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The building blocks of a better system?

With a raft of national reforms in the process of implementation, Australia’s early learning landscape is undergoing a seismic shift.

The result of a Council of Australian Government (COAG) commitment to improving outcomes for young children, the reforms are detailed within the National Childhood Development Strategy (NECD), the first nationally agreed approach to early childhood development in Australia.

Featured in the reforms are changes to staff qualification requirements, hours of kindergarten for children the year before they start school, higher carer to children ratios and the creation of a new framework governing the education care of the 0 – 5 age group.

While the reforms are being enthusiastically received in all quarters, the nuts and bolts of the implementation is creating a range of challenges for the sector. And, it’s raising more than a few questions along the way.

The reforms of the sector are long overdue, says parenting author and expert, Maggie Dent, who travels the country addressing forums and visiting educators and parents.

She says more than 24 per cent of Australian students starting school with some kind of physical, cognitive or emotional development delay – up from 9 per cent two decades ago.

“The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) is a well-conceived, quality document that’s been created with input from all the right people,” Dent tells Early Learning Review.

However, she says a challenge is the fact that each state already has its own framework and regulations in place. “Getting everyone on the same page sounds great in theory, but we are a vast nation and very different depending on where you are, so one size won’t fit all.”

Deputy convenor and WA state delegate for Australian Community Children’s Services, Josique Lynch, agrees the current approach to early years education and care is a real “witch’s cauldron”. She agrees with Dent that it will be a considerable task to try and bring everyone together under the one framework.

“A complicating factor is legislating any reforms because in many states the education and care portfolios are held by different ministers…it’s a bit of a nightmare,” she says.

Further, Lynch, who works in a long day care service in WA, says it’s difficult for staff to keep on top of all the changes taking place within the early years sector.

“Changes to national regulations and quality assurance processes are also underway. Plus, n children’s services there is an accreditation system. It’s a major challenge for providers and educators to keep on top of it all.”

She says while each state has a professional support coordinator unit to provide training, “there just aren’t enough hours in the day to deal with it all. When the children go home after 6pm, there’s not much left in the tank.”

She sees a potential issue for schools offering early years programs, and who will soon have to undergo accreditation as part of the new National Quality Framework.

Mind the gap

Meanwhile, the experts have pointed to a seeming disparity between the early years framework and the new national curriculum.

While the EYLF has a strong emphasis on play-based learning, the national curriculum values literacy and numeracy in the early years. Further, a recent (July 2011) ACARA national curriculum position paper makes no mention of play-based learning for the early years of schooling.

Dent says because both documents cover the year children turn five, they are pulling early years staff in different directions and sending a mixed message.

“The national curriculum is proposing to bring more formalised learning to children the year they turn five, which is an educationally ridiculous decision, especially for the large percentage of students who start school with a developmental delay,” says Dent.

However, Professor of Early Childhood Education at Charles Sturt University, Sue Dockett, is more confident early years professionals can work together to interpret and implement both policy documents, although she acknowledges DEEWR has provided little in the way of guidance about how this might be done.

While there’s no question the EYLF and the national curriculum are different, Dockett argues it is the role of early years educators in school and pre-school settings to build continuity for children by being aware of one another, forging strong professional networks and fostering smooth transition experiences.

Although it will require a great deal of cooperation and commitment, Dockett says, “early childhood educators and teachers deserve the professional respect and trust that they will make sense of both documents and collaborate to provide pedagogical continuity”.

Similarly, Early Childhood Australia CEO, Pam Cahir, says the EYLF and the national curriculum have much in common.

“The EYLF and the national curriculum are different in structure and in some of their emphases because they focus on particular phases in the learning lives of children and young people,” Cahir tells ER. “However, the two ‘frameworks’ are complementary and can provide an articulated pathway of learning from prior-to-school, into school and beyond.”

School starting age a bone of contention

Dent says while the early years reforms recognise the importance of the first five years of life, the threat of a push down curriculum looms large, particularly for four year olds.

“There’s huge pressure on schools to formally teach the three Rs, however this fails to recognise the crucial role of play in the development of literacy and numeracy. In some states children are sent off to school when they’re still four and it’s too early. They hop onto the escalator of academic learning and have a year of their early years effectively stolen from them.”

Dent says pressure on schools and parents to “push them in earlier so they pop out smarter” ignores contemporary wisdom as well as school starting ages in leading education locations like Scandinavia, where many children start school at seven.

“School readiness is an area that early learning experts have explored for years and we know that sending them too early can turn them off formal learning for life. Starting children at school the year they turn six would ensure they received the full educational and wellbeing benefits of play-based learning, at least for the crucial first five years.”

Conversely, Dockett doesn’t see school starting age as a big issue, because “regardless of the age at which children start school, there will always be individual differences because no two children are the same”.

“Teachers tend to make decisions based not on age, but on a greater understanding of the individual child,” she says.

Despite evidence that a later start offers children advantages, in some states, such as Victoria, reports are emerging of families under financial pressure sending their children to school early, with the intention that they repeat their first year. It’s a cheaper option than childcare and, with the cost of childcare set to increase as further early years reforms are rolled out, it’s situation that looks likely to continue.

Norm Hart, president of the Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA) says his membership would welcome a uniform, legislated school starting age across the states.

“This would open up the conversation about what is the best age to begin school. Principals tend to take a middle ground approach to the foundation year of school, providing opportunities for constructive learning that are creative, stimulating and engaging.”

While Hart acknowledges the importance of play-based learning, he says “to say everything can be taught through play is not true”.

Hart says APPA would also welcome a common nomenclature for year levels (in different states the terms prep, reception and kindy all refer to the foundation year of school in different states) and common transition points (from pre-school to school; from primary to secondary etc).

ACARA says it is yet to determine a national school starting age. According to a spokesperson, “at this stage it is still the responsibility of individual states and territories to determine school starting age, however there are discussions happening and plans afoot to develop a consistent age for children to begin their foundation year.”

NEXT ISSUE: Staffing the reforms – is it possible? Plus, universal access – can it be achieved?

Key elements of the national early year’s reforms

Reforms to the early years are outlines in the National Early Childhood Development (NECD) Strategy, ‘Investing in the early years’. Its vision is that, but 2020 all children in Australia will have the best start in life to create a better future for themselves and for the nation. Through a range of policies including the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), National Quality Standard and Early Childhood Education Universal Access, the reforms aim to:

* Strengthen universal maternal, child and family health services.
* Support vulnerable children.
* Improve early childhood infrastructure.
* Build parent and community understanding of the importance of early childhood development.
* Strengthen workforce across early childhood development and family support services.
* Build better information and a solid evidence base.

SOURCE: Investing in the Early Years – A National Early Childhood Development Strategy Fact Sheet. More information available at www.deewr.gov.au/EarlyChildhood

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