Behind the NSW controversy

Last week I attended the launch of a NSW Government initiative to provide a visual guide to existing National Quality Standard (NQS) ratings. The graphic, to be displayed at the entrance to early childhood education and care services from January 2020, would reflect the existing rating of each service; information that is already public and available online from the national Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) and which is also on display at each early childhood setting around Australia. Early childhood peaks, the media reported, had been consulted and Dorothy the Dinosaur was there to act as ambassador.

The initiative seemed well-intentioned—to raise the profile of the quality rating system amongst families and encourage them to engage in a dialogue with the service about their most recent assessment. The engagement of Dorothy was perhaps a bit questionable in terms of her being more popular with children than parents, but it seemed harmless and certainly the children at the centre where the launch was held were absolutely delighted.

The response from some sector commentators was swift and strong. Concerns about a rushed solution, apparent lack of consultation and the simplistic nature of a star ratings system—seen by some as unprofessional, reductionist or inappropriate—were uppermost among the discussion in online forums.  I was surprised at the strength of the reaction and the tone of the discussion that followed, particularly the anger—towards individuals, towards Early Childhood Australia (ECA) and other peaks, KU Children’s Services, the NSW Department and indeed the Education Minister.  Any history of supporting and defending the NQS since inception was set aside amid claims that the initiative and the involvement of sector peaks and individuals were tearing down quality and disrespecting educators.

We were perplexed by the strength of the reaction, but as the ECA communications team started calling people, we learned more. At the heart of the announcement and the reactions to New South Wales’ new visual guide to the NQS ratings lies a series of tensions between different parties, their experiences and needs.  Of course, we were aware of the complaints and concerns about the assessment and rating system in NSW and the steps being taken to address those, but we had not anticipated the extent to which this would impact on reactions to the new posters.  While the information to be displayed in the star format is not new—it is already on display—when services don’t agree with the rating or the way it was assessed, it is particularly unpalatable to have this new initiative welcomed as a progressive step.

We have paused to reconsider our actions and we also ask that others in the sector take a step back and reconsider where we want to take this discussion.

A significant complaint is that the government didn’t consult. The problem is that this initiative is one part of a broader quality improvement initiative that comes with substantial financial investment and has been part of a confidential Cabinet decision-making process. While peaks in NSW were asked their opinion, they are required to keep the content of the Advisory Group meetings confidential and this prevented widespread consultation. This is a salient lesson for the NSW Government—consultation and socialisation of an idea is worthwhile, particularly in the age of social media. And while ambassadors are often used by business and government to raise the profile or promote a concept, parents of young children and early childhood professionals don’t necessarily see the connection between a children’s mascot and information for adult consumption and understanding.

One of the problems on the weekend was the lack of information about the new posters, coupled with a sensationalist article in one of the newspapers. Uncertainty, fears and expectations filled the void left by the lack of solid information and context.

In hindsight, we should have advised the NSW Department to brief the sector fully before going public. Nonetheless, the intention was not to undermine the profession or the sector but rather to catch the attention of families—not an easy thing to do.

We all know that families experience difficulties in navigating options for their young child’s education and care and find it an emotional and at times overwhelming experience according to ACECQA’s own research (Families Qualitative Research Project, Stage 2—Final Report, Hall & Partners, 2018). Parents rely on a range of factors, trusting their ‘gut’, ‘word of mouth’ referrals, cost and location, but for the most part they remain unaware of the NQS and what it means.

Governments want their considerable investment in funding and regulating early childhood quality and the NQS ratings system, to be visible to families, easily accessible and understood and they want families to be able to utilise it in their decision-making.

Early childhood professionals and the educational organisations they work within want their hard work and commitment to providing professional high-quality educational experiences for young children to be visible to and valued by families and governments. Some believe that outcomes can be variable and believe that anomalies and sector frustrations with the process of assessment and review need to be addressed before a system that appears to reduce the nuance and complexity is introduced.

In a large jurisdiction such as New South Wales issues and inconsistencies are magnified.

AECQA’s own research shows that parents generally have ‘only moderate awareness and use of the National Quality Framework and National Quality Standards ratings’ (p. 15, ACECQA 2018). Many parents had never heard about the NQF or NQS, or were unaware of it at the time they were making decisions about the kind of care and education to choose for their child.

Parents who had heard about the NQF and NQS ratings usually learned about it ‘after their child/ren had started attending an education and care service’ (p. 81, ACECQA 2018).

Parents agreed that information about the NQS and ‘ratings would be most useful to them when first selecting a service’ (p. 16, ACECQA 2018).

It seems too that family priorities for their young children’s education and care and the language in which they express their preferences do not always easily align with the seven quality areas of the NQS and the way they are articulated. Parents would like accessible language and more easily understood ratings.  One of the recommendation (Recommendation 2d, p 83 ACECQA 2018) is that more should be done to highlight to parents that the NQS ratings ‘assess the aspects of quality that matter to [them]’ and ‘demonstrate this alignment by mentioning specific factors that are fundamental to all parents.’

The most commonly identified priorities parents express when seeking early childhood education and care are children’s health and safety, and relationships with children, followed by the physical environment, educational program and practice, family and community links, and finally staffing arrangements and governance (p 8, ACECQA 2018).

Early Childhood responses

Early education and care providers gave different reasons for why they believed it would be counterproductive for early childhood services.

One provider of an early childhood centre that ECA spoke with has been part of his community for more than 40 years and has direct family experience participating as a reviewer with Australia’s first quality accreditation system. His concerns were layered but he was particularly concerned that a star system reduces the complexities and entrenches a perception long after it may have been addressed. It can take several years, he said, to have another assessment and review that will ensure the rating reflects the true situation. He also felt it was damaging to his team’s morale and that his ECEC service was ‘downgraded’ to ‘meeting’ for very minor and misunderstood items.

Common threads in the feedback were:

  • Frustration with the process for review which sits underneath the star ranking, and which is seen as sometimes arbitrary and unfair—‘why doesn’t the government listen to the sector telling them what could work better instead of creating this star system to slap on the top of it?’
  • The lack of consultation—having it ‘sprung’ without context or input; ‘participating in a recent departmental consultation which had gone well without any mention of the new system’ left a bad taste with some educators and leaders
  • Some thought a sticker displayed at the front of the service was ‘salt in the wound’ for staff who were working hard and very committed
  • A star rating system was seen as unprofessional, ‘against everything we’re working towards’, or inappropriate in a complex area
  • Even where an educator could see the intention behind the department’s actions, she believed it ‘won’t open conversations: families will see two stars and move on, rather than visit the setting to see for themselves’
  • An ‘exceeding’ ECEC service director said she would prefer not to display the sticker in a small town community, thinking it may create difficulties in local relations with colleagues, where the sole other service in town might be doing good work but has been rated ‘working towards’ on one or two standards.

ECA wants to stay engaged with the difficulties and tensions inherent in trying to raise awareness of what it takes to provide high quality education and care for young children.

ECA will continue to work with individuals, organisations and sector peaks and with the NSW government to sift the feedback and look for opportunities to improve on and better communicate the strengths and difficulties of the sector’s quality apparatus.

ECA also wants to keep finding ways to discuss difficult issues across the sector and improve how we do this. We would like to see more capacity to resist the now seemingly ritualistic ‘baiting’ from some elements of the old media as we do this. The work of early childhood educators, leaders and organisations in providing safe, caring, responsive, rich learning experiences and environments for young children is too often an untold story. And it is too important to be overwhelmed by the need for headlines. The National Quality System is not simply a way to regulate early childhood settings. It is also a rich resource to demonstrate to those who make decisions about children’s learning and wellbeing—whether for policy or personal reasons—how complex, nuanced, intentional and professional is the work of early childhood educational professionals. Let’s see how we can do more and do better on this.

Sources:

ACECQA 2018—Families Qualitative Research Project, Stage 2—Final Report, Hall & Partners available from https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2018-11/FamiliesQualitativeResearchProject2018Report.PDF

NSW government—‘Safety and quality’—(explains the Quality Ratings and the star guide) https://education.nsw.gov.au/early-childhood-education/information-for-parents-and-carers/safety-and-quality

NSW government—‘Quality is the star in education and care rating system’ https://education.nsw.gov.au/news/latest-news/quality-is-the-star-in-education-and-care-rating-system.

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Sam Page

Samantha Page is the CEO of Early Childhood Australia (ECA), the national peak advocacy organisation for children under eight, their families and professionals in the field of early childhood development and education. ECA was established in 1938 and works with Government, early childhood professionals, parents, other carers of young children, and various lobby groups to advocate to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children from birth to eight years. ECA is a not-for-profit membership based organisation. It also has a successful retail and publishing arm, producing a number of very well regarded subscription based publications including the Australian Journal of Early Childhood. Samantha holds a Master’s Degree in (Community) Management from the University of Technology, Sydney and she is a Graduate of the Company Directors course offered by the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Her passion is for social equality and she has worked in the non-government sector for 20 years across roles encompassing service delivery, executive management, consulting, social policy analysis and advocacy. She has extensive experience in the development and implementation of social policy and sector development projects.

4 thoughts on “Behind the NSW controversy”

    Catharine Hydon says:

    Thank you Sam…this has helped me enormously. As one of the many people who leapt into the early discussion it has helped contextualize the proposal and the reaction. It also gives me pause for thought about how social media can be a difficult and problematic space.

    Vicki Dobson says:

    It is refreshing to see an admission that this could have been handled better. The intent of the action – to help families use the NQS to guide decision making – was clear. What was not clear was the process behind this decision.
    Perhaps broader consultation might have found a better approach than a good behaviour chart.

    And, you have to ask yourself why does NSW have the lowest number of services at Meeting or above? Maybe it’s not the providers and educators at fault here…

    Kerrie Devir says:

    While I thank Sam for explaining more as to what the thinking behind this initiative…there is a problem when educators are asked and expected to work as professionals within the sector and then top down instruction and decisions are made without us. For too long this was the process in the early childhood sector, initiatives came from the department and educators were expected to do it, deliver it and have no input. But we cannot be professionals and have that continue. Each layer adds more work and I see that educators have no more room to just do it and deliver it without support and also the opportunity to say what would help us deliver quality to families and children and be able to explain this to families as they make the decision about where to send their children.

    Tamika Hicks says:

    I guess when you work in a service and are engaged in services each and every day you can immediately see the issues when something like this lands on social media. I don’t think it’s a case of baiting, rather than the knowledge we have of educators (and being educators ourselves) we can see what is a continuation of top down initiative/process/restructure. It’s been happening for years, decades. If we see NSW take the so called ‘lead’ on what has been reported as being of interest Australia wide, of course we’re going to want to take action.

    Reacting in such a way that brings people/peaks/government, who aren’t necessarily living and breathing life in services every day, to a stop and to rethink, then good. Collaboration is the only way. It needs to be open, transparent and involve those of us working with families, children, educators and our communities on the ground every day.

    I concur with Kerrie regarding decisions being made from top down with no consideration. These ramifications should have been thought of and discussed with government in those Cabinet-in-confidence meetings. I constantly reflect about the state of ecec and the overall goal for sometime now has been our sector moving towards the community seeing our work as professional. Yet time and again we see these initiatives come in and deviate from that very directive.

    Families take tours of services and go with their gut, recommendations from friends or family, go off google ratings, a handful of families may ask about the services ratings, services my talk about their rating to families. The same goes when choosing schools. You can walk through my centre today, we’re 2 years old, our A&R was 16 months ago. Imagine we now have stars on our door for that point in time. At that stage we were 8 months old and at 50% occupancy. We are meeting in all areas and exceeding in one. The team we have has tripled. We look vastly different than what we did when we were assessed. We may not be assessed for another 2 years or more and again we will look different. Stars on our door will not reflect who we are or where we are in our journey at any given time. The tour we take families on when looking through our service and the conversations we have will tell the story of where we are now and what we can provide the family and their child.

    We don’t need stars.

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