Australia’s educational leaders in ECE: What do we know so far?

PROFESSOR JOCE NUTTALL shares key findings from her research ahead of her presentation at the 2019 AJEC Research Symposium in Melbourne.

What is the role of the educational leader in an early childhood service? What kinds of professional learning and support do educational leaders need? And how do we know if educational leaders are making a difference for colleagues, children and families?

These are some of the questions that have guided my work since the role of the educational leader was introduced in 2012. In 2018, I began a project with Dr Linda Henderson (Monash University) and Professor Elizabeth Wood (University of Sheffield) to grapple with these questions. The project, which has been funded by the Australian Research Council, is called Learning-rich leadership for quality improvement in early childhood education.

During 2018, we focused on how the role emerged within Australia’s early childhood policy reforms. We examined policy texts and interviewed educational leaders in Victoria and the Northern Territory, besides interviewing early years teachers in England.

Here are ten things we’ve found so far:

  1. Early childhood educators who step up to the educational leader role are enthusiastic learners. They actively get involved in ongoing professional development and look for ways to increase their qualifications.
  2. But they probably haven’t received any formal development for the role of educational leader.
  3. Educational leaders are fiercely committed to raising the quality of the program in their workplace.
  4. But they sometimes find it difficult to take colleagues along with them on the quality journey.
  5. Early childhood policy in Australia is based on the idea that effective leaders make a difference to program quality.
  6. But the policy is largely silent on how educational leaders might do this.
  7. Most of the available advice on the educational leader role places a lot of emphasis on the personal dispositions and commitments of individuals.
  8. But this advice has less to say about the factors that would allow educational leaders to fulfil their commitments, such as extra non-contact time.
  9. The availability of support for implementing the role differs enormously across early childhood services.
  10. But the level of resourcing for educational leaders doesn’t necessarily reflect the size of their workplace.

These findings probably aren’t a surprise to the readers of The Spoke. The theme of the 2019 AJEC Research SymposiumMultiplicity: Exploring multiple perspectives, agendas and methodologies in early childhood research—speaks to the way in which policies and practices play out in very different ways across different early childhood services.

In our research, we’re not trying to identify the one ‘true’ way to fulfil the educational leader role. Instead, we’re trying to identify principles that can underpin educational leaders’ practices. These principles will only be useful if they can accommodate the wide variety of staff qualifications, professional cultures and personal values that contribute to the richness of the early childhood sector in Australia.

The project will end in December 2020. If you want to stay up-to-date with the project, please visit our webpage here. You can also watch my videos about the educational leader role on ACECQA’s YouTube channel here.


The 2019 AJEC Research Symposium will be held in Melbourne from 14–15 February 2019. See the program overview here

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Joce Nuttall

Professor Joce Nuttall leads the Teacher Education Research Concentration in the Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne. Joce was a primary school teacher and childcare centre director prior to becoming a teacher, educator and researcher. Her research is concerned with the professional learning of early childhood educators, particularly in child care. Joce’s current Australian Research Council grant focuses on the work of leaders in fostering practice development from a systems perspective. Her work is informed by cultural-historical activity theory, and recent publications include an analysis of the professional motives of early childhood teachers adopting digital technologies for children’s learning through play. Joce is Immediate Past President of the Australian Teacher Education Association and a member of the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) Board.

2 thoughts on “Australia’s educational leaders in ECE: What do we know so far?”

    Doreen Blyth says:

    Thanks for the article. Your findings are similar to those in the Educational Leaders Association’s 2019 national survey. It is being serialized this week on the Educational leaders Association’s Facebook page.

    Karen Kearns says:

    The research results are not a surprise. While the skills, knowledge and disposition needed to be an educational leader can be defined the application of this role in practice has certainly not been well articulated. I believe there needs to be easily accessible post graduate opportunities for work-based leadership development customised specifically to the EC sector.

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