Viewing excellence as a process, not a result

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

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

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

Relationship building

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

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

Inclusive practices that enhance relationship building include:

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

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

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

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

Innovation and expectations

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

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

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

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

Reflective practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.