LIKE! SHARE! COMMENT! How we’re turning children’s learning into a social feed and why it needs to stop.

The things that are easiest to see aren’t usually the things that matter most for kids. An alphabet sign on the wall doesn’t mean kids are really engaging with reading and learning. A daily email with a photograph of your daughter is nice to have, but it doesn’t tell you much about whether the teachers are talking to her in a supportive way or sparking her curiosity about science.

– Suzanne Bouffard, The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of Our Children

I’m slowly making my way through Suzanne Bouffard’s excellent new book on how early education is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in the United States, and the passage above really stood out. It’s early on in the book, and Bouffard is discussing how quality early learning environments can be challenging to explain to families. They have pre-existing ideas of what children’s spaces should be, and are naturally more inclined to just accept things that celebrate their individual child like lovely photos.

Continue reading “LIKE! SHARE! COMMENT! How we’re turning children’s learning into a social feed and why it needs to stop.”

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Deleting education

Losing an advocacy battle is hard. When the Jobs for Families (JFF) legislation was passed in February this year, I was devastated. Despite spending over a year arguing my hardest that this package would fundamentally undermine children’s right to access early education, the package passed. From July 2018, the children in our country most at risk of vulnerability and with the most to gain from high-quality early learning will be locked out.

I realised this week that there might be something even harder – losing a battle we didn’t even know we were fighting.

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Are we too interested in children’s interests?

One of the fundamental features of play-based approaches to learning and development in the first five years is a focus on children and their interests. Formal, rote or instructional learning in this space has limited, if any, benefits to children, while approaches that promote engaging children in fun and interesting play can have an amazing impact.

The Early Years Learning Framework strongly acknowledges this approach, particularly through the Principles and Practices that support educators to think holistically and individually about each child, their family and their community. Since the introduction of the National Quality Framework I have seen a big shift in the sector towards focusing on “children’s interests”. When I speak to Team Leaders in particular about their approaches to educational programs and practices, I often hear variations of “I extend on children’s interests”.

This is worth exploring. On the surface, this seems obvious and clear. We’ve been told for a long time to explore children’s interests – surely we should promote the things that engage children? But as with all of our teaching strategies, we have to be prepared to engage in critical reflection about what they mean and how they affect children.

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The importance of relationships

The way we think about early childhood education has changed a lot in a relatively short space of time. It’s amazing to remember that across Australia, guaranteed access to preschool education in the year before school is a very recent initiative. The Universal Access commitment from all Australian Governments (Federal, State and Territory) was only agreed in 2009. For a long time, education was something that only happened once children started formal primary education.

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The loss of the PSCs will make for a less inclusive sector

From July, the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector will face some significant changes to the way support to improve quality approaches is provided. The Federal Government will cease funding Professional Support Coordinators (PSCs) in each State and Territory, while Inclusion Support Providers (ISPs) will continue with an expanded funding framework.

Additional funding to support inclusion issues is of course very welcome. The current Inclusion Support system has been underfunded for many years, particularly in the funding able to be provided to services to be able to raise the educator:child ratio to support inclusive practice. But what will this additional funding achieve, and is it worth the loss of the PSCs?

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Why do we struggle with critical reflection?

The National Quality Framework (NQF) reforms acknowledge that good outcomes for children can only be supported by qualified and professional educators, who regularly reflect on their own – and their colleagues’ – practice. As with any profession, research and knowledge is always changing and being updated. It’s important that educators, no matter what their qualifications or experience, always remember to give themselves time and space to discuss and analyse their own work.

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How we work as educators should always be evolving

The early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector is set for a number of big changes over the next few years, and one that will have a significant and direct impact on educators will be the end of the Professional Support Coordinators (PSCs) in each State and Territory.

The PSCs, until July this year, provide and source appropriate and quality-assured professional development for the ECEC sector at a subsidised rate, thanks to funding from the Federal Government. From July, individual educators and services will have to choose from a diverse range of individuals and organisations providing professional development.

One of the main benefits of the PSCs are that you can be assured of a level of quality and relevance to the National Quality Framework (NQF) in the sessions they offer. PSCs in each state and territory are managed by organisations who had to tender to demonstrate their knowledge of children’s services. It will become much harder for the sector to be assured that the professional learning they’re paying for will be worth the cost.

For individual educators, this means it is a critical time to think about your own professional development needs. For many educators, going to training only happens when their manager sends them somewhere, or organises someone to come to a Staff Meeting or Professional Learning Night. With the changes that are coming, it’s important that educators also take individual responsibility for their own careers and the professional learning and growth that is required.

“Ongoing learning and reflective practice” is one of the Principles of the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), which states that educators should be always seeking to “build their professional knowledge”. The Educators’ Guide to the EYLF also prioritises the importance of planning for your own learning – not just relying on your colleagues or organisation to do so.

One of the overall goals of the NQF is to improve the professional identity of educators – both in the wider community but also within the sector itself. Part of this means valuing the work we do as a continually-evolving profession that requires us to always be seeking to learn. We learn more about how young children learn every day, so how we work as educators should always be evolving.

At the end of the day, the quality of learning received by children can only be as good as the educator or teacher providing that learning. We have a responsibility to always be seeking our professional learning opportunities, particularly on topics or areas we may struggle with. This includes seeking out opportunities in our own time.

It’s important to remember that there is a wide range of online, quality-assured resources available that can help out. I can particularly recommend Child Australia’s Wraparound Program and Online Learning Centre, National Quality Standard Professional Learning Program and KidsMatter as excellent starting points.

Take the time to think about how you are planning for your own professional growth – and what you might need to achieve it. This supports not only yourself, but also the children and families you work with.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 edition of e-child TIMES, published by Child Australia.

Asking the right questions

Questions are vital in our work with children. The Early Years Framework (EYLF) and the Framework for School Age Care (FSAC) encourage us to view children’s learning holistically – not as a block of knowledge to be “transmitted” to each child, but as a complex creation of relationships, interests and meaning.

Questioning is a valuable strategy to encourage children’s curiosity and search for understanding. Providing the correct answer to a child is the well-trodden road to knowledge. Responding to children’s questions with questions or curiosity of our own takes us off the main road to the wild lands of imagination and discovery. These are the paths that take us to where none have walked before.

We value questions – but how often do we question our own roles, and our identity as professionals? If we do – are we asking the right questions?

Here’s a question we often hear: Why did you start working in children’s services?

This is a great icebreaker, and we love to tell those stories. I’m fond of mine. I was in the first year of a Media Production degree, and needed a part-time job to fund the meagre lifestyle of a university student.

That’s my answer to that question – but now I know that it’s the wrong question. Our first step doesn’t tell us much about the journey that lies ahead. Other answers I’ve heard include “I always thought children were just cute”, or “it was just an easy job to get”.

The question we need to start asking ourselves is: Why are you still working in children’s services?

This is the question that unlocks our identity as professionals. Working in children’s services is challenging and complex. We know that turnover is a significant issue, as is burnout. People leave our work regularly – but crucially people stay. The reason why we are still here can tell us a lot about our professional identity.

The status of early childhood education has raised significantly in the last decade. Providing children with individual, play-based learning experiences before they start school is now seen as critical to reducing inequality and ensuring that every child has the opportunity to succeed in life.

Australia has acknowledged this with the introduction of the National Quality Agenda. For the first time the entire country came under the same system of regulation and quality support. In particular, the introduction of the EYLF and the FSAC provided a national curriculum framework to support the learning of every child attending a children’s service.

This makes the role of an educator more important than ever before. We know that quality children’s services can dramatically improve children’s chances in life – particularly for children experiencing disadvantage.

All children can benefit from the work we do, but as professionals we must be particularly mindful of how our work can affect individual children. For a number of children that we work with every day, the children’s service they attend may be the most stable, safe and consistent environment available to them. For children of families experiencing poverty, violence, mental health issues, the time they spend with us is critical – not just for their education, but for their overall wellbeing.

The work we do is complex, demanding and incredibly busy. But it is essential that we all regularly take a step back to remind ourselves not why we started, but why we’re still here. We have a powerful role to play in the future lives of children, whether it is fully recognised by society or not.

Ask some of your colleagues why they still do the work they do – the answers might surprise and inspire you.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of InSights, published by Communities@Work’s Centre of Professional Learning and Education.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

It’s hard to believe that Christmas has almost rolled around once again. All around the country early childhood services will be madly scrambling to finish portfolios and be dusting off the boxes of Christmas decorations that were unceremoniously shoved in the back of the shed in mid-January.

It’s also the time of the year when I start to question how we approach celebrations in Australian ECEC services, and get called “Grinch” a lot.

So, I’ll have to start this post off the same way I start off conversations I have with people in person.

I don’t hate Christmas. Actually, I like it! I loved it as a child, and we celebrate it at home with our two children.

I don’t think Christmas should be banned from centres. Outright bans on anything we do should always be critically questioned.

Suitably prepared, here comes the “but…”

(This is normally when the people I’m talking to tense up and clutch their tinsel and reindeer antlers protectively.)

Here are my problems with how I have seen Christmas (and a number of other celebrations) explored in children’s services.

  1. It’s by default. December 1st (or thereabouts) rolls around on the calendar, and we start doing “Christmas things”. The Early Years Learning Framework challenges us to be intentional and meaningful in our teaching. Transforming your service into Santa’s Grotto just because of a date is neither intentional nor necessarily meaningful.

    That is not to say that you cannot find intentional teaching opportunities in the themes, rituals and community connections of Christmas – but if we are truly honest with ourselves, is that why we are doing it? Or are we doing it because we’ve always done it, and everyone else is doing it?

  2. It’s limiting. Yes, Christmas is the dominant cultural celebration in our country. Ignoring it is not reflective of the lives of the children in our service. But it is not the only important event happening for children in December. By prioritising Christmas, what are we missing? As the EYLF asks, who is advantaged and disadvantaged when we work in certain ways?

    Christmas is everywhere – children will experience it regardless of what we do. But will every child learn about Ramadan, or Eid, or other significant events for other children around the world if we ignore it? What might that mean to the children and families in your community who do celebrate those events?

  3. It’s overwhelming. Christmas takes over everything. Decorations are out and activities usually start at the beginning of December and don’t stop until the end of the year. No other event on the calendar gets that focus. Imagine if NAIDOC Week was a month-long event for centres, with weeks of preparation leading up to it? What if centres took International Day of the Girl Child as seriously?

    Many will disagree with me, but I think both of those two examples are richer, more meaningful provocations for learning with children. (I’ll quickly note that there will undoubtedly be centres who are doing those things, but it is certainly not the norm.)Again, what are we missing out on by turning over our entire program to one event – that is celebrated in every other part of the community?

I know that even these three points will provoke fierce debate. I’m fully prepared to wear the Grinch label once again. But to say again – I am not calling for “bans on Christmas”. But I absolutely will say that for services that strive for high quality programs, ask questions about your celebrations.

What are children learning, and what are they not learning? Who is advantaged, who is disadvantaged? What could we do differently this year?

This article was originally posted on Early Childhood Australia’s blog The Spoke.

Premium early learning costs families a lot, but it may ultimately cost the sector even more

fees

It’s time to tackle a topic that has been an undercurrent of this blog for quite some time. Warning to regular readers – this entry will either absolutely infuriate you, or ring true.

The last week or so has seen a number of articles, primarily in Fairfax papers, on the rise of “premium” childcare.

Julia Davison, CEO of not-for-profit group Goodstart Early Learning, said:

…for-profit centres, faced with rising costs, were choosing to set up where they could charge more for ”premium” care.

‘There is much more incentive for for-profit operators to set up in those localities where you can charge a high fee and where you’re going to get a high occupancy than there is for them to set up in middle or lower economic suburbs,” she said.

This has been a steadily growing niche of the market for quite some time. They are in the business of offering “boutique” care for children of high-income families in well-heeled suburbs.

Extra services can include massage for infants, dance classes, yoga – all inclusive in a large fee.

It’s important at this point to be clear that these services are working exactly as the early childhood system in Australia allows them to. Deregulation of the sector throughout the 90s and early 2000s were designed to create exactly this kind of private model – the market has spoken.

The issue of “premium” centres, or indeed the very notion of for-profit early learning for children, is not an legal one, or an economic or financial one.

But is an ethical one.

For me, it comes down to a single question. Does every child in Australia have the right to quality, well-resourced early learning environments, or only those whose parents can afford it?

This is a question that the Australian early childhood sector will have to reflect on, and fast.

I’ve put my cards on the table a number of times, in a number of forums, but I’m happy to state my opinion clearly again now.

Profiting from early learning for Australia’s children is ethically and morally dubious.

There are undoubtedly excellent, passionate and highly-trained educators, managers and professionals working in for-profit spaces. Some of them may be reading this post, and be highly offended.

I regret that result, but I cannot swerve from the overriding position. Quality education is a human right for children, and profiting from that human right skews perspectives.

It is the reason there is a highly organised lobby organisation, the Australian Childcare Alliance, advocating for winding back of quality reforms. They eat into profit margins.

As soon as profit is a motive, it tends to become the dominant motive.

However, as I have already stated, this is the system that we work in. For a number of reasons, community not-for-profits cannot currently provide total coverage of Australia for early learning access.

That is a fact, and it also a fact that private operators meet that need for access.

(It is important at this point to say that there is no reason that these facts must be eternal. At a political level, advocacy must be directed towards appropriate funding of community not-for-profit models to meet that demand. A gargantuan task, but not impossible.)

But the new niche of premium childcare, is in altogether another league. The idea that you can access high-quality, almost “luxury” early learning for your child if you happen to live in a wealthy suburb and earn enough money should ring warning bells.

It strikes right at the heart of what early childhood education should be about – the human rights of the child.

Beyond the ultimate exclusion of children who will simply be unable to attend these services, it entrenches and actively accelerates social inequity and injustice already evident in Australia.

The Early Years Learning Framework has respect for diversity as a foundational principle. The premium model inherently excludes that. Only those from a certain “class” (let’s call this what it is) and wage bracket can attend.

Children only socialising with children who are the most fortunate, and the most well-off. Families doing the same with those families.

But possibly the most concerning of all – educators who only have to work with children from a certain background. My mind spins as I think about how that would affect someone.

Not having to navigate a wide range of diversity. Not having to form respectful and committed relationships to families experiencing hardship and disadvantage. Not putting in the weeks, months and years of effort to support children experiencing vulnerabilities.

That has the potential to skew how you view children and families at a basic level. The repercussions to early childhood practice are far-reaching.

There will be those that say I have put myself and my own practice on an ethical pedestal. It’s extremely easy to cast stones.

I accept the fact that the system is not perfect. I work for a not-for-profit organisation, but despite that there are still those who will not be able to access our services.

I acknowledge that, and commit myself to advocacy to change this inequitable system.

But to be part of an organisation that clearly and unambiguously states “these are the kind of children we want to work with” is mind-boggling to me.

The sector operates within limited funding parameters. Desperately needed funds to support all children are being invested in premium providers.

Premium early learning costs families a lot, but it may ultimately cost the sector even more.