When Goodstart Early Learning intervened in 2009 to clean up the mess left in the wake of the ABC Learning collapse, the early childhood education and care landscape looked grim. Now, with more than 650 services under its not-for-profit brand, the future is looking bright. Ingrid Maack reports. 

A UnitedVoice Big Steps campaign poster hangs on the front gate. A box advertising free recycled books sits on the porch. A ‘Teachers are Teachers’ brochure catches my eye, alongside billowing silk panels of Chinese calligraphy flanking the front door. Gone are the trademark ABC teddy bear and the ubiquitous purple and aqua colour scheme. In its place is shiny new Goodstart signage and a fusion of cultures typical of Fairfield Heights. This is the new face of Goodstart Early Learning.

It’s been almost five years since the implosion of Eddy Grove’s corporate childcare company ABC Learning. It was the biggest upheaval in the sector to date, with ripples felt across the social spectrum.

From the get-go, Goodstart (a not-for-profit consortium formed in 2009) has set about systematically laying the ghosts of ABC Learning to rest by rebranding and gradually regaining the trust of Australian families.

Two years ago, Goodstart Early Learning CEO Julia Davies told media that the name ABC Learning still ‘conjures up a lot negativity: instability insolvency and, for some people, corporate greed—that’s not who we are!’ she said.

In a Sydney Morning Herald article published last year, Ms Davies cited research she commissioned when she joined Goodstart that revealed only 32 per cent of parents would enrol their child at an ABC Learning centre. This jumped to 80 per cent when parents learned it is now owned by the charities Brotherhood of St Laurence, Mission Australia, The Benevolent Society and Social Ventures Australia

However, it is at the coalface that this cultural shift and gradual changing of perceptions is having the greatest effect. There is a sense of excitement about the future of Goodstart that is palpable at Fairfield Heights.

According to Goodstart management, Goodstart Early Learning Fairfield Heights paints a good ‘before and after’ picture in the ABC-Goodstart story.

‘We’re for children not for profit’, says Goodstart State Manager (NSW), Nicole Jones. ‘Our mission is to provide high-quality, accessible, affordable, community-connected early learning in our centres.

‘ABC Learning was a privately owned commercial business with a focus on generating profit. As a not-for-profit, any surplus has been reinvested back into our early learning programs.

‘In 2012 Goodstart spent almost $37 million on quality improvement initiatives in our centres including professional development for our educators and improved ratios.’

Under ABC management, there were strict procedures and policies and Directors were given little autonomy to make decisions at a centre level. All this has changed according to Ms Jones, who says the focus is now on ‘empowering’ Directors to make decisions in consultation with management.

‘This means each of our centres is supported to create relationships with families, programs and connections that are unique to and suit the individual communities in which they are located.

‘Centre-based leadership is encouraged and [Directors] are supported by our Centre Support Offices* to deliver the very best early learning and care to children in our centres.’

Purpose-built 20 years ago, Goodstart Early Learning Fairfield Heights had two private owners before being purchased by ABC Learning in December 2006.

Ms Jones tells Rattler that the service has made ‘a smooth transition’, embracing the new regime and the quality reform agenda with enthusiasm.

‘The strong and positive relationships we had built with families played a major part in ensuring the transition went smoothly … Staff were committed to providing a high level of care to our children and keeping families informed throughout the process.’

Ms Jones says Director Sharon Ho and 2IC (Second In Charge) Trudy Elkin did a great job during this time of change. Both women have been employed at the service for more than a decade and both call Fairfield Heights home.

Goodstart has many services across Sydney in suburbs like Fairfield Heights. Located 31 kilometres from Sydney’s CBD, Fairfield Heights is a bustling south-west Sydney suburb known for its Assyrian, Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese communities.

‘Fairfield has really changed and evolved over the years. It is so diverse and it is diverse in terms of socio-economics too,’ Ms Elkin says. ‘We have wealthy families who are doctors and lawyers and other families who are really struggling’.

Director Ms Ho speaks four languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, English and Bahasa). Another staff member speaks seven languages, which is an enormous benefit when non-English-speaking grandparents drop children off, she says.

‘Our relationships with our families are something we pride ourselves on. Our families value us and the role we play in their children’s lives.’

Improved communication with management is not the only change under Goodstart. Ms Ho also says there is more of a focus on quality outcomes for children.

‘Also, there are more centre-specific resources at our disposal,’ she adds. ‘It enables us to be able to make decisions and deliver initiatives that support our unique local community and our diverse families.’

‘We really are one big family,’ she jokes, explaining that her own children attended the service and several of the staff are in fact related. ‘We have a mother and daughter and a mother and daughter-in-law here,’ she says.

‘A number of families have been with us for years, with siblings and cousins also enrolling. Families appreciate that, for the most part, the same educators are still here when their next child comes through and they trust them implicitly.’

The service is conveniently positioned near Fairfield’s bustling shopping precinct and in the same street as the local primary school. The service offers 10 after school care places, which Ms Elkin explains are for families who previously attended the centre or who have siblings still at the service.

ABC Learning was known for plastering its premises with posters that gave its services a distinct feel of an institution and subjected families to information overload.

Under Goodstart, however, there is a warm, home-like feel that I am told many families comment on. In the foyer there are soft furnishings, dimmed lighting, family and staff photos on display, as well as a sign-in station for both parents and children.

There has been a concerted effort to create this ‘warm nurturing atmosphere’, explains Ms Elkin.

‘We were asked to walk fresh through our centre to see how it feels and ask how we could make it more inviting.

‘We also took down much of the paperwork. Visually we used to bombard our families. Now we do things more through newsletters and email.

‘The parents were a bit worried when we pared down the information displayed. They thought we were selling up and going. We kept saying: “no we are just displaying the children’s work in a different way”.’

It was a common rumour that under ABC, a standard eight-week menu was issued to services by head office in Queensland. Under Goodstart, however, the services have the freedom to devise their own menus.

‘We are certainly more spontaneous with our menu,’ explains Ms Elkin. ‘Teresa our cook has a handle on the children’s likes and dislikes and there is more opportunity for children to be involved.’

Under ABC management, children ate lunch indoors, but today at Fairfield Heights children ‘dine alfresco’ at tables under a covered patio area, which has created more indoor space.

‘The children really enjoy eating out here. They used to eat inside which meant we had to clear tables to make way for food. Sometimes children were upset that they had to stop playing; now we can leave children’s works out.

‘We also have plastic picnic tables outside under the shade cloth and they get utilised for meals too. Yes, the tables are plastic but we want to keep them. We don’t want to just take them to the tip!’ she says.

Stepping outside, I notice a plastic climbing frame with a ghostly imprint of the ABC teddy bear. It is the only remaining symbol of the old regime I saw at the service.

‘This plastic play structure will stay,’ explains Ms Elkin ‘Goodstart asked us if the children still use it. And they do. It still has value and is used every day. Sometimes it will become a boat or a stage. We have thought about how we can open it up, so we keep the bones of the structure but make it more open-ended such as hang fabric or add recycled timbres.’

She says staff are slowly transforming the outdoor area. Garden beds now line the perimeter and potted trees and other natural elements have been added.

‘When ABC took over they ripped out the rubberised soft fall and put in artificial grass. With Goodstart, the changes have been more in consultation with us about what we need. We also asked our families what they wanted and many of our parents preferred the artificial grass… so it too will stay.’

Even the ABC Learning-issued wooden cubby house has had a revamp. Potted plants now surround the structure and a mirror has been placed inside so staff can see what’s going on without intruding on children’s play.

But perhaps the most popular feature is the fairy garden, which Ms Elkin explains is where they take children who are upset so they can experience a ‘little bit of wonderment’.

‘The fairies are not for decoration; they are there to be played with. We made the mushrooms by painting bowls purchased from an op shop and the wishing well came from a staff member’s home.’

Raising awareness with children about sustainability and leaving less of a footprint on the earth is a real focus, says Ms Ho, explaining that sustainability is a key component in the services’ Quality Improvement Plan (QIP).

‘Staff are passionate about this and have some fantastic ideas. We send our newsletter via email to cut down the paper. We don’t thoughtlessly discard items, we re-use things or pass things on.

‘For example, our wooden stepping-stones came from a tree which was being chopped down near my house. We have also encouraged families to get involved,’ she adds. ‘We recently had one of the dads (a carpenter) help us create sand shovels from coconut shells.

‘We use the coconut scoops in the sandpit instead of plastic shovels which splinter and crack in the sun. They [coconuts] may not last long but at least we know they’re going back into the ground, not plastic!’

As Rattler’s visit draws to an end, I notice the service’s Ratings Sign—a graph that explains to parents and the wider community that the service’s has an ‘Overall Exceeding NQS’ rating.

Fairfield Heights had its assessment and rating visit in October last year and scored ‘Exceeding Quality Standard’ rating for 5 of the 7 Quality Areas.

‘Our National Quality Assessment went really well,’ says Ms Ho. ‘Our assessors were approachable and made the process as easy as possible for us.

‘We also have a very supportive Area Manager, Liz, and Early Learning Consultant*, Janelle, for advice and guidance, especially in the lead up to the assessment. We prepared for our assessment by undertaking a comprehensive self-assessment and reflected on our practice. We evaluated ourselves critically.

‘We are always striving to improve and believe the assessment process was just an opportunity for regulators to witness firsthand the commitment we have to providing the highest quality of early learning and care.

‘It’s wonderful to be recognised for our commitment to providing high quality early learning and care to the children of Fairfield Heights.’

*Supports for the service

Each centre and centre Director is supported by a state-based support office as well as a broader national Centre Support Office. Within these are areas dedicated to supporting each centre to deliver high quality early learning programs to children. Specifically, field staff including Area Managers who are on the ground provide guidance and support to a small group of centres in a region. Area Managers are also responsible for providing support and professional development and mentoring of centre Directors and staff. Additionally, an Early Learning Consultant provides guidance and best practice advice on implementing high quality early learning programs and supports centres to embed the National Quality Framework.

The NSW/ACT State Manager, Nicole Jones, oversees all centres in the state and manages all the state-based relationships with stakeholders, including government and other community agencies.


No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply →