Since the introduction of the National Quality Framework, I’ve noticed in my work with educators around the country that there’s a developing theme gaining ground. It is the search for answers, the search for the ‘right way’, the search for a sense of comfort in knowing that educators are ‘getting it right’. These questions come from new educators and experienced educators, certificate three trained educators and university trained teachers alike. It is a question that comes up in discussions at almost every single centre that I visit and with many of the educators that I work with and I have puzzled over it for some time. One of the key objectives in my work is to build the capacity of educators to provide high quality education and care, and this takes knowledge, support and a confident professional identity. So what is it that leaves us questioning our professional autonomy, and instead searching for the path to the perceived ‘right way?’
To some extent this phenomenon can be attributed to the differences between previous state based regulations in children’s services, and the Education and Care Services National Regulations (National Regulations). For example, the NSW Children’s Services Regulation (2004) was very prescriptive and included specific details about what a service must do to comply with it, whereas the National Regulations are more ‘outcomes based’ in that they require that an outcome be met without necessarily specifying how a service should do so. This difference in approach means that many provisions that were in the NSW Regulation don’t appear to have a direct counterpart in the National Regulations. However, in most cases the specific requirement is actually encompassed within a more general requirement in the National Regulations. For example, the NSW Regulation specified the temperature at which hot water in centre-based children’s services should be regulated, whereas the Children (Education and Care Services) National Law and the National Regulations have a general requirement that reasonable precautions be taken to protect children from hazards likely to cause injury. The practical effect is intended to be the same, but the outcome focus allows services to adopt measures relevant to their specific circumstances. (NSW Department of Education and Communities, 2012). The benefit of a principles based regulatory framework is that individual circumstances can be considered within its scope, and the benefits of a more prescriptive regulatory framework is that everyone has more direction about what they need to do!
The introduction of the National Quality Framework also brought with it a new National Quality Standard (NQS) and Assessment and Rating system. Prior to this, the Quality Improvement Accreditation System (QIAS), administered by the National Child Care Accreditation Council (NCAC), was in place. The QIAS in its final inception featured a system including measurement instruments designed to contribute to the validity of decisions profiled against identified quality areas (Rowe, 2002). So in many ways the shift to Assessment and Rating against the NQS reflected a shift from a more prescriptive and predictable system of measurement to an outcomes based system, not unlike the move from a prescriptive regulatory framework to a principles based one.
The introduction of the National Quality Framework also required educators to implement the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) or other approved learning frameworks under the National Law. An enormous range of curriculum approaches influenced programs for early childhood education and care prior to this, and to some extent still do, with some of them being more prescriptive in nature. For some educators, the shift from an existing framework to the EYLF was not perceived as too onerous a task, but for many, the leap was a significant one. For example, the NSW Early Childhood Curriculum Framework: The Practice of Relationships, shared many general principles with its EYLF counterpart. But other approaches required a significant change in practice to bring them into closer alignment with the EYLF.
So, in my view there are a range of compounding factors at play that are contributing to the rise of the question ‘am I doing it right?”. Here’s another one to add to my theory – the online forum and it’s potential to add to the conundrum. As an avid observer, I’ve noticed with interest that the online forum seems to in many ways fill a gap or a niche, as it provides a platform for contributors to voice their beliefs and passions. For a community of educators who are looking for answers, here might be just the place to get them. But there’s a kicker, and that is that the online forum often only provides answers if your practice fits neatly into the truths of others. Contrary to the bi-directional opportunities afforded by principle based approaches, online forums sometimes represent a linear view; a my way or the highway approach. Moss & Dahlberg (2008) view as problematic approaches whereby others take a position as if no choice was involved, as if their position was the only one. I’m prepared to take some brickbats on this one, but like it or not, this is a stifling of democracy that discourages educators from professional dialogue and potentially leaves them feeling like rudderless ships.
At the risk of shooting myself in the foot here, I’ve also considered that the proliferation of professional development opportunities, made more accessible through the federal government’s long day care professional development fund, may have contributed to the rise of the ‘am I doing it right’ question. I’m all for high quality professional development that is intentionally planned around the support needs of educators, services and providers. Accurate, well executed, caring and ongoing support of educators in context can be very powerful indeed, and I have seen first-hand the way that it can transform practice. But I have also seen questionable provision of professional development, delivered in what I term the McDonalds model - that is the drive through PD session that is one off, not contextual, consumed quickly and with little long term value to educator’s professional health and wellbeing. It is difficult to develop committed, knowledgeable, resilient and competent educators on a diet of fast food professional development, or none at all, leaving them still hungry for answers. (pardon the pun!)
In thinking about the burning need to know if we’re doing it ‘the right way’, these are just some of the things that I’ve pondered about. There are undoubtedly more. This shifting of the landscape from a prescriptive foundation to an outcomes based one has created foundational shifts, and this often leads to shaky ground. It is perfectly understandable to want to still the shaky ground, to restore the equilibrium, and to seek the answers that might make that happen. But as Peter Drucker so eloquently said “the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic”. So we must apply new thinking in response to change, and search not for single answers, but welcome the multiple perspectives of many in thinking critically and sharing views. I suspect that my esteemed colleagues and sector leaders are onto this, as I’ve noticed an increase of questioning in online forums and of provocations to engage educators in multiple ways of thinking. If we are welcoming multiple perspectives, then we are prepared to open up a space for listening and consideration of the view of others. As Dahlberg, Moss & Pence (2007) argued, “quality in early childhood services is a constructed concept, subjective in nature and based on values, beliefs and interest, rather than an objective and universal reality. Quality child care is, to a large extent, in the eye of the beholder.” (p.172). Of course, there are guiding principles that we should remain committed to as we continue to ask the questions. The often neglected underpinning principles of the National Quality Framework are a great place to start, and they are that:
The rights and best interests of the child are paramount
Children are successful, competent and capable learners
Equity, inclusion and diversity underpin the Framework
Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are valued
The role of parents and families is respected and supported
Best practice is expected in the provision of education and care services
So in answer to the burning question of ‘am I doing it right?’, reflecting on these principles is a great place to start.
Dahlberg, G. & Moss, P. (2008) Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care – Languages of Evaluation New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ Work. Vol 5 (1) p 03-12
Dahlberg, G., Moss, P., & Pence, A. (2007). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Languages of evaluation (2nd Ed.). London: Falmer Press
Rowe, K.J. (2002) The measurement of composite variables from composite indicators: Applications in Quality Assurance and Accreditation Systems: Childcare. Camberwell Vic: ACER