This is the text of my keynote address at the Little People, Big Dreams Conference organised by Child Australia. It was delivered at the Darwin Convention Centre on Saturday 13 October 2018.
I don’t do as much writing on this website as I used to, as I spend a lot of time talking about early education on The Early Education Show, and writing about it on The Framework. I wanted to add a quick post here though about a new project that I’ve really enjoyed putting together, and is out in the wild from today.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.