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.
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.