Embracing change in early childhood

It’s nearly a year now since the raft of regulatory changes linked to the new Law and Regulations started.

While some services have breezed through the new processes, navigating the changes are challenging for many, especially smaller or isolated services without strong system or provider support.

Implementing any new processes requires patience and practice. We know from research and experience in the education sector and elsewhere that new practices tend to meet with resistance. Over time, as they become familiar and more routine, they become easier.

My many conversations with early childhood educators suggest that changes are being embraced willingly and managed thoughtfully and carefully. Most professionals I talk with know the importance of strong foundations for learning and they value a well-articulated focus on evidence-based practices and authentic partnerships with families.

Ensuring that all early childhood services are familiar with the Early Years Learning Framework will take time but there are many opportunities for professional learning and these will continue. Challenges come when centres can’t release staff during work hours or where there are difficulties with written English. Happily, most recent early childhood education graduates are comfortable with the Early Years Learning Framework.

In any change too, there is much ‘back-room’ or hidden work. Behind the formal Quality Improvement Plans and other documentation integral to the new processes is the often invisible day-to-day work of educators who actually implement the Early Years Learning Framework and navigate other aspects of the changes.

Complicating the change process is the instability of work teams in many centres. Centres that struggle to attract and recruit staff are in a perpetual ‘team building’ phase. Sometimes the whole group of educators in a centre turns over in the space of a year or so. These centres never get the chance to move into a consolidation phase and don’t benefit from within-context continuity of experience or expertise. As staff move on a centre may have to start its training and professional learning all over again.

The biggest challenges that I see around the National Quality Framework and the Regulations relate to staffing. Shortages of qualified educators are not new, of course, but with the revised ratios and qualification requirements, difficulties in recruiting and retaining educators to meet minimum regulatory requirements, let alone exceed them, are intensifying. Early childhood teachers willing to work in child care are particularly hard to attract. Achieving pay parity will be just the start here.

This issue of staff shortages must be addressed urgently if changes are to succeed in the longer term. If it is commonplace for centres to have ‘waivers’ or if they can’t operate within regulations quality and viability will be threatened and everyone will be worse off.

Achieving functional clarity, consistency and standardisation around the shifting structures of our complex early childhood sector requires bringing people and processes together to bridge the old and the new in practical ways. At various levels we are all coming to terms with a new operating framework and its language, vision, processes and standards. In doing this we must be able to scope, build, stablise and document quality—as well as focus on our day-to-day interactions with children.

Despite challenges in the first year, there is widespread support for the quality initiatives. We all agree that every child needs the best start and that boosting early childhood program quality will result in more consistent developmental outcomes across the country. The huge developmental gaps at school starting age must be closed. And while we all recognise that pathways and pedagogies will depend on the nature of children’s strengths, cultural and family backgrounds, and on an early childhood setting’s program orientation, we know that expectations and outcomes for intellectual and social development should be consistent.

This issue of Every Child has a mix of articles designed to support educators’ planning and innovation and to highlight the key role of leadership in these change processes. Ros Cornish writes about the very tricky issue of getting the play mix right while ensuring adherence to the regulations, Pam Linke reminds us why children need comforting and Eileen Wanganeen talks about growing professional competence in working with Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. In the area of professional leadership, Carmel Richardson outlines the importance of professionalism and teaching standards, stressing that quality early childhood programs demand educators with specific skill sets and a wealth of specialist knowledge, and Jenny Lewis and Jenny Hill emphasise the key role of purpose in pedagogical leadership in the early childhood sector.

The informative piece by Suzanne Northcott on the Early Years Workforce Strategy outlines some key cross-government strategies to help build the skilled workforce we need to foster high-quality early childhood services and achieve the best outcomes for children. Importantly, it acknowledges that educating young children is complex work that requires enhanced qualifications and ongoing professional development.

Alison Elliott

Every Child magazine – vol. 18 no. 4, 2012.

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