
  • Element 2.1.3 (effective hygiene practices)
  • Element 2.1.4 (infectious disease control and management of injuries and illnesses)
  • Element 2.3.2 (protection of children from harm and hazard)
  • Element 2.3.3 (incident and emergency planning and management)
  • Element 7.3.1 (storage, maintenance and availability of records and information)
  • Element 7.3.5 (effectively documented policies and procedures)

Unsurprisingly, in the list of the 10 elements most likely to continue to be assessed as not met are five of the most challenging elements of the NQS:

  • Element 1.2.1 (ongoing cycle of planning, documenting and evaluation)
  • Element 1.2.3 (critical reflection)
  • Element 3.3.1 (sustainable practices)
  • Element 3.3.2 (environmental responsibility)
  • Element 7.2.2 (staff evaluation and individual performance development plans)

Also included in the list of the 10 elements most likely to continue to be assessed as not met are two of the elements from Standard 1.1:

  • Element 1.1.3 (program maximised opportunities for children’s learning)
  • Element 1.1.4 (availability of children’s documentation to families)

Reflecting upon these elements and considering why they appear in the respective lists will help prioritise and direct future quality improvement efforts. For example, it may be that efforts to improve performance against some standards need to be more intense, targeted and prolonged.

I also want to highlight that the consistent picture over the last four years is that Quality Area 1: Educational program and practice is the most challenging of the seven quality areas, with Standard 1.2 (focused, active and reflective educators and co-ordinators) and Standard 1.1 (curriculum enhances each child’s learning and development) the most challenging of the 18 standards, and Element 1.2.3 (critical reflection) and Element 1.2.1 (ongoing cycle of planning, documenting and evaluation) the most challenging of the 58 elements. Devoting dedicated time to discussing, reflecting on and prioritising aspects for improvement around the educational program and practice, particularly reviewing the feedback received as part of the assessment and rating process, will provide a solid foundation for continuous quality improvement efforts.

In my final blog post next month, I look forward to sharing with you my reflections on the last five years, a period of momentous change for our sector.

What does it mean to be ‘Working Towards’ the National Quality Standard?

we-hear-you-blog-karen-curtisAustralian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) Chief Executive Officer Karen Curtis addresses a number of questions on what it means when education and care services are rated Working Towards the National Quality Standard.

Are 30% of education and care services ‘failing’ the National Quality Standard (NQS)? Are they underperforming? Making progress? Or are they working towards meeting the NQS?

Depending on what you read and who you speak to, you may well get a different answer.

Of all the rating levels given to services, it is the ‘Working Towards’ rating that has generated the most discussion and conjecture, partly due to the ambiguous nature of the words themselves.


With the introduction of the National Quality Framework (NQF) on 1 January 2012 came a new, challenging and comprehensive system of assessing and rating the quality of education and care services around Australia.  All long day care services, preschools/kindergartens, family day care and outside school hours care services approved to operate under the NQF would be assessed and rated against the NQS.

The NQS sets a high, national benchmark for education and care services and encompasses seven quality areas that are important to outcomes for children. Services are rated against the quality areas consisting of 18 standards and 58 elements.

we-hear-you-ceo-blog-qa-diagram-line-logos

More details about the NQS quality areas and quality ratings
are available on the ACECQA website.

This system of assessment and rating began in July 2012 and ACECQA publishes quarterly updates about progress and performance against it.

Our latest NQF Snapshot, based on data as at 30 June 2016, highlights a couple of milestones. Of the 15,417 services approved to operate under the NQF, 80% have been assessed and rated, and 70% of those are rated at Meeting NQS or above.

we-hear-you-ceo-blog-working-towards-graph-1

More details and an interactive version of the graph
are available on the ACECQA website.

we-hear-you-ceo-blog-working-towards-graph-2To be rated Meeting NQS, all 58 elements of the NQS must be met. This is a high bar and means that a service may be rated at Working Towards NQS if they are not meeting anywhere between one or all 58 elements of the NQS.

There are over 1,000 services rated Working Towards NQS because they are not meeting three or fewer elements of the NQS. And over 2,000 services receive it due to not meeting seven or fewer elements. At the other end of the spectrum, 300 services receive the rating due to not meeting 24 or more elements of the NQS.

we-hear-you-ceo-blog-working-towards-graph-3

Detailed results are available on the ACECQA website.

By examining the element level performance of services rated at Working Towards NQS, we get a much better idea of what, and how much, work needs to be done, and how close services are to meeting the high standard set by the NQS.

Over the years, ACECQA has published more information about the assessment and rating process. We do this for a number of reasons, including to help families and carers make informed decisions, and to educate and inform the sector about performance against the NQS.

In addition to our NQF Snapshots, we also publish comprehensive service level data on NQS performance. This allows anyone to look at the quality area, standard and element level performance of any service that has been assessed and rated.

As the assessment and rating process is designed to be comprehensive and transparent, the state and territory regulatory authorities provide detailed assessment and rating reports to services, which includes examples of the evidence that led to their rating decisions.

Services will also have a Quality Improvement Plan in place. This plan will identify the work that the service is doing to achieve a rating of Meeting NQS. Alternatively, if the service is already performing at that level, the plan will outline how it will continue to build upon its high performance and look to achieve a rating of Exceeding NQS. For the 29% of services rated at Exceeding NQS, the plan will summarise how that level of quality will be sustained and continually improved.

So, returning to the questions that I posed at the start of this article. In my opinion, a rating of Working Towards NQS is not a failure. Not least of all because the assessment and rating process was not designed to be a pass-fail system. Rather, it is a system that examines a broad range of quality measures and encourages continuous improvement. Working Towards NQS is also very far from being a one size fits all rating, as you can see from the figure above. Because all of the relevant information is readily available, I would encourage anyone to look beyond the overall rating, check which aspects of the NQS a service is finding more challenging, and ask the staff at the service what work they are doing to improve on these.

A notable aspect of the assessment and rating system is the process of reassessments, particularly for encouraging and fostering continuous improvement, and this will be the topic of my next article in November.

Using digital touch technologies to support children’s learning

1519 Rhonda Livingstone, ACECQAACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone, explores education in a digital world.

Digital touch technologies such as tablets and smartphones have become an integral part of our daily lives. As educators we are sometimes concerned about children’s use of technology and the effects it may have. Educators need to be mindful that technology is a tool and the implications for children will depend on how we use it.

Although excessive or inappropriate use of digital touch technologies can have a negative impact, they also offer many opportunities for extending learning and development. When used effectively and appropriately, children’s learning and development can be enhanced by it.

Outcome 4 of the Early Years Learning Framework and the Framework for School Age Care is that children are confident and involved learners, including that they resource their own learning by connecting with people, places, technologies and natural materials. Outcome 5 of the frameworks promotes support for children to become effective communicators. This includes guiding children to express ideas and make meaning using a range of media, and supporting them to use information and communication technologies to access information, investigate ideas and represent their thinking.

When providing opportunities for children to interact with digital touch technologies there are many points to consider, such as time spent using technology, privacy, appropriateness of content and how the use of technology may be incorporated into the educational program. Given this, it is important that educators are not only familiar with the use of technologies, but also critical in how they support children to use them.

Using digital touch technologies in your program is optional, and you need to think about the best way to use these technologies to support each child’s educational program. Although many educators are more familiar with traditional pedagogical practices it is important to remember that introducing touch technologies does not mean replacing our current pedagogy, rather using them as a tool to support our current work with children.

Digital touch technologies can be used with a range of other teaching strategies. For example, if an educator is promoting children’s understanding of sustainable practices, they might sing a relevant song, read a story which links to an area of sustainability, and then use the camera application (app) with children to identify and capture images of sustainable practice or issues in the community. The educator might further engage children’s learning with technology by using the images to create a digital story with the children, using voice recording apps to capture children’s voices and ideas. There are many possibilities which can be explored and many digital touch technology apps to choose from.

Understanding how different apps operate helps educators to choose which ones best support different areas of pedagogy.  In 2012 Dr Kristy Goodwin and Dr Kate Highfield sorted apps into three broad categories based on the actions the user can take, and the amount of cognitive investment required by children to use them. The categories are Instructive, Manipulable and Constructive.

Instructive apps align with rote learning approaches and require a low level of cognitive investment. They operate on a drill and skill principle, requiring children to achieve a specific goal, and they usually offers extrinsic rewards. Many of these apps promote repetition learning of basic skills and knowledge, and there is limited opportunity for creativity. The majority of marketed educational apps are Instructive apps.

Manipulable apps provide guided learning through structure, yet there are possibilities for children to make choices, use problem solving skills and explore their options. They allow children to manipulate and experiment by testing the success of their ideas. Goodwin refers to these as cause and effect type apps.

Constructive apps are designed for creative expression. They are open-ended and allow children to use different literacies, for example music, images, video, audio and drawing tools, to explore their ideas and create their own work. These apps require a high cognitive investment by the child and there is usually no reward other than the finished product.

Educators need to remain critically reflective and consider the value of the apps being used to support learning and development. Although Instructive apps can be helpful to memorise concepts and skills they are comparable to worksheets so educators should balance their use, and consider what apps might better support their current pedagogical practices with children.

There are many resources to support educators’ work using digital touch technologies with children, including:

  • Every Chance to Learn. In these YouTube videos, Dr Kristy Goodwin explains Instructive, Manipulable and Constructive apps and provides real app examples.

Growing and learning with Amata Anangu Preschool

resizeACECQA met Tarsha Howard, Early Childhood Coordinator at Amata Anangu Preschool, in 2013 at the NQF conference in Sydney. Tarsha had some concerns at the time that working in a remote service might be a barrier to raising the quality of children’s education and care. This month we catch up with Tarsha after the preschool was assessed and rated to find out about their journey.

At the time of the NQF conference I was fairly new to teaching and working at Amata Anangu Preschool; a school based preschool on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia. I travelled to Sydney from the remote Anangu Community and learnt so much about the National Quality Standard (NQS), the quality areas and how to lead change and improve outcomes for children.

I realised that while remoteness and isolation certainly present their challenges, it is still possible to provide high quality education and care in our community regardless of our location. I left the conference with a strong resolve to achieve Meeting the NQS during our assessment and rating.

Culture and collaboration

I work with Josephine James, Amata preschool’s Anangu Education Worker, to develop and implement the programs at our preschool. Josephine is from community. Pitjantjatjara is her first language and she has a deep understanding of the culture, past and present. We see each child’s learning in the context of their family, culture and community and use local activities to help them develop a sense of belonging.

Culture is incorporated into everything we do. Different elements of the outdoor play area represent community and the environment of The Lands.

We’ve designed a rock creek that winds from one side of the yard to the other, leading down to a big mud pit and mud kitchen. When it rains in Amata, which isn’t very often, the natural creeks flood and the kids get straight into mud play.

Often the children, families and community members gather to share stories. Josephine leads group time with story wires; a popular cultural activity where children use curved wire to tell their stories in the sand. We also regularly hold family gatherings at the preschool fire-pit, where the treat is kangaroo tail (malu wipu) and damper. Josephine and I use this as a time to share information with families and discuss each child’s learning journey.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is seeing the children transition to school. Once a week, some of the children and I visit Amata Anangu School to develop relationships with teachers and get a feel for school-based learning.

The program is hugely successful. I’ve been in community for almost three years and I’ve had the opportunity to watch the children develop relationships at the school, build their problem solving skills and demonstrate independence. It’s a powerful reflective tool.

Challenges

One challenge we face in our remote setting is the children’s transience and sometimes irregular attendance. It is not unusual for children to miss preschool for months due to cultural and family obligations. This can make documenting the child’s assessments and evaluations hard, but honouring, respecting and valuing the families and home life is very important. This often includes allocating the time to make contact with teachers in other APY Lands communities to share information about children who are visiting a different preschool.

Assessment and rating – Term 3 2014

The morning of our assessment and rating visit I was terrified that we’d have to close the preschool for cultural reasons, or for an emergency like a snake getting into the outside yard. Thankfully there were no interruptions and the experience was a rewarding one.

Towards the end of the visit, Amata Anangu School principal Greg Wirth and I met with the assessor. It was our opportunity to lead the conversation and share our quality improvement journey. The feedback we received was really positive. Our Quality Improvement Plan effectively tracked our short and long term goals and illustrated our quality improvement story.

The following term, we received an overall rating of Exceeding the NQS in every quality area. We baked a big cake that had all the quality areas on it and invited everyone in the community to our outdoor yard for a celebration and BBQ. People from community spoke in language about the NQF. Everyone was incredibly proud of what we achieved and the role Amata Anangu Preschool has played in each child’s present and future health, development and wellbeing. We continue to grow and contribute to strong early education in the Anangu Lands Partnership.

Visit the Amata Anangu Preschool Facebook page, where the story continues.

Food for thought

DBOOSH_32 copyACECQAPhotos_headshot1_edited‘s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone, explores the physical implications of nutritious food and why healthy eating practices are such an important component of the National Quality Framework. 

We are all familiar with the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” and likely remember being told that “carrots help you see in the dark”. But what are the physical implications of the intake of nutritious food and why is their consumption so highly promoted in the National Quality Framework (NQF)?

When receiving nutrients, studies have shown the body prioritises survival first, followed by growth, then brain development. Being well-nourished can have a significant impact on children’s long term health including physical and motor development, brain development, immunity and metabolic programming.

Due to the rapid pace of brain development, nutrition can affect a child’s learning capacity, analytical and social skills, and their ability to adapt to different environments and people. Research also shows that good nutrition protects the body against disease and determines the body’s metabolic programming of glucose, protein, lipids and hormones.

Longitudinal studies have shown that responding early to cases of insufficient nutrition significantly improves long term health and productivity.

The National Quality Standard (NQS) acknowledges the importance of nutrition for children. For example, Standard 2.2 of the National Quality Standard aims to ensure food and drinks provided by services are nutritious and appropriate for each child. To make informed decisions about what is nutritious and appropriate for children, services are encouraged to refer to guidelines and advice from recognised authorities such as the Department of Health and Ageing’s publication, Get up and Grow: Healthy Eating and Physical Activity for Early Childhood and the Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents in Australia.

Services are also encouraged to ensure that food is consistent with advice provided by families about their child’s dietary requirements, likes, dislikes and cultural or other requirements families have regarding their child’s nutrition.

To meet approved learning framework outcomes, services should provide many opportunities for children to experience a range of healthy foods and to learn about food choices from educators and other children (Early Years Learning Framework, page 30; Framework for School Age Care, page 30).

The Education and Care Services National Regulations require that:

  • the food or beverages offered are nutritious and adequate in quantity, and are chosen having regard to the dietary requirements of each child including their growth and development needs and any specific cultural, religious or health requirements (Regulation 79) (this does not apply to food supplied for the child by child’s parents)
  • if the service provides food and drinks (other than water), a weekly menu which accurately describes the food and drinks must be displayed at the service at a place accessible to parents (Regulation 80)
  • the approved provider must ensure policies and procedures are in place in relation to health and safety, including nutrition, food and drinks, and dietary requirements (Regulation 168).

The NQF recognises the professionalism of the education and care sector. Providers and educators are encouraged to use their professional judgement to make informed decisions when developing policies and procedures for their service, children and families.

Collaborative relationships with families play an important role and will help in promoting understanding of healthy eating for children.

Nutrition Australia – Children and the Guide to the National Quality Standard pp. 60- 63 are also useful resources for educators and parents.

ACECQA spoke with a NSW service to see how they promote healthy eating practices, nutritional value and physical play.

Double Bay OSHC in Sydney encourages children to adopt healthy eating practices on a daily basis. Team Leader, Karim Moulay, said by displaying posters and signs around the kitchen and service, staff and children are reminded of the nutritional value of the food they prepare and eat.

“One of our signs in particular reminds us not to add extra salt or sugar to our food,” Karim said. “And we often refer to our nutritional poster board which illustrates the high sugar content in the foods most children want to eat compared to a healthy replacement.”

“Ensuring the safety of children during food-based activities is also a focus for educators.

“We teach children the safe way to pass a knife, the correct chopping boards to use for meat and vegetables, the importance of tying hair back off their face and shoulders, and to wash their hands throughout the food preparation process to stop cross-contamination.”

In addition, all food-based activities contribute to their overarching health and nutrition curriculum, and learning outcomes.

“Even in our cooking classes our children are learning lifelong skills such as teamwork, cooperation, volume and quantities, cleaning, sanitising and cooking,” Karim said.

Montessori and our NQF journey

This week on We Hear You, Christine Harrison, founding President of the Montessori Australia Foundation, tells us about their NQF journey and how they have implemented changes on a national scale.

What began as fairly widespread anxiety around implementation of the NQF and the EYLF eventually provided the Montessori Australia Foundation with a unique opportunity. We have been able to connect with our diverse Montessori community, build a relationship with regulatory authorities and ACECQA and begin a process of understanding and accepting the changes.

So, does Montessori fit well with the Early Years Learning Framework as we were being told? Actually, yes it does – we just need to adjust our lenses slightly, understand the intent of the changes for the benefit of all children in early childhood settings and work with regulatory authorities so that they understand a bit more about the world’s best kept secret (Montessori education).

In 2012 we ran a series of workshops in each capital city to assist Montessori services to comply with the NQS and especially the EYLF. We made these workshops informative, entertaining and empowering. They also enabled us to get to know some services that we had not previously had any contact with. Earlier this year we followed up with similar workshops, again well attended. We focused on the NQS one year on. In each State we invited a regulator representative to present and received nothing but co-operation from everyone involved – some even participating in our assessor visit role plays as either an educator or regulator!  The level of professionalism shown and willingness to share information and understand more about Montessori principles and practices was consistently high across jurisdictions.

Together with the timely statistics from the ACECQA Forum we were able to present up to date information about the NQS and measure these with our own data and feedback. We were particularly pleased to note the work of the Quality and Consistency Committee as participants had some concerns regarding the quality and consistency of the work of assessors in our services. However, participants were generally feeling much more confident after the workshops and regulator Q & A sessions, particularly knowing that there is ongoing professional development and training for assessors.

Our journey continues as services receive their rating and some of the challenges continue but we remain confident that we share these challenges with regulators on a journey to put outcomes for young children first.

“The unknown energy that can help humanity is that which lies hidden in the child” Dr Maria Montessori.

ChritsineHarrisonChristine Harrison has been involved in early childhood education since 1985 and was Principal of the Canberra Montessori School, one of the largest Montessori schools in Australia, for over twenty years. She is the founding President of the Montessori Australia Foundation. She was Chair of the Association of Independent Schools in the ACT and on the Board of the Independent Schools Council of Australia. Christine is involved in government liaison, policy development, compliance, early childhood and school age curriculum development and liaison with ACECQA on behalf of Montessori ECEC centres. She has a background in mediation, conflict resolution, adult education and a particular interest in governance in community organisations.

Qualifications and the NQF

ACECQA’s Board Chair Rachel Hunter recently presented at the TAFE Children’s Services Teachers Conference in Queensland. Ms Hunter spoke about ACECQA’s role and the higher qualification requirements being introduced from 1 January 2014. A summary of her presentation is available to read on the ACECQA blog ‘We Hear You’.

Further information about qualification requirements is available in the Qualifications section of the ACECQA website. If you have questions about the requirements, please contact our enquiries team.

As you know, ACECQA is a relatively new organisation.

We officially began work at the same time as the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care came into effect – the beginning of 2012.

Our overarching responsibility is to oversee the consistent implementation of the NQF, which sounds simple enough, but as I’m sure you would all be well aware, represents an incredibly rich and varied range of functions and accountabilities.

Our main roles include:

  • coordinating the training of authorised officers – these are the people conducting the quality assessment and rating visits in services
  • providing an avenue for review of these ratings – services apply to their regulatory authority in the first instance if they want to query their rating but if they’re still unsatisfied they can apply to ACECQA for a second tier review
  • determining and awarding the Excellent rating for services that meet the criteria for this rating
  • conducting research that will help us to educate and inform the sector and broader community on the importance of providing quality education and care and what that looks like
  • determining approved qualifications for the sector.

There are two sides to this last point – assessing an individual’s qualifications and also evaluating courses offered by RTOs and higher education institutions to ensure they meet the standards set by the NQF.

To give you a little background, the NQF was agreed to by all Australian governments with the aim of providing better educational and developmental outcomes for children in education and care services.

It recognises that so much of a child’s brain development occurs before they reach school, particularly in the first three years.

There is also ample research, domestically and internationally, that suggests the experiences of children during this pivotal period affect their innate lifelong learning potential.

And it is even more than just learning potential – there is also strong evidence suggesting that positive early experiences lead to better health and social outcomes for children as they move into adulthood, as well as long-term economic gains.

The NQF reforms provide a legislative framework to ensure no child across Australia is subjected to poor-quality early childhood education and care.

How do we expect to achieve this?

We know there are two main influences affecting quality in the provision of education and care, and they are educator qualifications and lower staff to child ratios.

The NQF aims to increase the level of qualifications held by lower skilled workers and the number of highly skilled workers – increasing the skill profile of the sector as a whole.

From 1 January 2014, 50% of all educators needed to meet ratio requirements must be working towards, or hold a diploma level education and care qualification or higher, and the other half need to hold or be actively working towards at least an approved Certificate III-level qualification.

In 2016 the NQF introduces another significant plank of the quality reform – improved educator-to-child ratios for centre-based based services.

These two central tenets of the NQF reform have enormous implications for TAFE and other RTOs.

The increase in demand for quality training is two-fold:

  • the sector needs to increase the training levels of educators to meet the new qualification requirements and
  • it needs to increase the number of qualified educators overall to meet the new ratios.

The last reliable count on the size of the early childhood workforce was the 2010 census data collected by the Australian Government, which recorded slightly more than 139,000 workers.

Our sector is currently growing by more than 3% a year and caters for more than 1 million children – that’s excluding preschool/kindergarten children which has also seen huge increases in numbers due to other early childhood reforms.

Even without the NQF the demand for staff was growing.

When you factor in that this census data indicated 25% of all staff across family day care and centre-based services, excluding OSHC, did not hold relevant qualifications, there is clearly a lot of training to be done.

And while some of this demand for VET qualifications may have been met since the 2010 census, it is not going to diminish either.

So what is ACECQA’s role in the qualification space?

As I mentioned earlier, ACECQA has been granted the power to set qualification standards for educators in each state and territory across Australia.

There are three levels of educators ACECQA sets qualification levels for under the NQF – Certificate III and diploma-level educators, and early childhood teachers.

While there is much talk of new requirements for early childhood teachers in some states, there is one constant feature of the improved qualification mix for educators – VET qualifications.

VET qualified staff formed the backbone of the education and care sector prior to the NQF and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

As many of you would be aware, the children’s services training package has undergone a much-needed revision and was released earlier this month for RTOs to start the process of adding it in-scope.

Given our role, ACECQA, along with many other stakeholders, provided considerable input into the development of the new qualifications.

It is not just the name of the new certificate III and diploma qualifications that better reflect the recent reform changes, but they now also include:

  • a greater focus on infants and toddlers
  • a greater focus on the operation of the early years learning framework
  • mandatory practicum or workplace experience.

These are important additions that also reflect the NQF requirements.

I’ve already mentioned that well-trained staff and ratios that allow staff to interact appropriately with children are two important factors that have a significant impact on the development of children and improved outcomes.

The other key influences include:

  • adult-child interaction that is responsive, affectionate and readily available
  • facilities that are safe and accessible to parents
  • supervision that maintains consistency
  • a developmentally appropriate curriculum with educational content.

Almost all of these factors go to training and ratios as well, so it’s difficult to overstate the importance of the role that TAFE and other training providers have to play in the success of the reforms.

It represents a significant amount of work. But I think it’s important to consider there will be benefits for the sector above the improved outcomes for children.

Traditionally, the education and care workforce could be characterised as consisting of two groups of employees – highly skilled and tertiary trained specialists and workers with lower level or no qualifications.

An improved qualification mix for the entire sector will increase the long overdue professional recognition of people working in education and care.

And that will be to everyone’s advantage.

How can our sector attract students and upgrade the skills of existing staff?

ACECQA has a key role in supporting regulatory authorities in educating and informing the sector of the requirements that it needs to meet.

However, it is the Australian and state and territory governments that are responsible for assisting the sector to meet these workforce changes.

The timeframes of the NQF reforms are ambitious, and the first key milestone of improved qualifications requirements is almost upon us.

All Australian governments have introduced numerous strategies to help meet qualification requirements, which vary depending on the unique challenges in each state and territory.

All of these initiatives are captured under the umbrella of the national Early Years Workforce Strategy.

At a national level, the major initiatives related to the VET sector include:

  • the National Partnership on the removal of TAFE tuition fees for diploma and advanced diploma courses, which does not expire until the end of 2014
  • grants for educators to access recognition of prior learning if located in regional and remote locations.

As well as providing incentive to attract more people to the sector we also need to make sure we don’t lose people from the sector.

Low pay is always mentioned as a factor when it comes to attracting enrolments in children’s services courses.

Unfortunately it’s not an area any of us here today has control over.

Although I do think improved qualifications and its effect on professional recognition may be an important first step.

What all of you here today can influence, however, is working to ensure that students who do enrol, complete their course.

According to a study by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), while there is little public data, an unpublished paper on childcare courses in Victoria put completion rates for children’s services courses at 33% for Certificate III courses and 27% for diploma courses.[1]

The NCVER study found a number of reasons why students don’t finish their training, including:

  • meeting the course entry criteria but not actually being suited to the course
  • the work placement component, in that students found it more challenging than expected
  • literacy and numeracy difficulties, and
  • living in a remote location.

Not surprisingly, it recommended RTOs develop mechanisms to ensure appropriate students are selected into courses in the first place.

Not rocket science you’re thinking but how do you do this?

While certainly not fool proof, it suggested:

  • providing really detailed pre-course information and briefing sessions to give students as much information about the course and what it entails as possible before they enrol
  • making sure students have the literacy and numeracy skills to undertake the course or providing bridging options where necessary
  • developing a selection process to ensure students are suited to working in children’s services
  • committing as an organisation to ongoing academic and personal support for every student.

In particular it mentions how important some degree of face to face contact is – an interesting challenge as courses increasingly go on-line; and, crucially:

  • early exposure to the on-the-job component of the course.

Granted, these efforts won’t increase the number of people entering the sector, but they could be an important component in maximising graduate numbers and helping to ensure that people who are more likely to finish the training don’t miss out on places that have been given to students unsuited and ultimately unlikely to graduate or remain in the sector.

In terms of retraining people already working in the sector we have to make sure we offer flexible pathways.

The cost and time needed to access training is obviously one of the biggest impediments for people already working in the sector.

Finding creative ways to address the needs of mature students is essential and there is already a lot of work being done by institutions around this.

Online courses and the Recognition of Prior Learning process all have a role to play, as do strategies that help mature students feel confident about returning to study after a long break, such as support with technology skills and literacy levels.

Establishing pathways where VET qualified educators are able to advance their career by undertaking higher education is another important string to the retraining bow.

Career development opportunities not only increase the qualifications of staff but also improve staff retention – an important aim as these educators have already shown a commitment and suitability for working in the sector.

These are just some of the main challenges we are facing around workforce capacity. There are more and no doubt our sector will continue to grapple with these for some time.

We are all eagerly awaiting the Australian Government’s 2013 Early Childhood Education and Care Workforce Review and its recommendations, due to be published later this year.

A requirement under the National Partnership that established the NQF back in 2009, its purpose is to measure the preparedness of the sector to meet qualification changes from 1 January 2014.

It will have more up-to-date census information and include data from focus groups, capturing progress in this area since 2010 that will inform future strategies.

There is one other area that I think is important to consider in this discussion and that is the issue of quality of delivery.

The introduction of qualification requirements will only improve outcomes for children if training is high quality.

Given our role as approvers of educator qualifications, ACECQA does hear about issues relating to the consistency and quality of outcomes from RTOs.

Quality goes not only to course content but also to delivery.

While some degree of variation is expected between RTOs in the delivery of the same qualification, with each RTO developing its own curriculum and course content, what ACECQA is hearing is that at times the variation in standards is significant.

Typically concerns are around the length of the course – too short – and the amount of practical experience provided.

Increasing demand for qualifications will encourage new training providers into the sector and we need to ensure they are providing quality training.

The outcomes for children depend on the quality of our educators, and it is imperative RTOs strike a balance that allows flexibility and innovation in delivery that is not at the expense of their integrity.

TAFE has an excellent reputation and nobody wants to see VET qualifications undervalued due to the actions of some RTOs.

And in an environment where RTOs are increasingly competing for public funding, it’s also really important that public expenditure is providing the community with value for money and delivering a suitably skilled education and care workforce.

To that end, ACECQA would like to facilitate communication between early childhood providers and educators around their experiences with RTOs and to ensure they know to refer any concerns to the appropriate authority for investigation, such as the Australian Skills Quality Authority.

There is work to be done around this and ACECQA would be happy to hear any ideas on how best this might be achieved.

Part of my role with ACECQA, certainly in our first two years, is meeting with people around the country, talking about the NQF and hearing about their experiences.

The thing that I am constantly struck by is the enormous amount of support for the reforms to children’s education and care.

There is widespread recognition of the value and need to make sure children are given the best start possible.

While there may be questions around how a particular aspect of the framework is going to be achieved, it is within the context of available resources and timeframes. Not about whether the outcome is worthwhile.

As the providers of training to the sector, your role in contributing to the success of the NQF is substantial.

TAFE has a long and proud history of providing quality training that meets both sector and student needs.

ACECQA sees the provision of a suitably skilled workforce as integral to improving outcomes for children and has been working continuously to resolve issues around qualifications for the past 18 months, and will continue to do so.

We are always interested to hear of your experience and I really appreciate being asked to speak at your conference today.

Thank you.

——-

Rachel Hunter

Rachel Hunter is the chair of the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority 12 member Board. Rachel has an acute interest in the role education and the arts play in individual, community and economic development.

Rachel was Chair of TAFE Queensland, and as such was the lead executive and spokesperson for the TAFE system.

Rachel is currently the chair of Legal Aid Queensland, Deputy Chair of the Queensland Performing Arts Trust Board, a member of the Griffith University Council, and a member of the UQ College Board. Rachel was formerly the chair of QCOMP until 30 June 2012.

Rachel retired from the position of Director-General of the Department of Justice (including private and public sector industrial relations and workplace health and safety) in July 2010.

Rachel’s previous roles as CEO included Director-General of the Department of Education, Training and the Arts, and Director-General of the Department of Justice and Attorney-General. She also served as Queensland’s Public Service Commissioner.

More information about the ACECQA Board and its members is available here: http://www.acecqa.gov.au/the-acecqa-board


[1] 2013 NCVER – Engagement of students in Children’s Services qualifications – final report pg 10