Early childhood education and Indigenous Australia: what is our responsibility?

You may have missed it in the general political chaos of the last couple of weeks, but a new Government report has revealed some truly alarming statistics regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

According to the Report on Government Services, 14 991 Indigenous children are currently in out-of-home care. This represents almost 35 per cent of children in the out-of-home care system, despite the fact that Indigenous children only represent around 4 per cent of the total number of Australian children.

Over-representation of Indigenous children in both the out-of-home care system and the juvenile detention system (where, according to ARACY, Indigenous children are also 10 times more likely to be represented) appears to now be embedded in Australian society. As SNAICC points out, these statistics have increased by 65 per cent since Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations, which was meant to mark a turning point in reconciliation within our country.

The annual Closing the Gap Report released this week has confirmed that work towards a number of targets, including early childhood education enrolments, is not progressing.

Leadership is sorely missing from this issue in Parliament. Nearly 40 years after Gough Whitlam travelled to Wave Hill Station and symbolically handed the land back to Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people, it is difficult to see any of our current crop of leaders as capable of such leadership.

At first glance it may seem that those of us who work in early education and care cannot do anything about this. Surely this is a political issue. Why do we have to do anything? What can we do?

We can start with the National Quality Framework. This large-scale reform of the sector was based on a key foundational document, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians which, as quoted in the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), ‘commits to improved outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and strengthening early childhood education’. The EYLF also directly states that ‘early childhood education (with educators who are culturally competent) has a critical role to play’ in achieving this goal.

We know that addressing structural disadvantage and vulnerability must start in the early years. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has conducted a significant amount of research demonstrating the necessity of early childhood being a critical part of the Closing the Gap strategy.

Quality early learning experiences can support all children to get the best start in life. Given Australia’s past and our responsibility to Indigenous Australians, there needs to be a significant and sustained focus on embedding Indigenous perspectives in early childhood education and care—first with educators, and through them young children and families.

We can draw a direct line between our work as professionals in the early education sector and the potential for improved outcomes for young Indigenous children. A quality start to primary and secondary school could be the difference for any number of children and their families.

Addressing disadvantage and vulnerability is our responsibility because it is happening on our watch.

Nelson Mandela once said that ‘there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ Australia has a long way to go in closing the gap for Indigenous children. As professionals, we should not have to be forced to take ownership or responsibility for this issue—we should embrace the opportunity to influence change with both arms.

Regardless of your own background, your own community, your own cultural competence—what will you do to be part of the solution?

I state clearly here that I do not and would not presume to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I am a white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon male and as such am representative of many of the past and continuing struggles that face the First Australians on this land that was, is and shall always be Aboriginal Land.

For the perspectives of Indigenous people regarding these issues, I recommend visiting the websites of SNAICC and Reconciliation Australia, as well as the specific support of your local Indigenous Professional Support Unit.

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

The biggest issue facing the sector

I was fortunate enough to attend the 2014 Early Childhood Australia Conference in Melbourne this year, and I was amazed by the quality of the presentations from truly inspirational speakers.

But the session that is still rattling around in my brain is not the one I was expecting. It was a working session with a senior representative of the Department of Education. We were invited to put forward what we thought were the biggest issues facing the early childhood (EC) sector.

Not a simple question! In 2014 alone there have been at least four separate inquiries into various aspects of Australia’s EC sector (Productivity Commission, NQF Review, two Senate inquiries). All of these have reflected the complicated work we do and the challenging regulatory frameworks we do it in.

So I was a little surprised when one issue quickly and decisively trumped all the others.

Documentation.

At least two-thirds of the questions raised were around documentation requirements. How much do we need to do? Per child, per day? Should we reference every learning outcome in an observation? How many observations?

I have to be honest – this really disappointed me. This was a rare and valuable opportunity for practitioners and professionals to directly address a senior figure in the sector, with the capacity to make far-reaching decisions affecting our works. She was asking us to represent all of those who do our work, and let the Department know what we think the most pressing issue facing us right now is.

She left that room thinking it was documentation.

Really? With every challenge and frustration we face, how many observations we have to do a month is the biggest single thing affecting our work?

I find this difficult to believe, given the challenges I observe in my work. Trying to recruit and retain qualified early childhood teachers and educators. Supporting the inclusion of children with disabilities. Ethically and respectfully incorporating Indigenous perspectives in our work with young children. Having to balance operational costs with the inclusion of vulnerable children.

I can’t help but think that we might have made even a tiny amount of progress on some of those tricky issues if they had been the focus of discussions.

Documentation is a challenging issue for services, and does require a lot of thought and reflection.

But we are also nearly 3 years into the new National Quality Framework. Support for services to work on their documentation is everywhere, from ECA’s website to your local Professional Support Coordinator.

In forums I attend, documentation is still the key issue that is raised. Imagine how much progress we might be making on some of the issues I listed above if we were constantly and consistently raising them.

That really would make a difference in the lives of Australia’s children.

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

ECA Conference: Telling our own stories

I was fortunate enough to attend the Early Childhood Australia National Conference over the weekend as a presenter and speaker.

These events are renowned for early childhood “rockstars” sharing powerful stories of practice, inspiration and challenge. I certainly went away having learnt two very important things:

  1. I am terrible at taking selfies; and
  2. The sector is getting better at telling our own stories.

Evidence for the first point can be found in even the shortest look through my Twitter timeline. When looking at the second point however, the evidence is worth considering a little closer.

The first presentation I took part in was with the excellent Leanne Gibbs and Lisa Bryant on using old and new media to undertake advocacy for the sector. Over the last few years we have each in our own way used social media, particularly Twitter, to connect with fellow ECEC professionals and promote advocacy work.

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The community of ECEC professionals on Twitter is small, and during the presentation we discussed our thoughts on why this was so. We encouraged those present to share the photo taken above, to see how far an advocacy message could spread in 90 minutes. It was a fun little exercise, and we ended up with a pretty good tally which you can see below!

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What happened with this activity after the session ended up being far more interesting though. It was clear that a number of people from the session had actually signed up onto Twitter, and were sending out their very first tweets! Over the next two days I was able to connect with a group of professionals who I would not otherwise have been able to continue the conversation with.

Early Childhood Australia did a magnificent job of promoting the usage of social media during the conference, with the hashtag #eca2014 grouping together all the thoughts, notes and discussions that were taking place.

A message I am always trying to share is the importance of being active in public forums such as Twitter – if we are not telling our stories, they will be told for us. This message is more important than ever given that the decisions made in 2014 will affect the ECEC sector for years to come.

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On Sunday I took part in a fantastic panel discussion on child rights, and how we can move this discussion forward in the ECEC sector. Given the importance of this topic, it is a perfect example of the need for professionals in the sector to be taking the lead.

During one of my answers, I quoted the shocking statistics from ARACY that an Indigenous child in Australia is 7 times more likely to be in out-of-home care, and is 10 times more likely to be detained in a jail or detention facility. These statistics are incredible – and we have a responsibility to know them, and respond to them in our work. An active voice of educators and professionals expressing their anger about those stats would be a powerful thing to behold.

The first five years are critical for every child, and this is the space we work in. We may have doubts or concerns about sharing our voices, but I hope that the powerful stories shared on those 4 days by all the speakers and presenters encourage others to step forward and speak – even if it’s just their first tweet!

Early childhood education: the next great Australian project?

I was fortunate enough to attend a breakfast event at Parliament House this morning, hosted by Goodstart Early Learning and Early Childhood Australia.

As well as featuring MPs (including the Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley), Professor Frank Oberklaid spoke on the importance of investment in public policy aimed at the early years.

As the Founding Director of the Centre for Community Child Health at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Professor Oberklaid is an expert on the development of young children – particularly their brains.

He made a strong argument for a greater, bipartisan focus on funding investments in early years programs, particularly early childhood education and care.

As all the most recent research tells us, children exposed to vulnerable situations will start life on the back foot – and will most likely never escape that handicap.

Yet the evidence also shows that quality early childhood programs can help to close that gap, at a significantly lesser cost than trying to close it later in life.

I was particularly struck by Professor Oberklaid’s challenge to view investment in the early years as Australia’s “next Snowy Mountain” project. This chimes with my own frustrations on current public policy in the early years, which is more “fiddling around the edges” of existing systems.

It would be incredible to see a bipartisan commitment to undertaking the big reforms that are needed – not to change the odd regulation, or add another bit here, but to fundamentally alter how we support young children and families in Australia.