Why improving qualifications is so important

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The National Quality Framework (NQF) sets out minimum qualification requirements for educators working in children’s education and care services. One of ACECQA’s key roles is to determine approved qualifications for educators and to assess applications for equivalence from individual educators. Following the recent publication of our online qualifications checker, this post looks at why improving qualifications across the sector is such an important element of the National Quality Framework.

Educator qualifications and educator-to-child ratios are key dimensions of quality in early childhood education and care.

Evidence on drivers of quality in early education and care shows that higher qualified educators have a greater understanding of child development, health and safety issues and lead activities that inspire and engage children, which improves learning and development outcomes.

According to the OECD (2012) Starting Strong III: Early Childhood Education and Care, positive social interactions between a child and educator, and a safe and engaging environment are crucial to learning outcomes. Educators with higher qualifications and standards of training are better able to engage children, and use strategies to extend and support learning, which will provide improved learning environments and sensitive care.

Professor of Early Childhood Education at the Australian Catholic University and Director of Early Learning and Research at Goodstart Early Learning Professor Deborah Harcourt supports additional research that demonstrates a correlation between staff qualifications and children’s pre-reading progress and social development.[1]

“All the evidence tells us that children who attend high quality learning programs, characterised by qualified and engaged educators, achieve better outcomes in terms of their cognitive, social and behavioural learning and development by the time they transition to primary school,” she said.

Implementation of the new early childhood educator qualification requirements, which came into effect through the National Quality Framework (NQF), was a major milestone in quality reform and while challenging for some services, has established a new benchmark for quality.

Children now have access to more highly qualified educators in early childhood education and care services and more children will have access to early childhood teachers.

As a minimum, all educators who count towards ratio requirements in long day care centres and pre-schools must have, or be studying towards, an approved certificate III qualification. In addition, at least fifty per cent of educators in these services must have, or be studying towards an approved early childhood diploma or degree qualification.

ACECQA National Education Leader Rhonda Livingstone said the importance of qualifications and further professional development for educators was recognized during the development of the National Quality Standard.

“Drawing on my experience as an educator and director of early childhood services, I know that not one day in the life of an early childhood service is the same and I recognise it’s necessary to have a strong body of knowledge to inform curriculum decision making and our work with children and families,” she said.

“While having qualifications is not the only contributor to the effective delivery of programs, it provides educators with a strong foundation from which to make curriculum decisions and support children and families.”

Other key factors also influence quality education and care, including the ability of the educator to structure an environment that promotes engagement for children; understanding of curriculum; and knowledge of how children learn and develop.[2] This is an important reminder for providers to consider the knowledge, skills, attributes and commitment to quality improvement as well as qualifications when employing educators.

Early Childhood Australia CEO Samantha Page said while there were some educators resistant to the new qualification requirements, those who have pursued formal recognition of their skills and knowledge, such as through recognition of prior learning, felt more confident now that they held a qualification that acknowledged their experience as educators.

“We can’t rely on luck on whether an educator is skilled or not and you can’t base it on the length of time someone has been teaching. Someone may have 30 years experience but may not be doing a good job, compared to someone with five years experience,” she said.

“Children are going into care earlier and earlier and for longer periods – we can’t afford to do nothing.

“The qualification requirements improve the quality of service delivered to children and provide a professional identity for educators.”

Improving the effectiveness of early childhood education and care will take time and for some services may be challenging. It requires a range of initiatives including increasing the number of qualified educators and continuing professional development opportunities, but in time the sector can achieve better outcomes for children by improving overall quality.

Resources

  • Visit the ACECQA website and try the new online qualifications checker to see if you hold a recognised qualification under the NQF.
  • Watch these videos to hear from experienced educators who have gained their first formal qualification in early childhood education.
  • Read more about qualification requirements on ACECQA’s website.

[1] National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care.

[2] Australian Council for Educational Research, Early Childhood Education, Pathways to quality and equity for all children, Australian Education Review, Volume 50, 2006.

This article was originally published in Australian Childcare Alliance’s magazine Belonging Volume 3 Number 2 2014.

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