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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Thinking about applying for the Excellent rating?

We regularly hear of exceptional practice occurring in education and care services however when speaking with educators and providers, many are unsure of what it takes to be rated Excellent by ACECQA. In this We Hear You post, ACECQA provides advice on applying for the rating and we hear tips from the Director of an Excellent rated service, Megan Dodds of KU Corrimal East Preschool.

Services rated Exceeding National Quality Standard (NQS) overall are eligible to apply to ACECQA for the highest quality rating – the Excellent rating.

Many of these services are delivering exceptional practice but are hesitant to apply for the Excellent rating, thinking the application process involves a lot of work. While this might be a common first impression, the process needn’t be as time-consuming and complex as you may think. The truly hard work lies in the delivery of exceptional practice.

Choosing to apply for the Excellent rating may involve some internal discussions and as Megan from KU Corrimal East Preschool describes, getting started is a time for reflection.

Once a service has decided to apply, they will need to submit an application which addresses the following criteria:

  1. The service exemplifies and promotes exceptional education and care that improves outcomes for children and families.
  2. The service demonstrates leadership that contributes to the development of a community, a local area, or the wider education and care sector.
  3. The service demonstrates commitment to sustained excellent practice through continuous improvement and comprehensive forward planning.

This is a different process to that carried out by the regulatory authority during assessment and rating as Megan shares.

The application does not need to be lengthy; you can succinctly describe exemplary examples of leadership, environments and/or practices and the resultant quality outcomes for children and families.

For KU Corrimal East Preschool, choosing the themes to respond to was one of the most challenging parts of the application process.

There is no one set formula; each application will be different and assessed in relation to the context of the service and community. The focus is not the amount of information provided or the format you choose to present it in, but rather on the way the application clearly identifies and outlines genuine examples of:

  • leadership, practice and/or environments that address the criteria and themes, and
  • quality outcomes for children, families and communities.

Excellence is contextual; it is about improving outcomes for children, families and communities while connecting with community through strong leadership and a commitment to engaging with continuous improvement on a deep level.

When preparing your application, Megan suggests that you collaborate and network to get other people’s perspectives on the work that you do as this may identify ideas for your application that you had not considered.

ACECQA staff will seek additional information from the relevant regulatory authority and will conduct a teleconference to discuss the application. A visit may also be arranged to verify, clarify or add to the information provided in the application. ACECQA staff are also available to answer questions and guide applicants through the process.

ACECQA has awarded the Excellent rating to a range of services across Australia. Long day care, family day care, outside school hours care, kindergartens and preschools in both city and regional areas and across the range of socio-economic areas have been recognised.

For more information about the application process, take a look at the application criteria and guidelines and the presentation identifying tips on addressing the selection criteria.

Inspiring Excellent practice

Educators often ask how they can implement practice from Excellent rated services. Megan Alston, the manager of ACECQA’s Educational Leadership & Excellence team, explains that excellence is driven by context and describes how services can learn from highly accomplished programs, partnerships and practices.

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One of the purposes of the Excellent rating is for our sector to learn from and be inspired by examples of highly accomplished practice, innovation and creativity in education and care. It’s one of the reasons why ACECQA shares examples of practice from Excellent rated services.

Sometimes it’s obvious why practice we’ve shared is excellent, because the example is so new, fresh, interesting and creative. At other times we describe highly accomplished practice, but the example might not sound so remarkable. This can be because a practice that achieves outstanding outcomes at one service may be out of place at another. Excellence is driven by context.

You might be wondering, if excellence is context dependent, then how does ACECQA identify highly accomplished practice? How can excellence be achieved or explained? Is it more than a matter of simply copying a project that another service has done?

While there is a lot to learn from hearing about programs, partnerships and practices of Excellent rated services, there is even more to learn from the process used to identify, implement, evaluate and adapt these programs and practices. When you consider the process, it becomes clearer that highly accomplished practice can be delivered in any setting and will more often than not reflect the setting it is in.

This process tends to involve:

  1. Developing a deep understanding of the service’s children and families, and the community in which they live
  2. Implementing programs, practices and partnerships that support the circumstances, strengths, needs, and interests of the children and families that attend the service
  3. Reviewing, adjusting and extending programs, practices and partnerships
  4. Knowing things are working because the programs, partnerships and programs improve outcomes for the children and families attending the service.

These four areas are explored below including examples from services rated Excellent by ACECQA.

Understanding

In highly accomplished services, there is a demonstrated deep understanding of the circumstances, strengths, capabilities and interests of the children and families who attend the service.  This deep understanding can be developed in a number of ways:

  • Discussions with children and families, including conversations, surveys, forms and information nights
  • Working collaboratively with professionals such as health experts who bring a different perspective and understanding of the children and families attending the service
  • Undertaking, reading or participating in research that reveals information about the children and families attending the service.

Educators and other staff who use some or all of these techniques build a complex understanding of the children and families. They are then in a position to implement targeted programs, practices and partnerships that improve education outcomes.

Baxter Kindergarten and Children’s Centre uses socio economic and census data to learn about families in its area. The service examined the available information and, understanding that many families in the area work during weekends, introduced an extended hours program to meet the needs of the community.

At exceptional services, educators and staff also know and understand the environment and community in which they operate. They identify organisations and build community partnerships to support and enrich the experiences of children and families.

Gowrie Victoria Docklands implemented an extensive “community connections excursion program” to build and maintain children’s connections with the service’s local community after learning that only 31% of families who attend the service live locally.

Implementing

In highly accomplished services, educators and other staff engage in deep critical reflection. They implement, review and adapt programs, practices and partnerships and can define and describe the improvements that flow to children and families. By working in partnership with families, children and the community they can research and seek out options, work with and learn from other professionals and access training to help them accomplish their goals.

Knowing that many of the families using the service are mining families, Bundaberg Family Day Care developed a resources pack called FIFO-DIDO-BIBO (Fly In Fly Out – Drive In Drive Out – Bus In Bus Out) containing strategies for families to support their children while a parent is away from home. Further to this, after figures revealed high rates of obesity in Bundaberg the service developed a free school holiday program to promote healthy lifestyles and physical activity within the community.

Taking advantage of its local surroundings and through investigating strategies to energise children’s play, Pelican Waters implemented a ‘Bush and Beach Kindy’ program to develop children’s understanding of the local land and extend their nature-based play.

Bribie Island Community Kindergarten involved families with the design and construction of the outdoor area of the service; ideas were suggested which educators have researched further and re-designed to fit the space. Families also made or donated resources including a thongaphone, learning circle, pipe track and bush telephone.

Reviewing

In highly accomplished services, educators critically reflect on their programs, practices and partnerships and adapt and extend these where needed to achieve better outcomes.

After identifying a need for hearing impaired children, Albury Preschool secured a grant to install a Soundfield Amplification System to assist children with hearing impairments to learn. The service then partnered with Charles Sturt University to undertake its own research project to measure how the amplification system positively benefits all children.

Addressing high levels of disadvantage in the local community, Swallowcliffe operates multiple integrated programs to improve education outcomes. Educators and staff phone families weekly to follow up on non-attendance or share good news stories about their child’s achievements.

University of Western Australia Early Learning Centre (UWA ELC) participated in a research project on sign language for babies. Noticing improvements for children from increased bonding with families and educators, the service extended this by introducing video clips with more words and some families took classes to implement signing at home.

Improving

Educators and staff at highly accomplished services identify targets and know when they have improved outcomes for children and families. They can clearly define and share these.

Globe Wilkins established relationships with Wunanbiri Preschool and the Multi Mix Mob to strengthen the embedding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives at the service. This resulted in more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families enrolling with the service.

When ACECQA assesses applications for the Excellent rating we look for innovation and creativity, but also for practice that is highly accomplished. We look at how:

  • educators and staff at the service understand the children and families and the environment in which they live
  • the service’s practices, projects and partnerships are tailored to take into account and build on the unique circumstances and strengths of the children and families
  • the educators and staff at the service partner with children, families and community agencies to create exceptional outcomes.

The process used by highly accomplished services – to identify, implement, evaluate and adapt programs and practices – can be implemented in any service type, whether it is big or small or based in a city, suburb or regional area.

Remember, exceptional practice is one aspect of the Excellent rating criteria. Excellent rated services also demonstrate leadership that develops a local area, community or the sector and demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement and comprehensive forward planning.

See the ACECQA website for more information about the Excellent rating.

Assessment and rating for family day care service providers

The assessment and rating process can be a nervous time for educators and providers.

To coincide with National Family Day Care Week earlier this month, we chatted to Eugenia Gabbiani, a family day care educator at the City of Casey in Victoria, about her experience being assessed and rated and her advice for other educators.

Tell us a little about your service

The City of Casey Family Day Care commenced in 1995 following amalgamations of family day care services in surrounding local government areas that created the largest family day care service in Australia!

Our service remains the largest, currently operating at an average level of 800 equivalent full time places with around 235 educators offering care in their homes to over 2500 children with help from 18 very supportive members of our coordination unit.

How did you prepare for your assessment and rating visit?

The City of Casey has been preparing educators since the commencement of assessment and rating by providing training, advice and information to ensure we are aware of the expectations.

Before the visit, I talked to children in my care about the people coming to see us that day and also spent some time making sure all my documentation was up to date and easily accessible for assessors.

Did you have any concerns or were you nervous about your assessment and rating?

On the day of the visit, I did get nervous. I think it is natural for anybody being assessed on their work performance to be a little nervous. Though once the assessors arrived and the process started, my nerves eased quickly as we were able to show them our service.

Overall I was confident, as we offer high quality education and care every day regardless of being visited.

Do you have any advice for family day care service providers that are due to be assessed and rated?

All educators, not just family day care, have a responsibility to provide the best quality of care every day. When preparing for an assessment, my advice would be to have all your documentation up to date, easily accessible and ensure children’s files are readily available as the assessor will ask to see this documentation.

Make sure that you know what you do – this means know your emergency procedures. Take time to familiarise yourself with regulations as the assessor could ask you questions about this.

Have your activities ready to reflect your program and what your children have chosen for the day. Have your observations available.

We are a multicultural society; include diversity in your activities. I know that children in our service enjoy learning rhymes in other languages. If you have children from other cultures, learn basic words in that language and greet children and families with “good morning” in their mother tongue. Document this so that assessors know you are doing this.

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An Australia Day activity at Eugenia’s family day care service.

Importantly, be proud of the fantastic job you do as an educator. Display your certificates, diplomas, awards and commendations. Not just for the assessor, but for everyone who comes into your service.

Display your children’s artwork as they too are very proud of their work. Have photos of children doing some of the activities planned by you and the spontaneous ones initiated by them. You can also have a ‘community board’ where you can place pictures of the places you frequent with the children.

These recommendations are not just for the assessment and rating process but for your practice. My main advice for family day care educators, and all educators, is to ensure your service is a high quality one all the time, not just when you are being assessed and rated.

Treat assessment and rating as an opportunity to show off your practice to the assessor, let them see that you are prepared and proud of the education that you provide.

You might also like to read our Embracing the assessment and rating process interview from last year with Vashti Hicks, an Authorised Officer with the Queensland Department of Education and Training.

Our Assessment and Rating Journey

This Justeene-McKnight-picweek on We Hear You, Justeene McKnight, Nominated Supervisor Education and Care Services at Campbelltown City Council, tells us about Amarina Early Learning Centre’s recent assessment and rating journey. 

Before the assessment and rating visit

On receipt of our letter requesting the submission of the Quality Improvement Plan (QIP), we were nervous. However, as we thought about the process and the standards, we realised we didn’t need to be.

The more knowledge and information we gained about the process, the more we realised that we were already achieving many of the elements in each of the seven quality areas and we would just need to demonstrate this to the assessor.

We had been working hard to ensure many of our practices were embedded in our daily program and we needed to reflect this in our QIP. We held regular discussions during team meetings by making the assessment and rating process a static agenda item.

We used journals to assist us to reflect on how we believed we met each National Quality Standard within our service as a team. We discussed information such as what would an assessor be able to see, feel and hear within our service. Areas that we felt needed improvement were then included within the Quality Improvement Plan.

Families also had regular opportunities to share ideas and feedback through our monthly surveys and discussions at our flexible parent meeting. Each child regularly had the opportunity, both individually and in group discussions, to express their opinions, ideas and views about the service, how it made them feel and about the relationships that they had developed at the centre.

The children’s ideas and opinions were then included in the QIP as part of our strengths and areas for improvements. We also placed the plan in the foyer so families could track our ongoing improvement and provide feedback on any areas they would like us to focus on.

The visit

As soon as the assessor arrived, she made all the educators feel at ease. It was obvious through our conversations with the assessor that she knew our service philosophy and had spent some time researching to fully understand our beliefs and practices.

This allowed us to feel that the assessor, and the assessment process, was focused on ensuring our service had the opportunity to be unique and respond to our individual children, family and community needs. The assessor spent time discussing our current community needs and what strategies we utilise to support not only the children within our service, but the families and the surrounding community also.

She looked at our environment indoors and outdoors and asked questions as to why certain things were the way they were. For example, we discussed how we had created a kitchen in the 0-3 year room out of a recycled TV unit, as part of our sustainability management plan.

This opportunity to discuss our environment allowed the assessor to understand our practices, as well as the vision and philosophy of the service and organisation. She spent time interacting with the children and held several discussions with staff.

During the visit, we felt that we had the opportunity to showcase our service and point out what we feel we do well, what we would like to spend time working on and how we implemented our philosophy for the best interest of all stakeholders.

At the end of the visit, we had adequate time with the assessor to go through the report and a further opportunity to show or demonstrate any other information or evidence to support our assessment visit.

Post visit

When we received the draft report, we found it very useful to reflect on the assessment and rating process, as well as our practices within the service. The assessor provided feedback that we were able to incorporate into our QIP to ensure that we can continue to improve our practices and our service delivery.

Regular consultation with children has now become embedded into the practice at Amarina Early Learning Centre. This provides them the opportunity to have their voices heard and integrate their ideas and opinions into the philosophy and every day practices at the service.

The report also validated that the service’s philosophy was evident within our everyday practice and that what we had hoped to be evident to the assessor had been observed.

The Excellent rating application

Once our final assessment and rating report was received confirming our rating of Exceeding, we began gathering evidence to apply for the Excellent rating. It provided an unbelievable opportunity to reflect on our position within the community, as well as our practices within the service.

The application process was thorough and required us to gather examples of how we demonstrated excellence in three separate criteria, and that we had a clear vision for what we wanted to achieve within the service, the community and within the education and care services sector in the future.

As a team, we spent our time ensuring the application was the best it could be and included supportive attachments. The day that we were notified of our Excellent rating was rewarding – not only for the organisation and the staff members, but also for the families and the community. It validated that their contributions to our service were valued and noticed not only by the service and the organisation, but also by ACECQA.

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Embracing natural spaces and communicating with families

This week on We Hear You, Natalie Cowley from KU Lance Children’s Centre at Millers Point in inner city Sydney tells us about how her service has made plans for continuous quality improvement after its assessment. Natalie has been working at KU Lance for a year and a half and has been teaching in early childhood for almost eight years.

At Lance we have achieved a beautiful, calm and natural environment, using only natural materials and no plastic materials in any of the spaces. Our reasoning behind this is we believe children deserve to have beautiful things to engage with and to develop a respect for the world around them.

When I first started at Lance with Donna, the centre was very different. This was not the focus, as Donna and I had previously worked together at another centre where we incorporated the ELYF and used natural materials. Knowing what kind of positive effect this has on children and their development, we focused our time and energy on changing the focus of Lance.

Within a year, we had changed the environment to be more nature focused, plastic free and over all a beautiful place to be. Interactions with children and the quality of care & education greatly improved and become the focus. Many of the staff did struggle with this change, most being able to learn from it and finding a new philosophy. Our practices improved with these changes, which allowed for strength in particular NQF quality areas (1, 2, 3 and 5).

Our assessment visit was early to mid last year and we received a rating of exceeding standards overall. There were a few areas that we were recommended to further improve in as we received a meeting standard in two areas as opposed to an exceeding. From this we further developed our natural spaces, both indoor and outdoor. Focusing on children and family involvement in the program and room set up, ie asking for suggestions or parents to help bring things in or get involved in classroom experiences such as cooking etc.

An area we needed to spend more time on was parent and community involvement. A lot of the families in the centre are quite busy and work long hours and often do not have time to come and contribute to the program, be involved in centre happenings or have time to read the program, journals and documentation. I thought of ways in which I could improve this and get more parent and community involvement. Donna (our director) suggested that we email families the daily diary. We began doing this a couple of months after the assessment and the response was overwhelming. Families loved receiving the daily diary while at work and would respond via email or mention at pick up how great it was to get an insight into their day while they were at work. From this great response, I came up with the idea to start a centre blog. Updating every 2nd day with learning stories, photos and centre happenings. This has also had a great response, with the parents looking at it often and commenting on posts with ideas/suggestions or positive feedback. The quality of our family interactions improved greatly from these changes, being able to communicate through social media has allowed for a lot more family involvement and from families that may not of shown much interest (due to time restraints) previously.

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Natalie Cowley

I have been working for KU Lance for a year and a half now and have been teaching all up for almost 8 years. Our director Donna has been at Lance for over two years and teaching for over 20 years. Since our quality assessment, we feel our service has come far in providing an exceeding standard of care for all the children and families attending our service.

Images of KU Lance Children’s Centre’s natural spaces:

KU Lance outdoor space

KU Lance indoor space KU Children's Centre

Lead assessors

In this blog post, we hear from lead assessors Allison Young of Department of Education, Tasmania and Marilyn Visnjic from the Education and Early Childhood Services Registration and Standards Board, South Australia.
Allison and Marilyn recently attended an ACECQA training and workshop for lead assessors. We asked them to share their experience.

What is the role of a lead assessor?
Allison: The lead assessors train authorised officers but most people working as lead assessors also give day to day support to authorised officers with knowledge, current practice and research.

Marilyn: It was interesting to hear how this role is administered in the different jurisdictions, depending on each organisation’s structure. Some have a stand alone role, while others incorporate it as part of a bigger role. Even with the differences however, the role and focus of the lead assessors is very similar across jurisdictions. It includes:

  • supporting, guiding and mentoring authorised officers, both new and existing
  • responsibility for training of authorised officers as well as identifying training needs and training opportunities for all authorised officers
  • monitoring consistency, validity and reliability both at a state and national level
  • identifying potential drifting of reliability and/or consistency
  • moderating reports
  • conducting assessment and rating visits as well as accompanying other authorised officers on visits (co-visits).

What were the highlights of the recent workshop you attended at ACECQA?
Marilyn:  With all jurisdictions represented, it meant that we all had the opportunity to hear each other’s experiences and stories 12 months down the track. This allowed a cross section of experiences and practices to be shared and provided opportunity to identify and highlight what worked well and what needed more thought and discussion. It also allowed us to identify and highlight practices that may assist and support us in our own jurisdictions.

Allison: We looked at the content of the training, discussed what kind of information could be available nationally for authorised officers. We created material for fact sheets that ACECQA and jurisdictions will develop together.

What were the benefits from attending a national workshop?

Allison: It was great to share the successes, stories and surprises of the NQF over the last 12 months, and it was great to hear that everybody was experiencing similar things.

Marilyn: Very valuable. It was great to be exposed to the different backgrounds, roles and experiences we all brought with us and to be able to support each other as a community of learners. I came back enthused and looking forward to sharing information with authorised officers.
Professionally, I am excited about the ideas put forward for ongoing work and building the lead assessor community.