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.

Natalie Cowley
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.

 

Family day care assessment visit

Nicole Vinken is the Acting Family Day Care Co-ordinator with the City of Greater Geelong. She has 20 years of experience in the early childhood sector in long day care and has been working in family day care since January 2012.

Nicole has worked with the City of Greater Geelong for more than 17 years as a qualified educator and as a centre director for 13 years before her more recent role in family day care. Nicole is recently married, in November, and has two teenage step-children.

The City of Greater Geelong Family Day Care Scheme currently has 50 educators and has been operating since the 1970s. It went through the rating and assessment process in July 2012 and in this blog Nicole shares the scheme’s experience of the process.

Initial contact
When we received our letter from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) in April 2012 notifying us of the commencement of the assessment and rating process and requesting our Quality Improvement Plan (QIP) by 28 May, I must admit I nearly fell off my chair.

“How can we be first??!!!”

Once the initial shock wore off I was able to review the documentation provided to us. This included information about the rating process from ACECQA, what will happen on the days of the visits, the role of the authorised officers, a breakdown of the rating levels and details of the assessment and rating report.
I think I sat on this information for about four hours before sharing it with my team!

Once we provided our QIP and centre philosophy to DEECD in May, we received a letter to confirm receipt and were notified of the assessment and rating visit dates in July – six weeks after DEECD received our QIP and 12 weeks after the original letter requesting the QIP.

This letter outlined the breakdown of the days, e.g. when the authorised officers would meet with the Co-ordination unit, the number of eductors they would visit (five) and the days they would be visited, and a list of resources to support the service through the rating and assessment process. Again, they provided plenty of supporting documents to prepare for the visits.

DEECD made phone calls to the Co-ordination unit to support us through the process and to check if we needed any guidance.

Assessment and rating visit days
For our Family Day Care Scheme, we had a three-day visit, with five of our educators chosen to be assessed.

Day 1 and 2
AM – Co-ordination unit visit – About 2-2.5 hrs – we had an in-depth visit with the DEECD to discuss the roles of the co-ordinator, support officers and the administration team. We were questioned about the support/home visits, processes and procedures, service management, relationships with educators and parents, philosophy, governance, supporting vulnerable families/child protection processes etc. The authorised officers also spoke to the educational leader about her role and how she supports the educators.

I was then given a list of documents that DEECD would like to see on the third day when they returned to the office– enrolment forms, educator rosters, policies and procedures, excursions, professional development, evidence of recording police checks and working with children checks, newsletters etc.

We were then notified of the five Educators that had been chosen to undertake site visits. One educator was on leave so another educator was chosen. We had the opportunity to call the educators at that time and inform them how lucky they were to be chosen and when the visits would be occurring. Luckily, everyone seemed to handle the news well.

PM – Two educators were visited in the afternoon of the first day and three on the second day. As we were one of the first services to undergo the rating and assessment process, there were two authorised officers conducting site visits, and it was requested that a representative from the Co-ordination unit was also present to support educators. Although this made things quite busy in the homes, we were able to respectfully situate ourselves to ensure minimal interruptions to the children and the program.

Day 3
AM: DEECD spent about 3.5 hrs at the Co-ordination unit looking at documentation and then had a closing meeting with myself to discuss the three days and if there was anything else I would like to contribute. No feedback was provided by DEECD at this meeting on what our rating might be, which we understand is best practice, but it was still frustrating as we really wanted to know how we went.

Overall, the authorised officers were very professional and supportive from the initial contact made, throughout the three days undertaking the rating visit and the after support to clarify and discuss any details.

Educators all reported feeling comfortable and happy with the process. At no time were the authorised officers judgemental or invasive in their practices or questions. Questions were clear and concise and relevant to form an assessment.

Rating
We received a draft copy of our assessment and rating via email in early August, about three weeks after our visit. A meeting was co-ordinated with one of the authorised officers to discuss the report about three days later. At this meeting I was able to query any of the comments and ratings presented. We then had about three weeks to submit a response to any ratings to the regional DEECD office.

We completed a response email on behalf of the Co-ordination unit, and these items were taken into account, which we felt was a positive outcome. It showed how DEECD respected our feedback.

A final report was then submitted, and the rating confirmed. About two weeks later (early September) we received our rating certificate.

Support to Educators
Throughout the rating and assessment process, we maintained regular contact and support with educators. We did this in the following way:

  • Continued contact with our educators to keep them updated throughout the whole process.
  • Support home visits as key opportunities to support educators to ensure they had the required documents etc.
  • Mentor groups to support with any questions and assistance with program planning and the assessment process.
  • Regular email, newsletter and SMS contact.
  • Professional development.

Where to from here?

  • QIP working group formed between the Co-ordination unit and volunteer educators. We have formulated an Educator QIP. Educators will personally identify areas they would like to work on in their program, based on the National Quality Standards. This process is supported by the support officers, reviewed throughout the year, and updated every 12 months.
  • Professional development and Mentor groups – a strong focus on program planning, sustainable practices (and how this is embedded into the program) and child development.
  • Policy developments – continue with regular reviews and seeking feedback from educators and families.
  • Review service QIP every three months with the Family Day Care team and provide to educators for feedback.

Overall, we found the new rating and assessment process to be a positive one. We are committed to supporting our educators in providing a high quality education and care program and this process helped us identify where our strengths are and areas where we can build on. We don’t look at these areas as ‘weaknesses’, but opportunities to grow and improve.

 

What the new ratings mean for you

From this year we’ll see a lot of information about children’s education and care services across Australia as governments focus more attention on our important sector. One of the biggest changes we’ll see will be the introduction of a new rating system for services, which raises the bar on what quality looks like for our children and families.

While most services had high ratings under the old system, the benchmarks have now been lifted to match what research tells us is the very best care for children. This means that, at least initially, most services are likely to be rated in the middle bands. The new quality standards, while harder to achieve, will give us a clearer roadmap to improve than before.

We are all part of this new journey to improve children’s education and care. Through the new system parents and educators will build a shared understanding of what quality education and care looks like and how it will continue to develop over time.

The implementation of the new National Quality Standard is the responsibility of state and territory regulatory authorities and the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority. ACECQA is helping to explain the new ratings to services and families so we are all on the same page at the beginning of this important journey.

It’s important that we work together under this new system to give our children the best possible start in life.

If you have ideas to share about how you communicate with families, post them here or on our Facebook page.