We improve what we measure

In her first We Hear You blog as the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) Chief Executive Officer, Gabrielle Sinclair shares her thoughts about the National Quality Framework and a recent visit to the Northern Territory.

One of ACECQA’s functions is working with regulatory authorities to educate and inform services and the community about the National Quality Framework (NQF).

Since 2012, educators, services, schools and governments have undertaken a significant journey in implementing the new laws, regulations and the National Quality Standard.  While it took time to get across the detail of the new national system, over 88% of services have now been assessed and rated, with 73% rated Meeting National Quality Standard or above. Over the next five years, our challenge is to continue the quality improvement journey and support parents and carers as well-informed consumers of education and care services for their children.

In my new role as ACECQA CEO, I am learning a great deal from you about the diversity of communities across Australia; the unique circumstances in which services operate; the rich experiences of families; and the way we all respond within a national framework.

Recently, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to meet with the Northern Territory Minister for Education and speak at the 2017 Leaders’ Conference in Darwin. I was impressed by the determination to raise quality in the NT and the unique way leaders in both sectors were enriching children’s experiences and improving learning outcomes.   The continuous quality improvement journeys shared by Principals Leah, Joe and Graham, highlighted the critical fact that good leadership is all about results.  To achieve better results, they spoke of giving a voice to the expertise and knowledge of early childhood educators, teachers and local families.  They reflected on the immense value of listening to and understanding the perspectives of children.

During my visit to local services, I met with very insightful educational leaders who were deeply connected with their local communities.  At Nightcliff, there is a strong partnership between the early learning centre and the school with the aim to give young children a seamless experience from long day care to preschool and on to school and outside school hours care. The results are tangible. The physical and sector barriers are being removed; the early learning centre and the school are sharing quality resources; families are welcomed; and the focus is very much on building confident, enthusiastic young learners.

In both education sectors and in every jurisdiction, we are listening to inspiring educational leaders who share their stories.  Although each experience is unique, a common reflection is that improved, sustained results are unlikely to happen without a commitment at the highest level; a deep understanding of the NQF and the roles we all have; a determination to improve beyond a single point in time; respect for the early childhood profession; and genuine partnerships with families and the community.

We have learnt so much since 2012.  It is worth sharing our own NQF journeys with others – across services, sectors and borders – and with our families.  It is a truism that everything that gets measured gets better and, as Joe reflected, do our children deserve anything less?

The NQF at five

we-hear-you-blog-karen-curtisACECQA Chief Executive Officer Karen Curtis farewells the children’s education and care sector, sharing her thoughts on the National Quality Framework’s successes and challenges. 

The end of this year marks the fifth anniversary of the National Quality Framework (NQF) and I have had the honour and pleasure of being ACECQA’s Chief Executive Officer since the beginning.

Although the NQF had a long and sometimes complicated gestation, its birth on 1 January 2012 was real cause for celebration, with the years since delivering both successes and challenges.

Everyone will have their own perspectives on the NQF: what’s worked well, what hasn’t worked so well; its strengths and weaknesses. I would like to share with you what I have seen and reflected on over the past five years.

Successes

The NQF has set our sector on common ground, allowing us to have truly national conversations about our work. It makes it easier to discuss and communicate about Australian education and care.

We should rightly feel proud about the achievement of taking nine different pieces of legislation and bringing them under one national law. The support of all jurisdictions has been remarkable and how well this implementation has gone, generally, should not be underestimated.

The quality assessment and rating process, newly introduced from July 2012, is now well established and quality is improving. Key strengths of the process include the way it mixes self-reflection with external assessment; the way the standards are descriptive without being prescriptive; the detail included as part of the assessment and rating report; the information made publicly available; the responsive and risk-based approach used by state and territory regulatory authorities to scheduling and undertaking quality assessments; and of course, the emphasis on continuous quality improvement and the absence of an overly simplistic pass-fail threshold. The NQF focusses on ensuring continuous quality improvement and the results of services going through reassessment are incredibly encouraging. These results and the presence of a Quality Improvement Plan in each service mean that families can trust they are entering a sector committed to continual improvement.

The NQA ITS has developed into an exceptional business tool for services and regulatory authorities, reducing processing and application times. ACECQA regularly hears from providers about how highly they value the system and ongoing improvements and enhancements will help further embed usage across our sector.

Some critics of the proposal to implement the NQF claimed it would stifle diversity and innovation, and enforce a one size fits all approach. The reality is that national regulatory reform is more than capable of accommodating and nurturing diversity and innovation. In my work I’ve come across the pedagogical led initiatives of the Montessori and Steiner sectors, new markets in education and care management support services across the commercial and not-for-profit sectors, as well as growth in employer sponsored education and care.

Services and providers feel supported by the framework and the level of investment in workforce development continues to grow, particularly among larger providers, in a way that could not have been possible without the NQF.

To build on these successes, we should also not take for granted the distance that we have come and must continue to promote and champion the importance of education and care. This will help to banish forever the archaic notions of ‘childminding’ and that ‘proper’ learning starts at school.

Core objectives

The NQF is still developing and needs ongoing commitment and cooperation between our nine governments at the policy and operational level. We should not lose sight of the core objectives of the NQF that:

  • children attending education and care services are safe, healthy and content
  • their educational and developmental outcomes are improved
  • families and carers are informed about the services they are using
  • services and providers are supported to go about their business without unnecessary red tape.

These objectives should be the reference point for our ongoing activities and actions – if we are not furthering the NQF’s objectives through aspects of our work, we must refocus and reprioritise.

Challenges

One of the challenges I have observed is the pace at which proposed reforms and improvements can sometimes take place.

We have learnt a lot over the past five years, moving between the critical stages of theory and practice. Sometimes what looked sensible in theory has proven impractical, clunky or unnecessary in practice. Equally, things that were not contemplated prior to the introduction of the NQF have surfaced as operational issues.

Stability and predictability are positives in any regulatory model; however the complexity of NQF governance has meant improvements that the sector and general public may expect should take months have, on occasion, taken much longer. This has the potential to be doubly disadvantageous as it can erode confidence in the efficiency and effectiveness of the national system and those that administer it. Also, the time elapsed between reviewing, consulting on and implementing proposed changes can mean that things have naturally progressed and evolved, making implementing the changes a lesser improvement.

Another challenge on the topic of speed relates to the system of quality assessment and rating. More than four years into the national assessment system, there are over 2000 services still to be rated, with more than 700 of these having been approved to operate for five years. On top of our existing challenge to accurately and effectively communicate about the value and meaning of quality assessment and rating, I am increasingly concerned that our next challenge will be defending the currency and meaning of that system if approved services have to wait four, five or even six years to receive an assessment or reassessment.

One more concerning challenge is the qualifications of educators. To help ensure the success of the NQF, we need to be able to rely on the quality of registered training organisations (RTOs) in the vocational education and training (VET) sector. If poor quality or fraudulent RTOs persist or flourish, potentially at the expense of high quality RTOs, we will face a significant challenge to the quality of NQF approved services.

I see similarities between some of the issues in the VET sector and the issues in the family day care sector. In both, there has been a proliferation of new providers, incentivised by government subsidies, with sometimes a sole focus on financial gain. Their behaviour is detrimental to the well-established, high quality providers who suffer from a loss of public trust.

While the issues in the VET and family day care sectors are not caused by the NQF, they are an issue and challenge for the NQF. Understanding that distinction and reality will help us all move forward together. The improved alignment between our sector and vocational and higher education will help, as we now have a number channels to engage with training and higher education providers at the operational and policy level.

Tackling these issues requires collaboration and a range of actions and responses. I would encourage the initial focus to be on guaranteeing a minimum level of quality and eliminating the fraudulent and very poor quality providers. I urge anyone with experience of poor quality or fraudulent RTO practice to provide ‘on the ground’ intelligence to the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) to enable them to effectively carry out their risk based regulatory activities.

2020 vision

By 2020 I think the key question will be: Is the NQF achieving what it intended?

We should not undersell the challenge involved in answering this question. In the short to medium term, we may only be able to answer particular aspects of it. ACECQA’s work to develop an evaluation framework for the NQF will hopefully establish a shared purpose among governments and researchers, against which a diverse range of research projects can be undertaken.

To sustain and build on the NQF, we must better understand how attendance at education and care services affects the outcomes of students in their early years of schooling, as well as the longer term effects on life outcomes. I would also like to see a continued focus on how early childhood education and care programs benefit different groups of children and families, particularly Indigenous children, children from disadvantaged backgrounds and the children of families who have recently arrived in Australia.

The focus over the past five years has been on implementing national reform. The sector, to its great credit, has risen to the inherent challenges of such large scale reform and significant quality improvements have emerged as a result. However, the value placed on children’s education and care in the wider community is lagging behind. We have an opportunity to advocate for the importance of quality education and care in the early years and build families and carers’ understanding of the NQF, in particular the National Quality Standard. In doing so, we can help shape the legacy of the NQF and better outcomes for Australian children.

Although I will no longer be part of the education and care sector, I will continue to take great interest in the progress of the NQF. We’ve come so far over the past five years and with the level of commitment I have witnessed across the country, I have every confidence that significant progress will continue to be made. And I know that ACECQA will stay true to its vision that children in Australia have the best possible start in life.

Read the other ACECQA CEO blogs:

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

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

Demystifying sustainability


ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone provides insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest.

You are not alone if you find yourself challenged when thinking about ‘embedding’ sustainability into your service, or how to engage young children in learning about environmental responsibility. In their recent research, Dr Sue Elliot and Professor Nadine McCrae from the University of New England identify gaps and challenges for educators when it comes to sustainability and environmental learning.

The research points to an ‘urgent need to demystify sustainability’ because ‘educators frequently require programming assistance to translate sustainability concepts into authentic practice’. It also suggests a key challenge for educators is in moving educational programs beyond sensory and scientific concepts and simply being outdoors, to authentic investigations and projects around real issues.

The importance of sustainability is reflected in all of the seven Quality Areas (for example, Quality Area 2 and maintaining hygienic practices with a sustainable focus) and is specifically identified under Quality Area 3 of the National Quality Standard (NQS):

Standard 3.3: The service takes an active role in caring for its environment and contributes to a sustainable future.

Element 3.3.1: Sustainable practices are embedded in service operations.

Element 3.3.2: Children are supported to become environmentally responsible and show respect for the environment.

Standard 3.3 is one that services find challenging. Nationally, Element 3.3.1 and Element 3.3.2 have consistently featured in the top 10 elements not met.

While this is the case, we do know that educators and service providers have been developing their collective skills, knowledge and experience in relation to:

  • how physical spaces and resources support learning
  • sustainability and what it means to embed sustainability across service operations
  • what education in sustainability looks like in practice, particularly for young children, babies and under three year olds
  • building confidence in educators about articulating and connecting sustainable practice and environmental learning.To help demystify sustainability, the Guide to the National Quality Standard outlines and unpacks Standard 3.3 to support quality outcomes for children, families and communities (including our global community). It is through our understanding and intentionality that:
  • educators and children work together to learn about and promote the sustainable use of resources and to develop and implement sustainable practices
  • children develop positive attitudes and values by engaging in learning experiences, joining in discussions that explore solutions to the issues that we face, and watching adults around them model sustainable practices (Climbing the little green steps, 2007)
  • school age care environments and resources can emphasise accountability for a sustainable future and promote children’s understanding of their responsibility to care for the environment, day to day and for long-term sustainability (Framework for School Age Care, p.15).

Sometimes hearing about examples of what this looks like in practice can also help demystify challenges and clarify expectations. KU Ourimbah Preschool & Children’s Centre (NSW) and their story about winning the 2016 UN Association of Australia Victorian Division World Environment Day Environmental Education Award immediately came to mind. Here the service’s Nominated Supervisor, Rosanne Pugh, shares some key messages about their journey to winning this prestigious award.

Further reading and resources
Sustainability in children’s education and care
Taking an active role in the environment and promoting a sustainable future 
IPA World – Children’s right to play and the environment
Australian Association for Environmental Education – Early Childhood
Special Interest Group (AAEE EC SIG)
ECA – ‘It will be a wasteland if we don’t recycle’

Settling into a new year

ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone provides insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest.

The beginning of the year is a great time to strengthen partnerships with families, sharing
information about children’s current knowledge, interests, abilities and preferences. As children and their families begin their time at your service, or return after a break, it is vital to build their sense of belonging as part of this partnership and settling process.

The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) and Framework for School Age Care (FSAC) emphasise that ‘partnerships are based on the foundations of understanding each other’s expectations and attitudes, and building on the strength of each other’s knowledge’ (EYLF p 12 and FSAC p 10). Working in partnership with families and sharing information:

  • supports a shared vision for children’s learning and development
  • enables educators to plan effectively for children’s next steps and
  • empowers families to participate in decision-making in relevant and meaningful ways.

The key focus of Quality Area 6: Collaborative partnerships with families and communities is to engage families in the decisions that shape the program for their child and to share information about their child’s engagement and learning. Encouraging a family’s sense of belonging and inclusion at your service strengthens their understanding of the service philosophy in addition to how and why service policies and procedures operate. This is also a time to clarify everyone’s expectations by valuing each party’s expertise and building trusting relationships.

Collaborative partnerships between families and educators are created through initial contact that is respectful and shows genuine interest in developing shared outcomes for children. Settling into a new service is aided by responsive educators who create a sense of belonging by supporting children to develop friendships and by an environment that is engaging and reflective of each child’s culture and identity.

For babies and toddlers, this may be their first experience in an education and care service, so it is important to understand and recognise families’ perspectives. Initially, the focus is likely to be on routines, building confidence that their child is receiving individualised care and their learning and development is being supported. For preschool children, it may mean a change of rooms or new expectations in an older group, or a completely new education and care environment, so it is important to reflect on how families and children are supported through the orientation process.

For school age children this could mean transitioning to after school hours care in addition to settling in at school. It is a time to reflect on supporting children’s wellbeing while still respecting their growing autonomy and agency. This could be a time for older children to support new children to settle into the service. This is a time to draw on children’s expertise and involve them in service decisions and planning.

Think about what might work best for and your families to support that vital partnership. Also, reflect on how you can capture the valuable information that families have on their children. Is it using conversations, emails, forms, interviews or some other way or a combination of
these? It may even change depending on the needs of each child and family.

Other reading and resources

Collaborative partnerships with families
Engaging families in the early childhood development story
Recognising and supporting babies’ and toddlers belonging, being and becoming
My Time, Our Place
Educators Guide to the Framework for School Age Care

Proactively promoting inclusion

ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone provides insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest.

Inclusion involves taking into account all children’s social, cultural and linguistic diversity (including learning styles, abilities, disabilities, gender, family circumstances and geographic location) in curriculum decision-making processes. The intent is to ensure that all children’s experiences are recognised and valued. The intent is also to ensure that all children have equitable access to resources and participation, and opportunities to demonstrate their learning and to value difference. (Early Years Learning Framework p24 and My Time Our Place Framework for School Age Care p22). 

Equity, inclusion and diversity are reflected in the guiding principles that underpin the National Quality Framework (NQF), and feature throughout the National Quality Standard (NQS). The NQF promotes a strengths-based approach, seeing children as capable, competent contributors to their world. This is an important shift from the deficit view of children as needy or empty vessels for adults to fill. The focus is on identifying and building on children’s strengths, abilities, knowledge, culture and skills.

When reflecting on practice and planning for children with a disability or additional needs, consider the following questions on how program, practice and operations are inclusion ready and educators are proactively supporting inclusion.

  • How do you ensure children with a range of individual characteristics and their families feel welcomed and comfortable at your service?
  • How do you respond to the individual strengths, interests and needs of the children in your service?
  • How do you assess the program to ensure barriers are reduced for children and families and that you facilitate their full participation in the program?
  • How do you develop and maintain collaborative partnerships with other organisations to support all children?
  • What information is gathered about individual children and how is this evaluated to support inclusion? How is this information shared among parents, staff who are responsible for the child and with other agencies who are supporting the child and their family?

Inclusion specialists from Noah’s Ark’s Early Childhood Intervention Support Programs offered suggestions about what you might see in a service that would indicate inclusion is promoted and supported. Suggestions included:

  • Educators are committed and reflective about practice, consider a range of perspectives, hold high expectations for all children and are genuinely interested in all children.
  • Educators use positive language and a range of communication techniques as part of the program.
  • Children with additional needs are supported to participate in all aspects of the program.
  • There are creative, adaptable, flexible, innovative approaches to the use of resources and spaces.
  • Interactions are child led, provide opportunities for success and promote all children’s agency.
  • Cultural competence is embedded.
  • Educators understand the important role of relationships with families and other professionals and have regular access to professional development, support and resources.
  • Commitment to continuous improvement, innovative practice and the confidence to be inclusive and push boundaries.

 

Further reading and resources

Inclusion Improvement Plan Guide
Including children with a disability
Noah’s Ark Early Childhood Intervention Support Programs
Curriculum decision making for inclusive practice
Inclusive education for students with disability
The Inclusion Breakthrough
What is Inclusion? 

Physical Environment


ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone provides insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest.

“In order to act as an educator for the child, the environment has to be flexible: it must undergo frequent modification by the children and the teachers in order to remain up-to-date and responsive to their needs to be protagonists in constructing their knowledge.” Lella Gandini (1998)

We have long known about the importance of the environment in supporting children’s learning and development and construction of knowledge. Recognising this, educators from the Reggio Emilia program in Italy refer to the environment as the ‘the third teacher’.

The Early Years Learning Framework and Framework for School Age Care remind us of the importance of drawing on pedagogical practices to create physical and social learning environments that are welcoming, enriching, responsive to children’s interests and that have a positive impact on children’s learning.

As children approach learning by using their senses, the physical environment has enormous potential to influence a child’s learning and experiences.

Well-designed indoor and outdoor physical environments can capitalise on children’s amazing sense of curiosity, awe and determination while engaging with people and their surroundings promote children’s potential learning in built and natural environments. Play spaces should be interesting, engaging and allow children to extend their thinking, problem-solving skills and learning. Providing children with opportunities to learn how to assess and take appropriate risks is also essential for healthy childhood development. Tim Gill, a playground consultant from the UK who regularly visits Australia offers helpful insights on his website (Rethinking Childhood) about risk-benefit analysis and the importance of supporting children to take appropriate risks.

Educators should also consider how children are supported to engage in their environment, with other children, and how the environment is resourced and organised. Intentionality in how the space is organised and how children are supported in their play can impact on the quality of experiences and relationships developed.

Quality Area 3 of the National Quality Standard identifies that a service’s physical environment should be safe, suitable, appropriately resourced and well maintained. Also it needs to be designed and organised in a way that supports the participation of all children and the effective implementation of the learning program.

It is important to be aware of the National Quality Standard and related regulatory standards. It is also important to source information about relevant safety standards from reputable organisations such as Kidsafe and Standards Australia.

Once you understand the requirements, it is important to consider how the environment will contribute to the effective implementation of the learning program and how it can promote:

  • participation by every child
  • the flow between indoor and outdoor spaces
  • smooth transitions between activities and spaces
  • competence, independent exploration and learning through play
  • engagement with the natural environment
  • positive relationships between children
  • children’s understanding, respect, care and appreciation for the natural
    environment
  • environmental sustainability and assist children to become environmentally responsible
  • flexibility – allowing re-organisation to maintain interest and challenge
  • a welcoming and comfortable ambience.

Involving all stakeholders, including management, educators, families and children, in decisions about the design, organisation and use of the environment is likely to build shared commitment and provide opportunities for a variety of ideas to be considered and included.

Chapter 4, Part 4.3 of the Education and Care Service National Regulations sets out the underpinning regulatory standards for the physical environment.

The Early Years Learning Framework (page 9) and the Framework for School Age Care (page 6)  recognise the learning environment as a key practice and identify environments that are designed to foster children’s learning and development, as a key contributor to curriculum or program.

Margie Carter, Making Your Environment “The Third Teacher” in Exchange July/August 2007

Supporting indoor and outdoor play

ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone provides insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest.

Play based experiences are a vital vehicle for children’s learning and development. Research shows the inherent relationship between sensory learning and children’s enhanced cognitive, social and physical development. This is because children gain understanding about the world by seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, moving and hearing the things they are learning about.

The National Quality Framework encourages educators to consider how the physical environment, and the way that indoor and outdoor spaces are designed, will support children’s learning. Quality Area 3 of the National Quality Standard identifies that a service’s physical environment should be safe, suitable, appropriately resourced and well maintained. It also needs to be organised to support the participation of all children and implementation of the learning program. Recognition of the learning potential of environments is noted in the learning outcomes of the Early Years Learning Framework, which encourages educators to ‘create learning environments that encourage children to explore, solve problems, create and construct’ (p.15).

It is important that we don’t underestimate the value of the learning promoted by being outside. Outdoor environments offer challenges and countless opportunities for healthy active play, while also learning to assess and take appropriate risks. Educators can enhance the choice and quality of learning experiences by supporting flexible use and interaction
between indoor and outdoor spaces. Children can learn about and respect the interdependence between people and nature by using their senses to explore natural environments.

Supporting indoor and outdoor play

When designing and planning the learning environment, consideration needs to be given to children’s individual interests, skills and capabilities. The design of the play environment helps to promote independence, decision making, interaction, relationship building and testing theories.

Engaging in sustained shared conversations by respectfully engaging with children allows educators to extend and support children’s thinking and learning. The image below from the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework shows the balance between guided play and learning, adult led learning and child-directed play and learning.