Cultural competence—assuring individuality is integral to equity, fairness and social justice

‘We need to both recognise and normalise the strengths of diverse knowledges, languages, cultures and ways of being and doing in our communities. And these can be vastly different …’

The last couple of years have brought a sea-change in early childhood policy and practice. Recent policy directions have focused on the wider provision of affordable, quality early childhood education and care, and on more consistent educational outcomes for all children. The Early Years Learning Framework is in place and the National Quality Standards, rating system and national regulations are in their final stages of development.

In finalising the logistics of National Quality Framework implementation (and what a major initiative and achievement!) we must keep ‘deep understandings’ about children, development and learning in the early years at the top of our ‘to do’ lists. Regulations, rating and results are important, but at the core of quality programs are children and their relations with others.

Fundamental at each step of the way is promoting positive relations with and between children, families and educators. Hand-in-hand with strong relationships are honouring and respecting individual differences, celebrating diversity and building cultural competence. This doesn’t mean ‘exoticising’ diversity and ‘difference’ or viewing it as the starting point for an intervention or compensatory program or approach. On the contrary, it means ensuring individuality is integral to equity, fairness and social justice—in a sense to ‘normalising’ it.

We need to both recognise and normalise the strengths of diverse knowledges, languages, cultures and ways of being and doing in our communities. And these can be vastly different—from the very remote parts of Australia to the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

In rolling out our new quality initiatives we must guard against overshadowing day-to-day care, nurturing and relationships and individual children’s development, to the imperatives of assessments, standards, and ratings. High-stakes ratings and easily measurable outcomes must be balanced against on-the-ground individual needs of each child and the cultural context of family and community.

The emphasis on reflective practice in the Early Years Learning Framework is encouraging and important. It reminds us to think about all dimensions of practice. But it must not become a mechanical exercise designed to meet some predetermined quality ‘check’. It must be genuinely thoughtful and action-oriented to have a positive impact on children’s development and learning. Reflective practice is about generating positive outcomes and change—not just completing a template or journal. As we move into the 2012 implementation phase, exercising wise judgement about each child’s learning and having the pedagogical and cultural competence to inform this will be more important than ever.

Undoubtedly, our practice as educators has a moral dimension that will be enhanced by greater consistency in quality across the early childhood sector, but unless we focus on relationships and wellbeing within a diverse, but ‘normal’ context, we will lose sight of the fundamental and deep ways in which families and children want the same things for their children and the strengths they bring to early childhood settings.

In this issue of Every Child we explore some aspects of diversity, cultural competence and the relational and emotional wellbeing of each child as we implement the Early Years Learning Framework and get ready for the changes of 2012. Our writers highlight the need to focus on individuals and relationships in thinking about change, diversity and culturally competent practice. Catharine Hydon makes the important observation that ‘the ethical dimensions of becoming culturally competent are simultaneously challenging and extraordinarily life affirming’. Somayeh Ba Akhlagh stresses the fundamental things that are important to Islamic families and we see how universal these are. Barbara Romeril’s uplifting article about working collaboratively to develop culturally appropriate professional support for Indigenous childcare centres in Victoria and Tasmania highlights the importance of cultural ownership and control—in this case for Aboriginal families and educators. And finally, Yvonne Yoke Yin Chan makes the very important point that within all cultures and linguistic groups there is considerable diversity and we have to be careful not to stereotype and ‘exoticise’ families.

Alison Elliott