Rattler talks to a DEC preschool, a community-based service and private long day care centre about the long and winding road to quality improvement. By Ingrid Maack.

The past three years has been an era of rapid change and reflection with children’s services using the reform agenda as a road map to raise quality and drive continuous improvement. Even while still in its draft form, many services began engaging with the National Quality Framework (NQF)—turning the mirror inwards, so to speak, and sparking a spirit of self-study and reflection that is effectively reshaping the sector.

For many, the journey began with in-house workshops and professional development days where educators reflected on practices while breaking down the new National Quality Standards (NQS). Others looked outwards—networking with peers via preparation working groups, training days or online using wikis, webinars and blogs.

With the requirement of draft Quality Improvement Plans (QIPs) to be completed by 30 April 2012, many services are already well down the road in the quality improvement journey.

Documenting reflection in Dubbo

Regand Park Early Childhood Education Centre is a private long day care centre in Dubbo, NSW, owned and operated by Jacqueline Benn (Mothercraft Nurse) and Justine Cook (Early Childhood Teacher). Regand Park has 141 enrolled children.

Licensee, director and teacher Justine Cook shares her team’s journey:

‘Last year I attended the ‘NQF: Preparation Working Group for Preschools and LDCs’ run by Children’s Services Central. This group met five times between August and November to work through the National Quality Standards in detail, forming networks and brainstorming as a collective group. Jacqueline and I also attended ‘Making Your Preschool or LDC NQF Ready’ run by Children’s Services Central and Community Child Care’s Really Simple Regs Info Session run by Community Child Care in late 2011.

Some examples of our reflective journey at Regand Park are: the makeover of our indoor environments, a huge renovation of our outdoor environment which incorporated ideas and suggestions from the children, a new way of gathering and documenting parent input and suggestions into our programs, rostered reflective time and a commitment to better utilise and portray our local Indigenous culture.

In-house, we provided our five rooms with their own copy of the EYLF and NQS documents and the Guide to the National Quality Standard. Educators have been working through these documents in their programming time and using the outcomes and elements as links and reflections for their learning journals.

Documenting our reflective journey ‘We have been focusing on the concept of reflective practice for some time now. The team really engaged with the concept of reflection and together we developed a reflective journal for our centre.

It is an A3-size spiral bound art book that we began in January 2011. The idea came as we worked through the EYLF and looked at what we did well and areas we could improve upon. When we came across the principle “Ongoing Learning and Reflective Practice” we knew we did [this] well, but we couldn’t show or demonstrate how we do this at a centre level. We felt it necessary to give reflection of our thoughts, ideas, beliefs and practices more importance.

I had read that educators should demonstrate how they were working through the Educator’s Guide to the Early Years Learning Framework. As a director, I was overwhelmed by the size of that document let alone giving the Guide out to my team, so the idea to work through a section at a time and have a centre reflective journal was born. Jacqueline and I spent time looking at our roster and were able to squeeze three lots of 45-minute “reflective journal” times into our weekly roster. During this time educators are replaced and leave the room to work on the journal. As a team of 24, it takes approximately six weeks for everyone to complete each section.

I used passages, paragraphs, quotes, activities and questions from the Educator’s Guide and put these into our journal for staff to read, reflect and comment upon. Each educator then signs off on a table at the front of the journal so at a glance we can see who still needs a turn. We also table 5–10 minutes at our monthly staff meeting to discuss items that have arisen. Due to the success of our reflective journal we have also implemented room reflective journals and individual journals to help educators document their thoughts on programs and practice.

Making the most of monthly meetings

‘At our monthly educator meetings we have been looking at each Quality Area in detail, focussing on one area [per] meeting.

We typically begin by reading through the overview and then brainstorming answers to three key questions.

The questions are: What is the Quality Area about? What requirements must we meet? Questions to guide reflection. We then divide into smaller groups to gather perspectives. Each group focuses on one element of the Quality Area. They are given a piece of paper with the element at the top and four headings: “Observe, Discuss, Sight, Improvements/Questions”.

‘I realised early in the NQF journey that it’s a bit like a running race.

You have people who are sprinters, those who are long distance runners, joggers and walkers.’

As they read through each element, they write down how we currently meet it under each heading. For example, under “Observe” they write things the assessor may see on a visit that support that element. Under “Discuss”, they list things they might discuss about our service with an assessor.

Under “Sight”, they list what documents and policies we need to update and display to reflect current practice. Under “Improvements/Questions”, they list various issues raised after reading through the Guide. It may be a question to pose to the whole group, a task we have to do, or something we feel we don’t currently do or could perhaps do better.

The “Improvements/Questions” section has made us really look at how we communicate as educators and how we reflect and document our reflection on our programs and procedures.

All these pieces of paper have been placed in an A3 display book that we have called “Our Journey with the NQS”. This is located in our staff room so educators can add ideas to it any time.

We have also done up question templates using questions outlined in the discuss sections of the Draft NQS. At Regand Park we have a lot of visitors from TAFE and University. They usually come with a certain focus (e.g. programming or environments) and they ask our educators many questions. I like to give question sheets to each visitor with one question on the topic they are covering. I then ask the student to pose their question to one of our educators as they move through the centre and record their answer on the sheet. At the end of their visit, I photocopy the sheets for the students. This way they leave with a bank of information and we get practice in explaining, justifying and discussing our practice with others.

Right now, we are just about to Brainstorm Quality Area 7: Leadership and Management and we’re using the Improvements/Questions sections to begin our Quality Improvement Plan. This will help us enormously when we come to formally write the QIP.

I would say the NQF preparation process has reminded us to value each Standard and Element and its impact on overall quality. Without relationships you cannot effectively intentionally teach, and unless you have considered how the environment is set up you cannot allow children to learn through play, respect diversity or investigate and problem-solve.

Instead of being caught up in the negative aspects of change, I like to remind our educators that for the first time we have a [Framework], we are being recognised as educators, and the focus is on the valuable work we do and the impact we have on the lives of children.

After all, isn’t that why we are all here!’

Continuous improvement in Central West

Mitchell Early Learning Centre in Bathurst is a community-based long day care centre located on the campus of Charles Sturt University. It has 30 staff and 59 enrolled children.

Director of Mitchell Early Learning Centre Jenell George shares her team’s journey:

‘Preparing for and implementing the National Quality Framework continues to be an exciting journey. For Mitchell ELC it’s been a relatively easy transition from the old system—we haven’t found the jump that big. While it has been overwhelming at times with the amount of information to read, the essence of it is still about quality practice and quality outcomes for children.

I realised early in the NQF journey that it is a bit like a running race. You have people who are sprinters, those who are long distance runners, joggers and walkers. We have 30 staff so it’s been important from the start that everyone has been engaged in the NQF and EYLF learning process.

Whatever crosses my desk via email— e-tips, journal articles, etc.—I have been displaying on the staff room notice board and discussing in staff meetings.

We have also been sending as many staff as possible along to training within our region and further afield.

We have paid, monthly two-hour staff meetings. The first hour has a focus on professional discussion and reflection, while the second hour is devoted to reflective practice at a room level. We often have guest speakers at our meetings, for instance to assist us with the rewriting of our philosophy, (done annually) or staff will do a presentation about training attended or something they have read in a journal.

Regularly reviewing our philosophy

Three years ago we decided to review our philosophy annually. The first year we broke down our philosophy into just four points with the help of Lorainne Madden from Semann & Slattery. The second year we made it a reflective journey for the whole community and invited the management committee, centre families and children to help.

Children made posters, now displayed in our hallway, where they wrote or drew what they like at Mitchell Early Learning such as their friendships or favourite educators.

This year we brought in facilitators from Lady Gowrie, and met with our local Multifunctional Aboriginal Children’s Service, Towri MACS, which is our new sister service. We had a combined professional development day earlier this year to focus on the NQF, review our philosophy and develop our first Quality Improvement Plan. Both services worked on our QIPs individually and then presented them to each other.

Our QIP is displayed in the staff room. I suspect it will be a “work in progress” forever as we are constantly improving and learning new things. It’s about striving for best practice always, and wanting to make the things you do to be authentic and meaningful for everybody.

We’re licensed for 70 children but we currently only have 59 children enrolled.

This is part of our improvement journey and is supported by our management committee, which sees the value in minimising numbers. We have higher staff-child ratios in every room. We changed our name last year from Mitchell Child Care Centre to Mitchell Early Learning Centre to reflect the NQF and the focus on education as well as care. We made a notice board in 2011 to involve the wider community in the name change. We also asked the children, whose suggestions included “Kid’s House” or “Fun Place”.

For some educators, the enthusiasm and commitment to continuous learning was already there, but the National Quality Framework is a great tool to encourage other educators to join in on the improvement journey.

It is the catalyst for driving people who have been in the field for a long time and have been waiting for these changes.

This is the fruit of all those hard years of work. Those whispers were always there, but now that voice is getting louder and stronger … and that is exciting!’

Feeling future positive at John Brotchie

John Brotchie Nursery School is a Department of Education and Communities preschool in the Sydney suburb of Botany. In 2010 John Brotchie Nursery School was part of the trial group for the National Quality Standards.

Preschool director, Rebecca Andrews shares her journey:

‘The Department of Education has been very supportive during this change period. We have had two state conferences both for teachers and support staff around the EYLF. We have also established a Community of Preschool network group, where local preschools meet twice a term to discuss the Framework, and we have the support of an early childhood consultant.

Participating in the NQS pilot was a valuable experience and gave us a head start, especially because we are a preschool and new to the accreditation and assessment process. The draftonly Document also gave our team an introduction to the Standards and Elements, many of which have since changed, but the experience did jumpstart our journey.

The report we got at the end of the trial gave feedback on our strengths and areas for improvement. As part of the pilot we also did a Quality Improvement Plan (QIP), but we did ours in just three weeks, whereas now I would work on a QIP over three to six months.

Two years on (February 2012), we are excited about putting the Framework into practice, and of course, we are reflecting, documenting and preparing for our QIP. We have two more Quality Areas to reflect on and discuss as a team, and we are starting to put some of our key improvements into place.

So far, I have found the QIP template easy to use. It’s kept us focused and helped break things down into achievable steps.

We’re introducing new practices

‘We have identified our strengths and what we could do differently—i.e. how we could challenge our current practice or maybe introduce new policy or procedures based on discussions and reflection. For instance, after looking at Quality Area 5: Relationships with Children, we have introduced family photo albums. On our open day each family is given a little album to allow children to reflect on their lives at home and at preschool. The albums have been a great success and have helped children settle into preschool and allowed educators to get to know children’s family and home lives.

For us, the Framework has also highlighted the importance of the Physical Environment (Quality Area 3).

We have always valued our outdoor area as a place for the children to experience nature through climbing trees, growing veggies and caring for plants and animals but I think training around the principles and practices has helped us to understand current research and make further changes within our services. [In 2011 the preschool won the 2011 SPRout Award for ‘Connecting with Nature’ as well as first prize in the City of Botany Council’s Garden competition for School and Community gardens.]

The journey never ends

‘There is always room for improvement or things we can do differently. We discovered this when we looked at Quality Area 6. Collaborative Partnerships with Families and Communities.

At John Brotchie our documentation is digital and posted online so families can access children’s journals at home or in the office. However, we realised that not all parents have a computer or internet access at home. So we set up a documentation station here at the preschool where families can access a computer to check their child’s digital journal. It also means we can share activities from that particular day and not at a later date (sometime days later) online. We also looked at Quality Area 2, (2.1.2) that “each child’s comfort is provided for and there are opportunities for sleep, rest and relaxation”.

Being a preschool program, we don’t have sleep time or beds provided but we reflected on the need for children to have a quiet space in our environment where they could lie down, listen to music, read a book or have a sleep if they wished.

While change and the introduction of Standards can be overwhelming, it’s wonderful to see services embracing change and trying new practices.’

This article first appeared in Rattler Magazine, Issue 101, Autumn 2012

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