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.

Continue reading “Are we too interested in children’s interests?”

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Childcare back in education – but what will be the major changes?

Newly-installed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball has announced a major reshuffle of the Government’s ministerial positions, giving early childhood education and care its third minister in this term of Government.

Childcare will now fall back under the umbrella of an Education Minister – a position now held by Simon Birmingham, a relatively junior Senator from South Australia.

In general terms, this is of course a positive outcome for the sector. It was moved to the Department of Social Services (DSS) under Scott Morrison late last year, an apparent indication of the Government seeing it primarily as a workforce participation strategy. Including it in the Education department should continue Australia’s slow move to viewing early learning as fundamental to long-term success.

This news is of course very new, and we don’t yet have any idea how Senator Birmingham will reshape the Education portfolio he is inheriting from Liberal warrior Christopher Pyne. But, it’s worth raising a couple of quick points/concerns in the wake of this announcement.

Firstly, bureaucratic. The shift of childcare to the DSS would have required a significant amount of administrative changes and restructuring. This will now need to be transferred back to the Education Department – with all the challenges, difficulties and technical issues that will result. It may seem minor, but it will be an issue.

Secondly, departmental. A lot of the “nuts and bolts” of childcare administration may still sit within the DSS, not Education. How well will this now work between the two Departments? This will be particularly relevant to the Child Care Benefit, and programs like the Inclusion Support Program.

Thirdly, political. The Government’s current “Families Package” is facing difficulties in the Senate. It includes a number of measures that will adversely affect vulnerable children and families. Will there be a reset on this package? Birminigham is, on the face of it, likely to be less comabative in his approach than either Pyne, or the new cuddly Scott Morrison. Dare we hope for a more consultative and listening approach? Which, unfortunately, leads to the fourth:

Fourthly, policy. Childcare’s move back to Education could (and I shudder as I type this) lead to another round of consultation with the sector. This would be following the pre-NQF period, the Productivity Commission, the ACECQA review, two Senate committees and the Government’s own consultation this year. Consultation fatigue doesn’t even begin to cover this. Any more consultation will not reveal what has already been made abundantly clear. Investment in quality early education works.

With an election due next year, Senator Birmingham may have less than a year to make his mark on childcare. With that timeframe, we shouldn’t have to wait too long to see what direction he and the new PM will head in.

What does this Government think the childcare sector is for?

Disappointingly, the Government continues to use the Productivity Commission to paper over its complete lack of a childcare policy. Beyond pointing out the issues and declaring war on “the dead hand of government regulation”, the childcare sector and the community in general have no idea what the Abbott Government think should happen in this area.

This week, the Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley may have given us a brief and tantalising spoiler. Responding to questions on what policies the Productivity Commission may propose, Ms Ley was quoted in The Australian:

“Ms Ley said “something is wrong with this picture” when asked about working parents unable to find places because they were taken by the children of parents who were not working.”

A simple statement that jibes well with the Government’s overall economic message of “lifters and leaners”, but in the context of childcare it is worth digging a little deeper on what Ms Ley may be telling us.

What does this Government think the childcare sector is for? Let’s look at the candidates.

1. The economy

The strong contender. Freeing up parents to contribute to the workforce has obvious benefits to the economy at large. This imperative has been a significant part of most countries creation of their own childcare policies and frameworks, and Australia is no different.

Australia’s economy is performing exceptionally by international standards, but workforce participation is a huge driver of growth and wealth.

2. Families

When we say families, we have to be upfront and say “mothers”. In Australia it is still women that face the greatest challenge in returning to the workforce after having children.

The benefits to families are not just about returning to work. Quality early learning programs help prepare children for formal schooling, and have the potential to remediate the effects of family instability or vulnerability. International research has demonstrated that early learning has the potential to change the destinies of families.

The childcare sector is also designed to facilitate empowerment of women to maintain their careers alongside their families – but the catch in Australia has always been that childcare services need to be affordable, accessible and of high quality. Since the deregulation of the sector in the 1990s, Australia was struggled with all three of those indicators.

3. Children

And the last on our list of candidates: children. The fundamental irony of the sector is that is directed to provide education and care to over 1 million Australian children, but the rights and needs of children are usually far down on the list of priorities.

The National Quality Framework was a strong attempt to provide a foundational expectation of quality in the outcomes for children attending childcare services. More structural reforms were needed to address the issues created by deregulation however, which were best exemplified in the spectacular collapse of ABC Learning in 2008.

Returning to Ms Ley’s statement, we can see that while the economy and workforce participation are high on the list of goals for childcare, children are not getting a look-in. She is indicating the Government would prefer that only children of working parents have the right to access childcare. This is a significant statement.

Advocates for early childhood education, including myself, view access to quality childcare as not just an economic issue, but a matter of human rights. Children have the human right to attend a quality early learning program, regardless of their socio-economic background or the current circumstances of their parents.

Australia does not currently have strong record on the upholding of children’s rights. We are currently turning ourselves into outcasts in the international community with our illegal and inhumane treatment of child asylum seekers; each day of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reveals new horrors from Australia’s dark past of systemic failures to protect children; and child protection agencies around the country struggle to successfully keep children safe in the face of budget cuts and under-resourcing.

Approaching the sector only from the perspective of improving the economy leaves the system open to fail children – as it shockingly has in Ireland and the United States.

The importance of early childhood education, including strong childcare policies and structures, is now internationally recognised. As with the issues of asylum seekers, climate change and a host of others, Australia will fall behind the rest of the world by failing to properly invest in childcare.

But placing the rights of children at the centre of a restructuring of our approach to childcare has the primary benefit of being the right thing do by our society’s children, but the added benefits of meeting the outcomes for the economy as well.

A childcare sector that is properly funded and supported doesn’t have to pick and choose between the three outcomes listed above – it can actually choose Option 4: all of the above.

2014 qualification requirements cannot be met without support

Over a million children are now in some kind of formal education and care, such as long day care, family day care or school-age care. But many of the organisations that provide these programs have a history of uneven and in some cases non-existent quality control. This was the case until the introduction of the Federal Government’s National Quality Framework (NQF) in January 2012.

The NQF aimed to unify disparate state and territory regulation and law. It also introduced a new framework for supporting children’s learning and wellbeing (the Early Years Learning Framework), increasing educator-to-child ratios and set up a new agency to assess and rate children’s education and care services.

Another key change (due to be phased in from the beginning of 2014) is the requirement for every educator to have a minimum qualification of a Certificate III in Children’s Services. In most cases, 50 per cent of all educators will be required to have at least a Diploma of Children’s Services.

All long day care centres will also be required to employ at least one university-qualified early childhood teacher. Larger centres will need more.

The evidence is clear that improving the qualification levels of early childhood educators significantly improves educational outcomes for children. It can also improve children’s likely performance in primary and secondary school.

I strongly support the requirement that anyone working towards the education of young children has a qualification. This represents a key shift in our professional work, and there is is no reasonable argument against it.

We wouldn’t trust anybody without a qualification to repair our drains, but up until now it has been appropriate for unqualified people to educate our youngest children.

Those who do argue against these requirements are either concerned about their profit margins (such as the Australian Childcare Alliance), or believe that childcare is essentially babysitting and can be handled by anyone with a police check and a caring nature.

But the Government has been slow to realise that matching philosophy with practice is going to be challenging.

The education and care sector has struggled for decades to attract qualified educators, particularly at the diploma level. High expectations and workloads, shift-style employment and laughable wages have not exactly had people stampeding to their local TAFE.

To put it into perspective, the wage rise from a Certificate III to a Diploma is in most cases only around $2 an hour. A diploma-trained educator is expected to manage a room, including other staff members; plan for the individual learning of every child attending in that room; be responsible for opening and closing the centre at some times; and dozens of other key responsibilities — two years of study for $2 extra an hour.

The situation with early childhood teachers is even more dire. A teacher who chooses to work in the Long Day Care sector is literally choosing to forgo around $20,000 in salary compared to their counterparts in the preschool system. They also have less time for documentation and planning, far less annual leave and will also most likely have extra responsibilities around mentoring their colleagues.

As with many other aspects of the NQF, The federal government seems determined to wilfully ignore the practical implementation issues.

Put simply there is no chance at all that the early childhood education sector will be able to meet the NQF qualification requirements by January 2014.

Unfortunately, the Government’s Early Childhood Workforce Strategy fails to provide any meaningful support for these requirements beyond limited funding for qualification scholarships and vague statements about supporting the professionalism of the sector.

Without immediate intervention in areas such as wages, professionalism and career pathways it is clear that these qualification requirements will be completely unreachable. Even that level of intervention right now would not be able to fix this issue by next year.

This will be unlikely to come from a Coalition government intent on either rolling back or halting the NQS reforms.

The Labor Government has made some small steps towards supporting educators, but as I have written before this has raised its own issues of equity. The only long-term solution to attracting, retaining and supporting early childhood educators and teachers — and through them, children — is to fundamentally change how we fund and value their work. This will require a national conversation around early education that would rival the Gonski debate, it needs to happen soon.

Ireland, which utilises a similar mix of private and not-for-profit operators, is currently reeling from media reports of serious misconduct in their education and care sector. Many have made the link between these incidents and an underpaid and undervalued workforce.

Without a fundamental review of how we support our early education sector, it is inevitable that similar issues will emerge here in Australia.

My only hope is that this is the start of the national discussion about the need for highly qualified teachers and educators to work with our youngest children, and the benefits to society as a whole that will flow from that work.

This article was originally published on the New Matilda website.