New reforms in early childhood education are steps in the right direction, but their implementation requires close monitoring.
Professor Tony Vinson has met countless children from disadvantaged backgrounds during more than five decades of work which have distinguished him as one of Australia’s leading social scientists. Research evidence clearly highlights the “crushing impact” of social disadvantage and the vulnerability of those with inadequate education, says Vinson, an honorary professor at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.
“Nothing has struck me as more tragic than meeting little children in disadvantaged areas at the beginning of their formal schooling who have never held a pencil or a book, whose speech is confined to a few words, whose self-identity is stunted,” he told the AEU annual federal conference in February this year.
The AEU broadly supports the early childhood education reforms being rolled out across Australia.
It welcomes the National Quality Framework launched in January this year with the intention of delivering higher quality education and care for the nation’s young children. Under the Framework, requirements relating to qualifications, educator-to-child ratios and other key staffing arrangements will be phased in between 2012 and 2020.
The AEU also endorses a commitment to universal access, which aims to ensure that every child has access to a quality early childhood education program for a minimum of 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, in the year before they start formal schooling.
However, there are reservations about the way the reforms, which apply to most long day care, family day care, preschool and outside-school-hours care services, are being implemented.
In particular, the AEU is closely monitoring the effect the changes have on its members with regard to issues such as professional development, administrative duties, teaching loads and adequate break times.
While the AEU supports the philosophy behind the new program, in South Australia the selection of centres for the first round of assessments is causing some angst among members, says Howard Spreadbury, the South Australian branch’s lead organiser, early childhood focus and the national early childhood educator representative on the AEU federal executive.
“That’s causing a little bit of angst, probably because of the unknowns and what the assessment process will involve,” he says. “[These centres] are the trailblazers, and this will test out the whole assessment system and what it throws up in relation to centres being rated against the key quality areas.”
Centres will be assessed and rated under a National Quality Standard that considers seven broad areas:
Centres have been required to develop a quality improvement plan (QIP) and lodge it with the new national regulator, the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA).
Trained assessors will visit centres to discuss their QIP and conduct assessments against the new standards.
Centres will then receive a rating against each standard, leading to an overall rating.
The overall ratings will be published on the federal government’s My Child website and must be displayed prominently in centres – an action the AEU is concerned about.
Early feedback from AEU members suggests that the major issue in the rollout of the reforms is increased workload. Additional resources are also required to support professional development. Members are also calling for time release to develop the quality improvement plan. Implementation varies considerably across the country, due to the timelines negotiated by state and territory governments under COAG bilateral agreements and the way the reforms are being rolled out by state and territory departments.
AEU deputy federal secretary Darcel Russell says that support from departments is crucial for successful implementation. “While some departments have established structures and processes to work with key stakeholders to identify and address issues as they arise, others have taken a top-down approach.”
The ACT Department of Education and Training, for example, commenced a series of unannounced visits to preschools as a part of a ‘toolkit’ of strategies to ‘assess compliance’.
“This created stress for many members,” says Russell, “and was not the best way to engender goodwill for the roll-out of the reforms, particularly as the new national system is supposed to be based on the principles of quality improvement and earned autonomy, rather than compliance.
“Fortunately the AEU ACT branch called a meeting of preschool teacher members, identified and raised key issues with the relevant authorities and the unannounced visits have now ceased.
“The branch and department are now meeting to discuss improvements to these processes,” Russell says. Another major issue for some AEU members is a stipulation that all education support staff must hold or be studying for a Certificate III qualification in children’s services by 2014. A recognition of prior learning package will make it easier for workers to obtain or upgrade their qualifications.
Spreadbury says some members in South Australia have already expressed concerns about the workload and costs involved in the training. He adds that such issues underline the importance of long-term workforce planning to ensure members don’t carry the burden of new early childhood educational requirements. It is also crucial that the sector be made attractive to would-be employees.
“There has to be a longer-term view of workforce planning for the sector in the future,” he says.
Across Australia members also have concerns that the lack of adequate resources for the universal access program is taking the focus off existing programs or forcing them to be dropped.
In Victoria for example, the push to provide 15 hours access to all four-yearolds is affecting three-year-old kindergarten programs.
Vinson recognises that implementing the reforms will have its challenges, but says it is clear that investment in early childhood education helps to prevent social problems in the future.
“The evidence of the good return that awaits serious investment in the education and care of disadvantaged youngsters could hardly be more compelling,” he told the AEU forum.
The societal gain from quality early education programs is estimated to be a sevenfold return on each dollar invested, he says.
Given such findings, Vinson encourages government to ramp up assistance for disadvantaged children and cut delays in providing specialised services such as speech therapists, paediatricians, child psychologists and other mental health professionals. Too often, neglected children grow up to be homeless or end up in prison, he says.
“We must insist on a high quality and adequately funded approach to the early education of all of our children. Our generation should not be remembered for the number of jails we bequeath.”