Have NSW regulators succeeded in preserving our state’s higher standards for early childhood education and care services and how do children in other states and territories fare? Lisa Bryant lifts the lid on the new National Regulations.

The dominant belief in NSW has long been that the requirements demanded of NSW services were higher than those demanded of early education and care services in other states. The requirement for qualified early childhood teachers in all centre-based services bigger than 29 places, for example, is often cited as the best example of why we needed to ensure that NSW did not lose out when national regulations were framed.

Even a cursory comparison with other state and territory regulations often showed areas where the NSW regulation required more of services. So when our regulators from NSW sat down with the other states and territories to nut out the ins and outs of harmonising all their regulations into a national one, they undoubtedly had a hard ask. Fighting for the preservation of our higher standards, was no doubt difficult.

Did they succeed? Now that the regulation is finalised, we need to ask this question. When all the meetings, drafting and redrafting is over, how do children in NSW fare under the new Regulations?

Will they still be protected by strong regulations? And how do NSW children really fare when compared to children in other states and territories?

Why should NSW children fare any differently than children in other areas of Australia? After all, isn’t that the whole point of having ‘national’ regulations— that children’s services should experience the same quality education and care regardless of where they are receiving it? One only has to examine Chapter 7 of the Regulations (Jurisdiction-Specific and Transitional and Saving Provisions) to see that there will be differences in the care and education delivered to children based on their location. This section contains provisions of a ‘savings’ or ‘transitional’ nature that facilitate the change from the operation of former state and territory laws to the new National Law.

A transitional provision is essentially what is allowed to happen in an interim period of time after the Regulations become law. Most of the transitional arrangements refer to ratios and qualifications. Given that NSW had, on the whole, higher requirements in both of these areas, it is not surprising that in the short-term, NSW children will fare better than other children in other states and territories.

Unlike a transitional provision, a savings provision is more long-term—it stays in place until such time in the future that a specific amendment is made to change it. There are specific savings provisions for individual states and territories.

So what sort of provisions do the other states have? In Queensland, during rest periods, some services are allowed to have a 1:12 or 1:16 ratio for toddlers and 1:24 ratio for preschoolers. Until 2019 Queensland services will be counted as meeting required ratios even if an educator is out of the room on a ‘rest pause’. Queensland services can also get (on approval by their state regulator) permission to run at a 1:5 ratio for children aged 15 to 24 months until 2018.

Until 2020, South Australian services are exempt from the requirement to have a second teacher for services between 60 and 80 places. Similarly, family day care educators in South Australia, who currently have a ratio exemption that allows them to care for more children than allowed under the Regulations, will retain this right until 2020. Some Tasmanian services have ratios of 1:7 for children aged two and over as long as no more than three of the children in the group are under three years of age.

In Victoria, educators who have been working for five years full-time, do not have to obtain a Certificate III.

In contrast, NSW services are already on the regulatory ratio of 1:4 for babies; our 1:10 ratio for preschoolers is higher than the Regulations 1:11 and we will move on schedule to the 1:5 ratio for toddlers.

It is in the requirements for access to an early childhood teacher where NSW children will clearly do better than children in other states and territories —as long as they attend a centre above 29 places. Under a savings provision, our requirements for ECTs have been retained.

Therefore, in NSW, an early childhood teacher must be in attendance at all times that a centre is caring for 30–39 children; two teachers are needed when there is 40 to 59 children, three when there is 60 to 79 children and four when there are over 80. This is a lot higher benchmark than what the Regulations set for other states.

Essentially, the Regulations only demand of services in other states and territories that a teacher be at the service for six hours a day if the service operates for under 50 hours per week, or 60 per cent of the operating hours if it opens for more than 50 hours per week, if it educates and cares for between 25 and 59.

If the service has between 60 and 80 children, a second ECT (or another suitably qualified person!) must be there for at least three hours per day if open for less than 50 hours per week or 30 per cent of the operating of the operating hours of the service on that day, if the service operates for less than 50 hours a week.

In other words, whereas a child attending a centre with 45 other children in NSW would be at a centre required to ensure there are two teachers on the premises at all times the centre is open, a child attending a centre of this same size in any other state could be at a centre with no teachers employed, outside of a six-hour block in the middle of the day.

A centre in NSW with 75 children would have three teachers on the premises whenever it was open, whereas in other states, a similar service would only be required to have one teacher employed for six hours a day and a second for three hours. To add insult to injury, in the other states and territories, if an early childhood teacher is absent from the education and care service because of short-term illness or leave up of to 12 weeks, a diploma qualified educator can be counted as a teacher!

The National Regulations thus codify inequity of access to a teacher. A child’s access to an early childhood teacher should not depend on the state or territory they were born in or the size of the service they attend.

Even in NSW, although services licensed for over 30 children per day will be required to have teacher/s in attendance at all times, smaller services will only be required to have a teacher in attendance for six hours or less per day, and in services under 25, the teacher that is required to work with the service does not even have to work directly with children. No children should miss out on having a teacher. Every primary school child has a teacher!

Research consistently shows that early childhood teachers engage in practices that lesser qualified staff don’t and that these practices lead to higher quality early education and care. Research also shows that teachers interact more with children than other staff do, have more positive interactions and have a positive impact on children’s pre-reading and social skills.

The requirement to have an ECT in place for only part of the day points to a misunderstanding of the role of a teacher within an early childhood service. Services with teachers in attendance offer higher quality care not just because of the hours teachers deliver face to face with children, but also because of their role in leadership of other staff members. Clearly, NSW children are travelling better in many regards than children in some of the other states and territories. Have they lost anything, however, in the process of moving to National Regulations?

The lack of requirement to always have two educators on site at any one time in centre-based care is problematic, as is the allowance of educators under 18 years of age and the ability to count these for the purpose of calculating ratios. A lone educator should not be left alone with a young child at any time. This is for the protection of both the child and the educator. Interestingly, it is only in NSW where Certified and Nominated Supervisors are required to have child protection qualifications.

The new National Regulations are much more outcomes-focused than our previous state regulations—services can demonstrate that they meet a Regulation’s outcome without the Regulation specifying the exact manner of meeting the outcome required. This is particularly noticeable in the facilities requirements. However, this may lead for potential confusion to be built into the system where there is variation between best practice guidelines and operator’s handbooks. The Guide to the National Quality Standard and the Regulations: Services in NSW can be used when there is a definitive regulation but the plethora of guides that may now have to be consulted, in addition to much lengthier regulations, may cause confusion and inadvertent breaching of the Regulations.

Outcomes-based regulation can also give greater leeway to individual assessors to interpret whether a service is meeting the Regulations. Services could face assessors having differing interpretations over words such as ‘adequate’ and what this might mean in practice. Generally, this latitude in absolute requirements may work well for higher quality services and yet simultaneously give lower quality services freedom to manipulate requirements, especially in the facilities area.

All in all, however, NSW children have not fared too badly. They will still be protected by strong regulations that uphold their right to safety and wellbeing while attending early education and care services? And they have generally fared better than children in other states and territories.

This inequity is somewhat sad, given our jubilation when COAG first made the National Partnership on The National Quality Agenda For Early Childhood Education and Care all that time ago in 2009. Our NSW politicians and bureaucrats ‘did good’ in fighting for NSW children, but the fact remains that not every child in Australia will have access to same quality early education and care.

Feel a campaign coming on anyone…?

Lisa Bryant is a children’s services consultant.

This article first appeared in Rattler Magazine, Issue 100, Summer 2011

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