Early childhood

Excellent: why do we need that rating for early childhood care?

Professional identity in the Australian early childhood education and care sector (ECEC) is strongly linked to quality assurance policy and the need to prove ‘quality’ and professionalisation through external ratings, say researchers. In Australia, that means gaining high ratings within the National Quality Standard (NQS) assessment and rating process. 

There are unclear messages of who the ECEC professional is and where they fit in the overall education profession due to a combination of  social, political and economic factors.The idea of ‘quality’ in ECEC is used as a political and economic tool to justify government spending and to measure output. The historical beginnings of the ECEC sector are grounded in welfare and mothering-type child care roles. That’s further compounded by societal beliefs that early childhood educators don’t require credentials or even deserve the title of educator. 

These issues of professional recognition in the ECEC sector are being addressed through quality-driven compliance processes and increasing surveillance disguised as rewards, such as higher ratings within NQS processes. These factors are challenging the opportunities for a true reflection of professional recognition for our ECEC workforce.

There’s an upturn in applications for ‘excellent’

As a researcher of professional identity in the Australian ECEC sector, I pay attention to patterns of engagement in professional recognition undertakings. There appears to be an upturn in ECEC services applying for the ‘excellent’ rating. 

I wondered why that was. Why the need for an excellent rating? And why spend precious resources applying for this rating? 

Let me explain the process of assessment and rating within the Australian ECEC sector.

The operation of an approved ECEC service including long day care and preschools in Australia is regulated through a national independent authority the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). This body oversees the implementation of the National Quality Framework (NQF) under which a National Quality Standard (NQS) system exists. 

Since 2011, ACECQA has assisted state and territory governments in implementing the NQF for children’s education and care. Its role is to provide support for the ECEC sector and to monitor the application of the National Law and Regulations system. The standards are implemented through assessment of an ECEC centre’s performance against seven quality areas. 

Seven quality areas

The seven quality areas are educational program and practice, children’s health and safety, physical environment, staffing arrangements, relationships with children, collaborative partnerships with families and communities and finally, governance and leadership.

For an ECEC service to achieve a rating of ‘Meeting’ the NQS an authorised officer from a state or territory regulatory body needs to assess the centre’s performance against seven quality areas as listed above and have met them all. That rating shows the service meets the NQS providing quality education and care across all seven quality areas Guide to the National Quality Framework (NQF) – September 2020

What does ‘exceeding’ mean?

To achieve a rating of ‘Exceeding’ the National Quality Standard, the centre needs to be rated Exceeding in at least four or more of the quality areas with at least two of the areas being either educational program, relationships with children, collaborative partnerships with families and governance and leadership. Under the standards, a centre rated as Exceeding demonstrates that the centre goes beyond standard requirements. To achieve the rating of Excellent the centre needs to have been rated as Exceeding the standards in all seven quality areas. 

The NQS considers that a centre rated as Excellent promotes exceptional education and care, demonstrates sector leadership, and is committed to continually improving Guide to the National Quality Framework (NQF) – September 2020. To be awarded an Excellent rating a centre must make an application to the authority and demonstrate it meets three of the authority’s criteria.The first criteria is related to exemplary and exceptional education and care covering partnerships with professionals, community and or research organisations; show a commitment to children in relation to diversity, culture and inclusive partnerships; demonstrate positive workplace culture and values and environments that enhance children’s learning. 

The second criteria needs to demonstrate leadership that enhances the development of the community or wider ECEC sector. 

The third criteria needs to demonstrate a commitment to practices of excellence that are sustained and continuous. 

Exceptional Practice Framework

There is provision of an Exceptional Practice Framework to assist applicants. Just 34 ECEC or OOSH settings hold the excellent rating in Australia, compared to 3,700 rated at exceeding and 15,700 rated as meeting. 

During my doctoral studies with the University of Newcastle researching the relationship between leadership, quality discourse and professional identity, participants shared that gaining an excellent rating for their centre provided a perceived heightened sense of professional identity amongst colleagues and families. 

This response reflects the struggles of professional identity development in the ECEC sector resulting from the historically benevolent and feminised formation of the ECEC sector and the neoliberal project of proving professionalism through quality policy metrics. Both of these factors act to marginalise the purpose and identity of the ECEC sector. 

The latest National Quality Framework Report Summary for 2023 reveals the quality rating of a service continues to rank as the least important factor for families when choosing care for their child. 

According to the report, what matters to families is skilled and experienced educators, cost and location.

If the imperatives of the early childhood sector are to ensure children and families are thriving in accessible and affordable ECEC settings, why do we need ratings beyond meeting a national standard? 

Why does achieving a higher rating matter and why would educators be drawn to undertake the significant work involved in proving their practices are ‘excellent’? 

Here’s why.

The excellent rating awarded by ACECQA seeks to highlight specialisation by providers and educators that showcase outstanding practice and programs. 

I believe a tension exists around the measurement of ECEC programs based on the contextual nature of a settings’ specialisation through a neoliberal mechanism such as quality assurance. 

This tension questions whether or not specialisation can remain a meaningful marker of excellence when held within frameworks of criteria, themes and external decision-making. There is a risk that this process reduces the excellent rating to a politically domesticated professionalisation award in place of truly valued and authentically understood pedagogy and professional identity for the ECEC sector. 

The ‘truths’ of quality

The discourses of quality and accepted truth claims of centres holding high ratings equate to better quality outcomes, move through the ECEC social body. This normalises quality processes encouraging the sector to pursue professional status through higher ratings. 

There is little evidence to support the claim that high ratings held under the NQF ensure quality outcomes for children. 

The evidence demonstrates  quality outcomes are dependent upon individual educators’ motivation to seek ongoing professional learning and higher qualification. That cannot be assured by the NQF.  

The quality assurance process can alter – and shift –  educators’ focus away from the heart of expert activity and opportunities for reflexive, democratic pedagogical curiosity. 

Quality assurance mechanisms incite self-governance that fixate the ECEC sector to exceed external standards and re-design thinking about practices of care and education to evidence themes and ‘quality’ criteria. 

Is this the criteria that educators, children and families would choose? Does this matter to them or are they simply governed to generate these values? What other values and ideas are overlooked when the sector is so entranced by quality highlights? 

Complicating ‘excellence’

Those applying for an excellent rating are seeking validation for the considered pedagogical efforts of their setting that highlights the big and bold points of difference of their context. 

But I argue that centres look beyond external ratings and instead re-focus on the everyday value rational practices of expertise in care and wellbeing. 

The inequity of the excellent rating for those centres who do not have the resources to meet criteria could be balanced by ‘excellent’ educators sharing and connecting with other educators about daily practices of deeply practical pedagogical care that forms our decision making. 

Focus could be directed to co-constructing new narratives of professional practice within our teams, to debate and discuss the purpose of our work and create better outcomes for more children. 

All centres could be proud of this kind of work, resulting in significant, albeit difficult to measure, ongoing ethical improvement.

Educators and centres need a deeper understanding

The opportunity for professional identities existing within collective societies informed by democratic values is lost through these quality assurance processes.  Educators and centres need a deeper understanding of how these mechanisms shape what the sector does – and a broad cohort of educators must become confident to let go of the truth claims of professional certainty gained from external gildings of excellence.

We can’t lift the ECEC profession through ideas of individualised excellence and themed specialisation and continuing to accept that quality ratings proves professionalism. 

Could we move our thinking away from instrumentally rational approaches of ‘doing what works’ to achieve professional recognition, towards more value rational approaches of ‘doing what is right’ for children and a workforce in desperate need of sustainable reconceptualisation?

Elevating education and care through joining educator expertise with regulatory structures

It is time to talk about ways to recognise and join practitioner expertise with the quality policy structures of the ECEC system in a way that ethically and radically lifts and validates educators’ daily practices and expert activity beyond quality discourse

Quality discourse in the form of criteria, themes, outcomes and frameworks wears a cloak of certainty that provides ‘truth’ about what can be highlighted as macro practices of specialised excellence. 

The cloak of certainty hides complexity

But this cloak of certainty hides the complexity of the micro practices within the relationships and shared values of care, trust and wellbeing when working with children and families. To validate the work of the ECEC educators’ daily practices, the influences of formal and moral knowledge operational within educator expertise and regulatory structure should be revealed. 

Educator agency and moral knowledge is gained through deeply reflexive praxis, experience and wisdom that considers the broader conditions that educators are working in. These conditions include economic and political influences, discourses of quality and self-governance that educators are complicit in when seeking an excellent rating. These conditions distract the focus of ECEC professionals to technocratic ways of highlighting success in their work. This distraction can hinder value rational acts that may better serve ECEC contexts. Our daily practices of criticality that truly represent the complex capacity of the ECEC educator are far more intricate than any reductive notions of ‘excellence’.

Mel Duffy-Fagan is a proud Early Childhood Teacher with over 30 years experience as an educator and director with 20 years also being an Approved Provider of a centre in Lambton, Newcastle. Mel works as an academic and researcher within the ECEC sector and completed her PhD in 2023 with the University of Newcastle.  Her doctoral studies explored the themes of leadership, professional identity and quality policy. Find her on LinkedIn.

Part two: A new way forward for toddlers, teens, educators, parents

Educators and parents often complain about toddlers and teenagers. In the first article of this two-part series, we explained similarities in their physical, social and emotional development. In this second article, we explore the cognitive similarities, share tips on building positive relationships, and provide ways to address their mental health and wellbeing.

What are the similarities?


Both age groups are still learning how to assess risk, yet they think they are invincible. This, combined with the rapid physical development, can lead to high rates of hospital emergency department admissions.

Additionally, teenage hormone surges interrupt concentration, which is frustrating for educators and parents as they sometimes think messages are not going through. Teenagers are often off task and can spend considerable amounts of time day dreaming.

Communication can also be a struggle. While toddlers might struggle to find the right words to say (even if they understand the words), teenagers might find it challenging to express what they really feel. This can lead to grunting, then either tantrums (toddlers), or slammed doors, rolled eyes and sighs (teenagers). There is often a lot of dissatisfied whining and grumbling. Often children just cannot name the emotions they are feeling so they fall back onto the perennial grunt of “nothing” despite clear evidence that they are feeling something. It is useful to use descriptive language, labelling the feelings their behaviour indicates. For younger children, reading books that improve emotional literacy can help. Many of these are available in libraries.

Tips for positive relationships

It is important to maintain a positive relationship with both age groups despite the challenges.

Remembering that it is a frustrating age for children as well as educators and parents. They are not trying to be painful, rather, they are trying to grow up and learn about who they are and how the world works. When they are grumpy, teaching them to be civil is important.

Using humour can make a world of difference when they are sullen, sulky or recalcitrant. Letting them know their efforts are appreciated (whether they succeed or not), and that you understand that life is frustrating at times. 

It is important they know they belong, they are important, they are a valued part of the family or learning environment, not a burden and that you appreciate them being here. It can help to identify what you see as their strengths, particularly at times when they are overwhelmed by frustration at what they see as their failures. Using a strengths-based approach and listening to them can make a big difference to the outcomes.


Both age groups will push against and even throw tantrums about any boundaries you put in place. For a toddler, a boundary might be that they can only play with the blocks when they have helped pack up the train set. For a teenager, it might mean they need to finish their work before they can do something fun, or their behaviour needs to be at a certain level before they can be trusted to go on an excursion.

It is their job to push boundaries and tell you the rules are not fair. It is your job to clearly set limits and stick to them, reinforcing consequences and gradually easing the limits as they mature and show their ability to follow them, and self-regulate. Those without boundaries feel lost and uncared for, so they try riskier activities and poorer behaviour to get attention.


It is not an educator or parent’s job to be friends with a child or teenager. They have their own friends. There will be moments of friendship, and these are wonderful, and likely to increase as the child matures. However, it is the adult’s job to be a coach and mentor. Their friends are not coaches, so you need to take on that role.


Teenagers are learning how to express their opinions and they need support to know how to do this appropriately. This means learning how to:

  • calmly state their opinion,
  • spot the difference between opinion and fact,
  • value a range of opinions,
  • agree to disagree respectfully, and
  • appreciate that you approve of those with different opinions than your own.

Mental health

Not every child, despite all your best efforts, is going to be able to grow up without help being

provided to the family and to those carrying the responsibility for their welfare. There are a range of family support services available upon which families can call. Educators can recommend the mental health resources available at the service, school or community.

Mental health challenges, particularly in the teenage years, are not uncommon and there are a range of supports available (see Teens mental health: services and links and Teenage mental health – treatments and causes. However, understanding the similarities in these age groups and looking after yourself can support educators’ and parents’ efforts and reduce their stress levels.

Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in early childhood education. She researches marginalised voices within families and education especially in regional, rural and remote communities. Marg is a postdoctoral fellow within the Commonwealth Funded Manna Institute.

Margaret Sims is a professor in early childhood education and care and has worked in the areas of family support and disabilities for many years. She researches in the areas of professionalism in early childhood and higher education, families, disabilities, social justice and families from CaLD backgrounds. She is an honorary professor at Macquarie University.

Toddlers and teens: the news educators and parents need right now

Among educators and parents, the most often complained about age groups are toddlers and teens. Physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively there are many similarities in these developmental ages. Understanding these similarities can reduce frustrations and help us better connect with them.

In this two-part series, we explore the physical, social and emotional similarities. In the second article (published tomorrow), we will explore the cognitive similarities, share tips on building positive relationships, and provide ways to address their mental health and wellbeing.

What are the similarities?


This is a time of rapid physical growth for both age groups. Brains are struggling to keep up, causing what might seem like clumsiness and frequent accidents as they learn how to move and be in their rapidly changing bodies. They might not know their own strength and accidently break something or hurt someone as they test shifting limits. It is important to avoid overreacting and attaching a purpose behind these actions as there may be none. Letting them know you are upset and that you do not want them doing that again is okay, but try to leave it there.

This rapid growth means both toddlers and teenagers need loads of sleep. This can be tricky for teenagers who like to stay up late, then struggle with morning routines and learning activities. Additionally, gaming, streaming and social media means there is more to occupy them in the evenings. Parents are often unpopular if they take devices off children at bedtime, but it might mean a big difference enabling them to get the physical rest they need.


Both ages are times of opposites. One minute children seem to be clingy and wanting attention and support, then the next they are pushing you away, expressing their opinions, and saying ‘No! I can do it’, snarling or grunting. They are still very needy at all times, despite the bravado

Learning to step back and allowing them some freedom is important, but letting them know you are there whenever they need you is vital. The saying ‘Children need your love when they least deserve it’ is very true. Teach them that if they want to do something themselves, or have time to themselves that it is okay, but that they need to express this wish in a way that is not hurtful. Providing example sentences can help them choose appropriate words.


Socially, children are still learning what is acceptable, what will elicit a response, and how to navigate relationships. Emotionally, they are more likely to find rejection heartbreaking because they are forging their identity. Feeling rejected for toddlers might look like someone not sharing their toys, or pushing them over. For teens it is far more complex, and involves feeling liked and belonging within friendship or sub cultural groups

To be mentally healthy all humans need to feel a sense of belonging. We need an identity that locates us safely in groups of others. For toddlers those groups include the family and possibly the educators and peer group in their early childhood setting. For teenagers the importance of the family group declines (but doesn’t disappear) as they seek their place in a range of different peer groups in both the face-to-face and virtual worlds they inhabit. Learning who we are in these groups is often a function of how the group reacts to us, and children need a secure base of caring relationships. This supports them to manage the turbulent emotions that come with learning that not everyone in the world will like them or want to be with them.

Regarding identity

In regards to identity, toddlers are realising they are separate to their primary caregiver, and teenagers are forging their identity as a young person separate from their parents. At both ages, egos are very fragile, so it is important parents provide a place where they can feel safe and secure within their own home, away from the hurdy gurdy of friendships. Ideally, the family environment creates a safe basis from which children can reach out into the world and develop their own identities within their own groups. If there is not a safe environment at home, other spaces might help provide some support, such as libraries, extra-curricular groups and clubs. 

Teenagers are now old enough to realise what people say and what they mean can be different. This new skill means they often believe people are thinking the worst of them, despite the reality that people are not thinking about them at all. It is important to point out to teenagers that it is a time where they are more likely to be self-conscious, but the reality is most people are not thinking about anything but themselves or the task at hand.

For both age groups, having time alone at home is important as this time gives them the space to process their experiences and reinforce for themselves just who they are. For teens, this means times where they are not on social media. They might complain, but it is good for them to relax and not always be socially available. Time in the family unit is also important as it reinforces the relationships that make home a safe place.

Looking after yourself

Overall, it is challenging educating and parenting these age groups, so finding another trusted and experienced educator or parent to chat to is vital for your own wellbeing. It is normal for educators and parents of toddlers and teenagers to feel exhausted, challenged and exasperated at times. It is essential to recognise your own limits. It is not selfish to desire time alone to recharge batteries to enable you to cope with the next challenge thrown your way. Nor is it selfish to reach out for help when those difficulties feel overwhelming. Looking after yourself is vital for the long haul.

Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in early childhood education. She researches marginalised voices within families and education especially in regional, rural and remote communities. Marg is a postdoctoral fellow within the Commonwealth Funded Manna Institute.

Margaret Sims is a professor in early childhood education and care and has worked in the areas of family support and disabilities for many years. She researches in the areas of professionalism in early childhood and higher education, families, disabilities, social justice and families from CaLD backgrounds. She is an honorary professor at Macquarie University.

The government must fix the childcare desert now

Marg Rogers, Navjot Bhullar and Laura K Doan ask: How far will the Budget’s funds stretch to fix educator professional development and ‘childcare desert’ communities?

The Federal Government’s Budget announcement of $18 million of funding to be available as grants for providers is welcome. Providers will be able to apply for up to $900,000 to build more services in ‘childcare desert’ areas. These are normally in regional, rural and remote areas, and exacerbate disadvantage because children in the area miss out on early learning, and their parents miss out on working. However, this is not going to go very far since the problem is so great.

The Government has promised to support 6000 existing educators to upskill and support them to backfill positions that are vacant. It has also pledged $72.4 million over 5 years to support up to 75,000 educators’ professional development for those in regional and remote communities is welcome. 

Educators in these areas often act as more than educators, and face increased pressures. They often plug the gaps for other services that are missing in these communities, such as mental health services, family support and early intervention. Sometimes they are unable to attend further professional development because they do not have the casual staff to cover their teaching load.

Throughout the sector, many early childhood services are scrambling to run effectively. The sector has chronic staff shortages and high levels of burnout.

This has led to alarming rates of staff absenteeism due to increased workload and stress. The impact of this level of disruption and stress on children’s wellbeing and learning is still unfolding.

Despite welcome reforms to reduce the cost of early childhood education for families, staff shortages have increased during COVID as educator burnout has increased. Currently, there are over 6800 advertised positions for educators in Australia, double since the pandemic began. So, how did we get into such a mess?

To find out more about the challenges educators face, our international study explored educators’ work in five different countries. We also wanted to learn from other countries to improve policies and practices.

Australian educators’ experiences

In Australia, 51 surveyed educators told us about their experiences working in a sector in crisis. Additional data were collected from publicly available forums related to the publication of these findings. Predictably, most roads lead to gender

Women make up 92% of this workforce. As part of the feminised care sector, it features: 

financial abuse

“Educators were pushed to provide high quality … with minimal budget. I spent over $4,000 of my own money – not one cent reimbursed”.

“Book week, pirate day, Halloween – …centres force this onto staff. They want photo ops to market themselves on Facebook but expect staff to pay for …costumes. Unpaid overtime setting the rooms up”.

–extremely low pay

“One day I found one of them (educators) crying in the other room… she told me …she works double shifts and so tired but gets paid #%!@ all”.

low status

“Traditionally ‘women’s work’ so it’s undervalued”.

“Quality education begins with quality educators…(who) are valued”.


“There is a lot of pressure on educators to meet the needs of others resulting in their own health being overlooked”.

-never being good enough

Early childhood teacher’s and educator’s… qualifications are far less valued”.

unpaid hours

“Too much work ‘from the love of your heart’”.

-chronic overwork

“So stressful due to the admin and recording”.

“Obscene documentation requirement from the government”.

-high stress

“It can be stressful to try and achieve all the goals and outcomes … in these frameworks”.

“All of us have stressful days… managing behavioural issues, parent’s demands and a lot of routine tasks”.

-poor staff morale

“Very low, strained and tired”.

-forced to conform to others’ ideals

“Educators … are … pressured to conform early education to one box”.

What could we learn from Canada?

Clearly, our highly privatised Australian system needs urgent reform. In the meantime, to support educators’ wellbeing, we might be able to learn from other countries.

Up to 50% of educators in British Columbia were leaving the sector in their first five years. To address this, an evaluated, funded peer support program is nurturing the wellbeing of educators. Unsurprisingly, this is reducing attrition.

Potentially, this research-based Peer Mentoring Program (PMP) could be adapted for Australia. It involves peer-mentoring within Community of Practice (CoP) groups.

Why is it so effective?

The program works because it:

-Gives educators a voice

The groups create a safe space for educators to discuss their professional and private lives without judgement or recrimination. An educator in the program said:

“It’s creating a safe place for vulnerability”.

-Supports educator health and wellbeing (self-care)

This is a major focus for the individual groups as educators explore ways to sustain their practice.  

“Our time together ‘filled my cup’, each sip of tea warming my insides … I felt refreshed mentally”.

-Creates a nurturing, connected community

The groups build a sense of belonging with like minded individuals, with mentoring from experienced educators. 

“I would describe the PMP program as going home, being with a group of people who … allow you to be the best version of yourself…”.

-Addresses invisibility

The program focuses on educators’ needs, not the needs of children and families.

“I’m educated … experienced … fulltime … as a woman, why is it okay that I’m at poverty level”?

“We have nothing to give if our OWN cups are empty”.

Post-pandemic bread and butter budget

So, how do we convince governments to fund such a program?

Now, Australian governments and early childhood services are spending a lot to attract, train and induct educators. Some of this money could be better spent supporting the wellbeing of educators in our existing workforce so we can retain them.

What Australia needs to change to keep educators

To reform the sector, Australians and our Government need to take a long hard look at the following: 

Do we value young children’s education and care during the critical first five years? Do we value those in the feminised care sectors enough to give them a fair go? If so, let’s address this crisis by making the necessary policy reforms to nurture, value and keep our educators. The 2023 Budget only partially addresses this.

Dr Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in early childhood education at the University of New England. Professor Navjot Bhullar is a research-focused professor of Psychology (wellbeing focus) at Edith Cowan University. She is in the top 250 most cited researchers in Australia. Associate Professor Laura K. Doan is an associate professor of early childhood at Thompson Rivers University in Canada.

Header image from Anne Aly’s Facebook page

Provoking the children: why that matters for remarkable early learning

Our research shows why play matters in supporting young children’s learning and development. We have so many resources and materials within early childhood education but it is the way in which these resources are shared with children which impacts their capacity to learn through play. 

Poorly resourced learning environments lack variety and stimulation, while excessively resourced spaces can be overwhelming and distracting, resulting in a lack of concentration skills. When presented using thoughtful and engaging approaches, early childhood resources can maximise children’s learning and development and help them achieve their full potential. One way of presenting purposeful and effective play opportunities is through the creation and delivery of a learning provocation.

Intellectual exploration through a variety of means is a key principle of the Reggio Emilia philosophy. 

This is where the idea of learning through engagement in a ‘provocation’ has blossomed. When considering the philosophies of Reggio Emilia, the learning environment becomes ‘the third educator’ and strongly contributes towards children’s play and engagement. Learning provocations form a foundational aspect of educating children through their environment.

Put simply, provocations provoke children’s interests, imagination and engagement. They motivate thinking and investigation. Resources are arranged in an aesthetically pleasing way, sparking children’s interest and inviting them to engage and explore. For example, soft fabrics form the base or backdrop, with resources arranged in bowls or baskets that children can easily view and access. Books that accompany the provocation theme add a layer of intrigue, mirrors or pictures in frames catch the children’s eye and encourage them to take a closer look. 

Different from a learning invitation, which often has a desired outcome, provocations are open-ended and are designed to stimulate children’s ideas, imagination and creative thinking. A crucial characteristic is that they have multiple entry and exit points, meaning that children can engage with the resources within a provocation several times and produce a range of outcomes.  For example, an invitation might ask children to sequence or order a set of pictures to retell the story of Goldilocks and the three bears – one correct answer and it’s the same each time. A provocation might involve a roleplay or small-world figures of Goldilocks and the bears where children could act out the story using accompanying props and the storybook to guide their sociodramatic play. 

The role of the educator is pivotal in providing appropriate and thoughtful provocations that meet children’s learning and developmental needs and connect to curriculum outcomes. Deliberate and considered decisions need to be made based on a sound understanding of the child, their interests, what is age and developmentally appropriate, and the types of experiences to offer that will continually encourage exploration. The best outcomes for children happen when educators provide experiences that meet children’s learning needs within their Zone of Proximal Development with knowledge that is built on careful observation of the child. 

The Zone of Proximal Development is defined as the space between what a child can do without assistance and what they can do with adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.

The understanding that a child-focused learning environment encourages the child to actively explore and learn about the world themselves, rather than the educator overtly guiding and leading the child’s learning, is also critical to effective provision. 

Provocations encourage children to form their own conclusions about the world around them, rather than being told by someone else. Once children are engaging with a provocation, educators need to consider their role in supporting learning. This might involve making decisions as to when to step in and out of children’s play, when to adjust or add to the provocation, when to engage in conversation, build vocabulary or demonstrate how particular resources might be used.

Creating a provocation allows educators to be creative as they consider how best to gather a range of learning tools in a way that will spark interest and inspire engagement. Sourcing materials does not need to be an expensive task. Natural and recycled elements can be just as engaging as purchased equipment and they possess soothing elements that help to promote a peaceful space. Promoting spaces where children feel emotionally and physically at ease helps to develop a sense of belonging which optimises learning. 

Good provocations will reflect an element of care that always accompanies early childhood education. Responding to a child’s interest through a provocation might include pictures, photographs, light and/or mirrors. Worksheets and colouring-in pictures offer limited, structured outcomes and form more of a teacher-led invitation than a provocation. Providing ways for children to communicate their thinking through drawing and other arts-based practices, enables them to make meaning of new-found knowledge and understanding in more agentic ways. Literature and picture books offer opportunities to expand children’s imagination, vocabulary and knowledge of print.

There are no specific limits to the size of a provocation. Some may involve a small collection of items in a basket that help to develop a schema that a baby has demonstrated an interest in, whilst others may be large provocations using loose parts in the outdoor yard or sandpit where children demonstrate an interest in construction. Careful positioning of resources and not over cluttering the space sends the message that resources are valuable and important. Whilst provocations are often limited to prior to school settings, there is no reason as to why they cannot work with school-aged children, adjusting resources to be age appropriate and providing opportunities for further engagement with curriculum content within the classroom.

In an effective play-based learning environment, provocations are one approach used within a suite of pedagogical practices where educators can see the extraordinary in the ordinary and help children to do the same. Effective provocations should be a reflection of the child, extend learning and development, continually encourage exploration, and position the child in a space where they can be guided to calmly work and learn through play.

Rachael Hedger is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education and Course Coordinator for the Early Childhood Initial Teacher Education degrees at Flinders University, South Australia. She is a PhD candidate at Deakin University. Her PhD explores how arts-based practices can support children’s science learning. Her research interests focus on how drawing can be used as a vehicle for exploring science concepts, focussing on process and exploration. She is a supporter of learning through play pedagogies and encouraging pre-service teachers to be advocates for young children’s learning.

We build submarines and the defence force. Now we must support the families who work in them

The Federal Government has plans to expand Australian Defence Forces (ADF) to a 40-year high. They hope to increase the forces by 30% (18,500 extra personnel by 2040), the biggest increase since the Vietnam War. This will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of children and parents impacted by military service. 

It won’t just be enough to recruit new soldiers, sailors and aviators – retention will also be critical and we know that Defence families play a key role here. Defence families are depended on to provide a crucial service to the ADF, often at significant cost to their own wellbeing. Defence families are mostly ‘invisible’ in our communities, and struggle to get access to the support and understanding they need.  

Our PhDs explored the experiences of young children and partners in defence families and sheds light into some of the factors affecting the ADF, military members, and their spouses, children and loved ones.

Dutiful housewife and children model

One of the major challenges is attracting and retaining staff because of the high demands of the job. The military is a ‘greedy institution’, demanding great sacrifice from the defence member and their family

Most Defence families are expected to relocate at least every 2 years. Frequent relocations, and absences from home, make it incredibly challenging for Defence families to have their own careers and supportive relationships within education settings, as the former Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton highlighted in comments earlier this year. The new federal government announced a funding boost to 48 community-based organisations providing value to defence families and building connections in July.

As Defence is recognising, the expectation of partners who need to sacrifice their own career to support the career of the ADF member is out of step with the vast majority of modern families with dual careers. It is also out of step with children who are connected to peers, educators and the wider community.

Over 73% of Australian couple families have two sources of income and women make up 19% of the ADF. The ADF seeks to be an employer of choice. 

Children are often quite connected to their extended family, and their community through extracurricular activities. Additionally, many build a sense of belonging and the sense of place within their education communities.

Perfect female partners and perfect children

There is pressure on partners of Defence members to perform a ‘perfect spouse’ role, which is at odds with modern society.

The model assumes ‘perfect partners’ will sacrifice not only their career, but will also dutifully perform a ‘perfect spouse’ role. They will not complain about the inconvenience of Defence life. For example, participants said they felt pressure to ‘suck it up and deal with it’ when they were having trouble during deployments. 

The model often requires families to give up access to sources of support which provide a protective buffer. These include extended family, friends within their community, educators, health care professionals and community groups. Additionally, access to specialist services may not be available where they are posted, or those services might not understand the experience of being a military family. 

Incorrect or outdated information about the support Defence families receive can have negative impacts, such as the perception that families receive free housing, as well as some more outlandish claims. For example, one participant said some of her friends thought she travelled on Air Force planes every time they went on holiday.

Children can also experience a lack of empathy from peers, and even teasing if they attend early childhood services or schools that have little experience with military families.

When families don’t receive the support and understanding they need from their communities, it can impact their willingness to stay associated with the military. 
Retention of highly trained members is difficult, with many personnel citing ‘family reasons’ when they leave. As one family explained

We had never planned for it to be Caleb’s career forever. In the end we chose to leave much earlier because of the promotion they offered him. This meant he was going to be away more often for training. When Jess turned 3 we realised Caleb had only been there 1 year of her life…(a) big issue for us. Caleb had missed the first soccer games and other big events in the children’s lives.

The military also makes enormous demands from spouses and families. Defence families have the impossible task of keeping each ‘institution’ (military and family) satisfied. 

This is especially the case when military members work away for months on deployment or lengthy training sessions. This leaves the partner to cope with their own careers, the needs of the children and run the household themselves. 

This is especially stressful when the children are younger and are less able to understand the sudden disappearance of a parent. Partners are dealing with their own responses, and the responses of their children which can sometimes feed off each other. Children’s responses vary, and can include a regression in physical, social, emotional and cognitive (learning) skills.

While time apart is challenging, reintegration is often harder, as the defence member tries to fit back into family life. The children and family have adapted and grown while they were away. 

He was really tired and tried sleeping during the day …. The kids … made really loud noises suddenly and he would be angry… it is hard because when you are on base you are with adults for 9 months…adults who are good at following orders. When he came home, he was dealing with a toddler and a pre-schooler.

… the kids were up to different stages so he was often babying them and they didn’t want to be babied. Nine months is a long time in a young child’s life and they changed a lot. He was also really upset by some of the parenting decisions I had made in his absence.

Some children emotionally protect themselves by not getting close to the parent who has been away. 

Sam had a rebellion against me …There was some nervousness about coming home and trying to fit back in with the children, especially after Sam’s episodes of not wanting to have anything to do with me.

Educators reported children were very clingly when their parent deployed, often reluctant to play with peers at first. They were also less able to cope with small moments of tension in play episodes and were likely to react emotionally.

Support for young children

Until recently, there was also a lack of Australian resources to assist young children understand transitions and stresses they faced within defence families. This showed a lack of understanding and acknowledgement of the sacrifices young children make within defence forces.

Just because very young children may not be able to say why they are upset, it matters to them when a parent is no longer available. Fortunately, funding has enabled free research-based resources to be created to help parents, educators and family/social workers better support young children. 

Apart from frequent relocations and parental deployment, some children can also experience a parent having service-related physical injuries, medical and mental health conditions. This has been highlighted in the Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide which has also highlighted these barriers to recruitment.

Where to from here?

Effective recruitment and retention will need policy changes. To address attrition, this Recommendation Report called for policies to guarantee families with children could only be asked to relocate a maximum of 3 times from birth to 18. The report also recommended using a flexible model for deployment where parents deploy for longer but less often. In this model, training episodes can be built into the deployment to reduce transitions at home, reducing stress for children. 

This will also assist children to build strong and supportive relations with their educators, peers and community. This builds stronger, more resilient communities who have a greater capacity to support children from defence communities.

Additionally, greater awareness of modern military experiences in the community will benefit current and future families. This means better understanding for families as they access community services, including GPs and early childhood educators, who might not appreciate the challenges of deployment and frequent relocations.


Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in the Early Childhood Education and Care program at the University of New England and the lead researcher for the funded Early Childhood Defence Program project (ECDP). This team, along with their Steering Committee of stakeholders has developed research-based, free, online resources for early childhood educators, parents and family/social workers to better support young children from Australian military families. She tweets at @MargRogers11 and you can find her on LinkedIn.

Amy Johnson is a lecturer in journalism and public relations at CQ University. Her current research projects include the Early Childhood Defence Project, which develops research-based, free online resources for educators and parents to better support young children from Australian military families as well as projects which enhance veterans and family’s wellbeing. Amy has lived experience of military service as an officer in the Royal Australian Navy (Reserve) and the partner of an ADF veteran. She tweets at @AmyJohnsonPhD and you can find her on LinkedIn.

We refuse to value care – why sexism is at the core of our early childhood crisis

Introduction: The old, old problem

The introduction of an extra year of education for three and four-year olds in New South Wales (by 2030) and Victoria (by 2025) is an ambitious initiative. Articles in response argue that promises to boost provision may be difficult to deliver. Australia already has a problem filling existing positions in childcare.

Yet the commentary frequently glosses over the fundamental cause of these workforce problems. It’s sexism. Discrimination based on stereotypical understandings about gender. That old, old problem that is ever present, even in these post #metoo days, in which society has awakened to #everydaysexism.

Of course, pay, conditions and turnover affect recruitment and retention in the sector. But without naming and addressing the gender inequalities underpinning these issues, they will not be adequately addressed.

Working in a feminised profession

So what’s going on? Education in Australia (as in the UK and Canada) is a feminised profession.

This means both that women do most of the work, especially at lower pay levels, and that it is perceived as “women’s work”. The majority of teachers, at all levels of education from early years to tertiary, are women. In Australian early childhood education, women make up 96% of the workforce.

Feminist theorist Professor Madeleine Grumet has pointed out the relationship between nurturing at home and at school. Devaluing of women’s work at home (and indeed that of all those who act as carers in our society) is echoed in the devaluing of teachers’ work. In early childhood education these are closely interwoven, and it is therefore undermined as ‘child care’ or ‘glorified baby sitting’. Children themselves are also devalued and dismissed as not worthy until they become “fully formed”, idealised adults.

Caring for children, therefore, is “abjectified”. It is pushed beyond the boundaries of what is recognised and rewarded by society. Caring for children involves snot and poo, dribble, phlegm, sweat, tears, glue, mud, paint, food, vomit, crouching on the floor, carrying heavy bodies, tirelessly comforting, calming, encouraging and supporting. It is also rewarding, tender, exhilarating, creative, loving, funny and inspirational.

The gender binary’s impacts

Many feminist researchers believe that society is organised by a gender binary that privileges what is perceived as masculine over what is perceived as feminine. So the “masculine”, or what is serious, scientific, rigorous, rational, measurable, finite, cleanly defined, standardised, programmable, instrumental and technical is valued above the messy, woolly, grubby world of the so-called “feminine”.

This binary operates at countless levels, in countless ways, to keep the hierarchical status quo in place. Misogyny, the hatred of women, and mysopedy, the hatred of children, are at the heart of a larger system that refuses to value caring. This binary’s stereotypes and assumptions also discriminate against male educators working in the sector.

Early childhood teachers are discriminated against, paid low wages and employed under poor conditions because of the gendered nature of their work. This sexism feeds into the discrimination faced by all primary carers, because undermining the quality and extent of “childcare” affects participation in the workforce more generally. We argue that to change early childhood education, the sexism at its heart needs to be openly named, critiqued and challenged.

What can be done?

So… how to go about this, and ultimately, to make the profession more attractive to all, including those of all genders, colours, abilities, class backgrounds and ages? At the most basic level, researchers, the media, policymakers and politicians need to start naming sexism as the basis for the challenges faced by the early childhood sector.

The labour of workers in this sector is never gender-neutral, but always caught up in societal judgements based on its alliance with child-bearing and rearing in the home. We need to stop pretending these challenges are about early childhood education as a career being rejected simply as “boring”, low-paid or hard work.

Nothing less than a paradigm shift is necessary. If the early years are the most vital years of education, in which children develop at an astonishing rate, then we need investment that places these years at the top of any hierarchy.

Instead of valuing a medical paradigm in education, where being efficient, scientific and  “clinical” are revered, we need to value what is culturally considered to be more feminine. We might ask, “Are there kindergarten surgeons, who model their practice on the patience, kindness and empathy of early childhood teachers?” Flipping a scenario is often a handy way to expose the gender stereotypes and power asymmetries that underpin it.

Conclusion: Reinvention needs both imagination… and funding

Raising the status of early childhood teachers, paying them more, restructuring their work to acknowledge its intensity and toll, creating and rewarding career progression, making early years programs permeable with local communities, creating vibrant, accessible and well-resourced professional learning environments, enhancing early childhood teacher preparation, incentivising transfer for those in other careers, funding vitally needed research… there is no shortage of ideas for where money can be spent.

Whether there is the courage and honesty to address the real problem at the heart of early childhood education is another matter.

Dr Lucinda McKnight is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) Fellow in the REDI (Research for Educational Impact) Centre at Deakin University. She uses a range of feminist theories in her work on teacher autonomy and professionalism. She is also a mother of two children and has spent many hours caring for children at home, and providing community support in early childhood education as a parent helper. Follow her Teaching Digital Writing project blog or her twitter account @lucindamcknight8

Dr Natalie Robertson is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at Deakin University. During her time working as an early childhood teacher, she developed a strong interest in workforce issues and play-based learning. These interests have followed Natalie into her later research and work in initial teacher education.  Natalie’s focus on workforce issues has framed her professional and research interests towards the attraction and retention of teachers in early childhood education. She is currently working with the Victorian Department of Education and Training to deliver the Early Childhood Professional Practice Partnerships (ECPPP) project) and the Innovate ITE program: Accelerated Bachelor of Early Childhood Education.

The top five ways COVID places harsher burdens on educators. There’s an urgent need for change

COVID has caused commotion in the early childhood education and care sector since it arrived in 2020. It made educators  more stressed and added burdens to those already overburdened

The current level of chaos is unsustainable as shown in our research with Australian directors from long daycare centres, community preschools and family daycare services.

Six directors from rural and regional areas in NSW participated in the study. In their hour-long interview, the directors revealed stressors within the sector related to the pandemic in a number of areas. Here are the top five.

  1. Health regulations

As the COVID virus changes and governments try different methods to suppress the virus, early childhood directors and educators have tried to keep up with evolving regulations on a daily basis. To date, this has meant continually searching government websites to find the rules, watching media reports, reading government emails, attending webinars and reading text messages, adding to their daily workload and already onerous administrative requirements. 

As the health crisis unfolded, text message updates from government departments regularly came through very late on a Friday afternoon and again on a Sunday afternoon. This meant directors had to spend chunks of time on their weekend trying to decipher the information and then act upon it, including sending on important updates and communications to staff and parents outside work hours.  

Directors mentioned the added burden this required of having to constantly ensure lists of phone numbers were up to date so they could immediately contact staff, cleaners and parents if their centre was locked down. This led to a state of hypervigilance for some directors. 

Additionally, one government department required educators to attend a webinar when most community service educators were on mandated leave. No compensation was offered to educators for these unpaid hours. Since educators are the 13th lowest paid workers in Australia, it is unreasonable to request they attend training sessions during their annual leave.

Educators said: 

‘We were fine to wear masks in and out of the service – greeting parents. We were greeting parents at the gate, they were handing over their children’

‘It came in that you …had to wear a mask not outside, but inside when you were working with children, unless there was a child with a hearing challenge or there was a specific need for a child to see your face moving. I said to staff, actually, that’s all children all of the time.’

2. Staffing

Staffing has been much harder during the pandemic. Directors reported the numbers of children attending changed dramatically because of lockdowns, community outbreaks, families’changing needs and government rule changes. At one time, the government waived fees for everyone in childcare, so many families who didn’t normally access care enrolled, causing more changes in attendance and more administrative burden.

While the federal government’s JobKeeper scheme helpfully supported permanent staff, some casual educators did not receive the government payments. This meant that many casual staff left the sector. Directors reported that when asked to return, some of them didn’t want to lose the government payment which was far more generous than what they normally earned as an early childhood educator.

Staff rostering has also taken longer to organise during the various phases of the pandemic. Permanent staff have had to be given time to work with the children attending, time to work online with children, and then time to engage in professional development. Some services had to close because too many educators were considered close contacts of covid cases.

Additionally, time has had to be spent training educators on how to work with different technologies and with changing hygiene requirements. Staff have needed extra support with their own anxieties about catching the virus and working in a new way with masks with young children.

Educators commented:

‘We … stood down our casual staff, but… most of them could access the COVID payment … but it’s still difficult and we’ve actually spent this week changing staff round from room to room and putting the children together in one room’.

’The first week, we hardly had any children there. But by the second week, almost like 98 per cent.’

‘We had several vulnerable staff members had family members or themselves (with) autoimmune conditions that made them more vulnerable, ….. others had elderly parents in nursing homes’.

 ‘We’ve had different rosters for cleaning.

3. Informing and supporting families

Directors and educators have needed to be able to share the constantly changing and often confusing government regulations with parents, including which professions have been incorporated in the category of ‘essential workers’. 

The guidelines have not been clear, leaving directors with  difficult decision-making. Directors have reported spending time searching government websites trying to find clear definitions and rules to have evidence that their decisions were grounded on government guidelines. They have also needed to manage parents’ reactions to these decisions.

Educators said:

‘We’ve been trying to encourage families not to bring their children in …unless they’re an essential worker, which people have been really good about’.

‘If you’re a mum at home with five kids, you’re actually an essential worker as well’.

‘We shared resources that we were using with them (the children) and we even supplied families with some of those ideas around how to talk to their children. Parents (asked)… how do I explain this?’

4. Managing change and budgets

Some directors have faced challenging financial constraints and pressure from organisational managers. This included justifying the work and training their educators who were balancing that with the viability of the service. 

Additional costs for hygiene and cleaning have had to be absorbed by services, whereas many education departments provided schools with extra cleaning staff to help them. 

Educators explained:

‘COVID’s been a little bit different, because it’s been like a little bit like a stop-start routine’.

‘We wore the cost of that (reduction in attendance) for the first term. So, no families were asked to pay any fees. Then by second term, the State Government had stepped up and brought in the free preschool’. 

‘We spoke to the department early this time and said, look, we’re getting a whole lot of different messages. What’s required? We’ve been proactive in getting in touch with the department…even they are juggling balls at the moment’.

 ‘Some staff members that wanted things cleaned twice a day’.

5. Status

On the positive side, educators revealed that families were more supportive and appreciative of educators during the pandemic. Despite this, educators were disappointed they were not recognised as essential workers in media coverage. This is even when they had continued working throughout the pandemic, staying open for children of essential workers. Being valued, respected and visible has been important to educators, as well as solidarity with other educators.

They explained:

‘I think it’s a good opportunity for the policymakers and the leaders to actually have a little bit of a voice for us as well and just show that we are out here. We’re visible. But everyone’s doing the best job they can, so my hat goes off to everyone wherever they are and to all my colleagues everywhere’.

‘We have to stand up and really shout out to the policymakers and the government that it’s fine to call on us, great, and we keep answering, but you’d better show us some respect’.

A need for change

Overall, directors talked about exhaustion of their staff and being unable to keep going with this level of work in an overloaded sector. Clearly, something needs to change. 

Recently, NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, called for radical reform of childcare, which could affect other states. The Thrive by Five campaign is petitioning the government to prioritise significant reform. As this study has shown, it is not time to renovate the sector, we need a whole childcare rebuild.

Dr Marg Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education within the School of Education.  Marg is the lead researcher for the funded Early Childhood Defence Program project (ECDP). This team, along with their Steering Committee of stakeholders has developed research-based, free, online resources for early childhood educators, parents and family/social workers to better support young children from Australian military families. She also leads an international team of researchers from Denmark, Canada and Georgia to investigate the impacts of regulated systems on about educators’ work. Twitter @MargRogers11

Associate Professor Wendy Boyd works as the Associate Dean in the Faculty of Education at Southern Cross University. Wendy is highly regarded in the early childhood field and researches in a number of areas, including educator professionalism. Wendy’s research focuses on provision of quality early childhood programs to support the optimal development of all children.

Professor Margaret Sims is a Professor in Early Childhood Education and Care and has worked in the areas of family support and disabilities for many years. She researches in the areas of professionalism in early childhood and higher education, families, disabilities, social justice and families from CaLD backgrounds. She is an Honorary Professor at Macquarie University.

Time, money, exhaustion: why early childhood educators will join the Great Resignation

As the Omicron virus leaves thousands of families without childcare, because hundreds of early childhood services have been forced to close, early childhood educators are in demand. Previously there was around 30% turnover in the sector, but a 2021 survey of 4000 educators revealed 73% planned to leave in the next three years.

A multinational study I am leading listened to 51 Australian educators who had a range of qualifications and positions in different types of services. Additional data was gathered from publicly available online forums in response to other research-based news articles I have published from the study.

The study has shed light on the hidden costs of being an educator in Australia, many of which have increased during COVID. Here are five hidden costs the educators revealed.

  1. Hidden cost of resources

Educators talked about the extra costs to buy resources for their service that were not reimbursed. An educator commented

‘Educators were pushed to provide high-quality education and care with a minimal budget, and the centre manager received a personal bonus for not spending different budgets. I spent over $4000 of my own money on resources, with not one cent reimbursed. There needs to be more control of private companies and how they treat educators’.

Publicly available forum posts from partners of educators revealed extra costs of outfits, props and craft materials some educators had to purchase themselves, then create them in their own time at home. These items were for special themed days, which help promote the services programs via posts to Facebook and apps for families. 

They reported that the children and staff posed in these costumes and props, which were popular on social media. These specified ‘days’ are often standard across private providers as they commodify education. One educator said the government should ‘Stop the privateers making their centres like Starbucks factories’

These hidden costs for educators are alarming, given the 2021 report that uncovered the $14 billion spent on the sector each year, 80% ($11.2 billion) of which is funded by taxpayers. In addition, a $292 million turnover was reported by the five biggest companies.

  1. Hidden identity and self-worth

Educators revealed that despite being essential workers, they are essentially invisible and ignored. Invisibility is a feature of female-dominated professions, such as early childhood, where 91% of the workforce are female. 

Educators are sidelined in curriculum documents written by the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). Their strengths and interests are not mentioned despite being a key feature of educators valued relationships with children and parents. 

Instead, the documents are filled with ways the educator should constantly reflect and improve themselves and their practice, highly valued practises in Western neoliberal nations. While professional reflection is important, it needs to be balanced with acknowledging the efforts, abilities and successes educators have. Instead, the documents instruct the educator to respect and work with the strengths and interests of the children, and the strengths of the parents.

The underlying message for educators is that they are never quite good enough, even when they are trying their best in a highly pressured work environment. Women are exposed to a similar mantra via the fashion and beauty industries as they sell the need to be prettier, taller, skinnier and more fashionable.

In this study, educators said governments should give educators ‘respect as professionals’ and ‘lift  the professional standing by increasing (the) pay of educators and promote the importance of early childhood education’.

Figure 1: Gender related issues in the early childhood sectoror
  1. Hidden relationship costs

The extra hours and stress educators were expected to do contributed to relationship stress at home, especially during accreditation. Educators commented that it was not sustainable and made them want to quit. They said

‘(My relationships were) strained due to fatigue.

More work at home meant less time with my partner.

It made me very stressed and overwhelmed.

I feel like at times I have no work-life balance’.

  1. Hidden unhappiness

Other educators exposed the managerial systems that dominate their daily work meant they were drowning in paperwork, checklists, documentation and regulation. This caused unhappiness because they felt micromanaged through the government’s demands that require them to collect big data every day. 

They also said they felt micromanaged by the supervisors who completed these daily tasks in a time-pressured environment. One said, ‘I ended up resigning from my position as the top-down approach of management no longer agreed with my teaching philosophy’.

The system also reduced morale, especially during accreditation (Assessment and Rating) every three years. Only 4% of educators said accreditation improved the quality of education at their service, but most revealed it made staff and children unhappy. Accreditation also took them away from interacting with children, which is the key to quality education in early childhood services.

Realising the importance of these interactions, educators actively tried to protect the children against the harmful effects of accreditation (a system that was designed to improve quality). Unfortunately, this meant more work after hours because they had to take the paperwork home in order to teach the children.

Figure 2: The impacts of managerial systems in early childhood education
  1. Hidden hours 

Despite being the 13th lowest-paid workers in Australia, regular unpaid overtime is rife within the sector. The unpaid hours are extreme during accreditation, with 50% saying they worked after hours. 

Some reported being paid for only half of the hours they worked, even asking family members to provide unpaid help, revealing the extent of this modern-day slavery. Educators talked about the effect of accreditation on their personal relationships, saying

‘Stress was felt at home by my children and husband; this is why he came and helped at the centre so that I could stop being cranky and overworked at home’.

However, this  free labour is at odds with the million-dollar salaries of some CEOS and  handsome shareholder dividends in the biggest childcare companies. Australia has one of the highest rates of privatisation of childcare in the world. The 2021 report by Bigsteps into the sector uncovered:

‘Financialisation of ECEC has seen the worst excesses of Australian corporate culture including wage theft, aggressive tax avoidance and other misconduct creep into the sector. 

Despite receiving generous COVID relief payments and availing themselves of JobKeeper, four of the six largest for-profit ECEC providers paid no tax in 2020’. 

Hidden complications that stop reform

A significant reform of the sector is needed. However, reforming the industry is enormously complex because of the mismatched mess of funding and compliance shared between federal and state governments. This tangled web means it is more challenging to reduce costs for parents and improve wages because nobody takes responsibility.

Figure 3: Funding and regulation in Australian early childhood education and care

Another complicating factor is the mix of private, community and not for profit services. Educators are likely to be paid more in community and not for profit services, with 70-80% of their revenue spent on wages. However, as little as 54% is spent by privately-owned services. 

One educator called for ‘more control of private centres’ to reveal what they are doing. Educators showed their frustrations, saying

‘My options include selling out to the greedy large corporations where the directors and educators do not know their children or families. They get exceeding ratings because outsourced marketing gurus write up a perfect marketing plan’.

‘We are burnt out and are leaving the industry in droves because rather than having quality educators, we are getting pushed for quantity. Children are being seen as a commodity, and it needs to stop’.

Despite these problems, the Thrive by Five campaign continues to be a beacon of hope as they petition the government for significant reform. Even NSW Premier Domonic Perrottet has flagged the need for substantial reform, which could have major implications for all states and territories. 

When our governments plan for a better future, they could learn from an African proverb that reminds us that the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago, but the second best time is now. The best time for major childcare reform is right now, before we lose more of its most precious resources, our educators. 

Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in the Early Childhood Education and Care program at the University of New England. Marg’s current research interests are about programming and resourcing parents and educators to build resilience and understanding in 2-5-year-olds from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families.

How children describe their role in organising the materials in a kindergarten classroom

Early childhood teachers have many roles in a classroom – mentor, therapist, nurse, scientist, and judge, to name a few – but one of the main roles is teaching the foundational skills through organising and providing resources in the classroom space.

Recent research indicates that teachers have the predominant role in organising early childhood classrooms in Australia, but there is a growing body of research investigating the role of children in organising the kindergarten classroom. I wanted find out more about how young children are involved.

We do know that participation or involvement of children in organising their learning environment has a positive effect on their sense of belonging, behaviour, learning and development. This could be true for children of all ages but particularly so for young children experiencing their earliest encounters with learning spaces.

I wanted to specifically research how children describe their role in organising the materials in the indoor kindergarten classroom space in the Queensland, Australia context.

The challenges of organising such a classroom are real for teachers. In Queensland kindergarten classrooms there are usually two teachers in the room educating up to 22 children with a play-based curriculum daily. Teachers have to organise learning activities with a range of resource materials, including furniture, and be compliant. So, what is required of teachers in the approved learning frameworks to be compliant?

Requirements of children’s participation in classroom organisation

In Queensland the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) provides kindergarten teachers with a guide for their teaching practice, programming and the facilitation of children’s learning. It emphasises that children play an active role in planning and organising their own learning. Also, according to the Australian Government’s Early Years Learning Framework, teachers ‘can encourage’ the participation of children and families to contribute their insights and ideas about the early learning space. But neither of these suggestions mean that this will happen or that children participating in organising their classrooms will be taken seriously and valued.

Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) also requires children’s perspectives to be heard and taken seriously on matters affecting them. Literature has referred to Article 12 and the right to participate in many ways, but I have identified two categories (which should not be taken as exhaustive):

  1. Participation: the process of sharing dialogue and listening to children,
  2. Active participation: children making decisions

There is an increase in research showing how children’s perspectives are heard in the classroom space, however more is needed. My study aims to add to this field.

My Study

I used a sociomaterial and spatiality theory. (For details please see my full paper). This theory had me think of the classroom and the things in it as having an influence and transforming educational practice. In a nutshell, I considered how the materials (resources, learning activities (closed/open- ended), furniture, equipment, and utensils), children, teachers and the kindergarten space influences and transforms children’s ability to organise the space.

My study was conducted in a kindergarten setting within a childcare centre in Brisbane, Queensland. Six children conducted child-led tours describing their role in organising the classroom and then discussed their tours in a follow-up video-stimulated recall interview.

Child-led tours are a participatory tool for research, as it is a method where children lead the data collection and does not rely solely on children’s verbal abilities but draws on their non-verbal abilities. During the child-led tour, the researcher asked each child questions, such as ‘what do you put in here?’ and ‘do you play with it?’. One educator was present in the room at the time. Child-led tours were conducted while other children were playing outside to minimise their being captured in the video recording.

Dingo’s number line

I noted one specific departure from the expected organisation processes. Dingo, one of the six children in my study, indicated during the child-led tour and video-stimulated recall interviews, that he had set up a number line. Sandy, Dingo’s teacher, in an informal conversation with me, spoke about the number line being something that she and Dingo had created together. The creation of Dingo’s number line resulted in him taking ownership of it, as he reinforced the rules to children about using it.  For example, he told them, “Don’t step on it because it’s still dry”.

Dingo making the number line was unexpected as we know research suggests teachers usually have the main organisation role. However, Dingo showed that he had a role in the category of participation where he was involved in creating the number line and his participation was taken seriously by his teacher.  So his participation aligns with Queensland’s Kindergarten Learning Guidelines and the Early Years Learning Framework where early childhood teachers are encouraged to work with children to design and plan the classroom space. (For more details of Dingo’s number line please see my full paper)

Recommendations from my study

A crucial implication of this study is the amount of child involvement and the ‘hearing’ of their voices about the processes and practices of organising a kindergarten classroom. A strong breadth of literature supports the importance of involvement of children in the classroom, with children having the immediate right to be heard, taken seriously, and given due weight on matters that affect them.

A review of the literature suggests that a teacher’s decision to involve children in the classroom is influenced by the large educator-to-child ratios, the perceptions teachers have on children, the lack of support in facilitating children’s verbal and non-verbal languages and the little acknowledged phenomenon that non-human materials and the early learning space have an effect on practice.

Contrary to studies finding that educators have the predominate role in organising the classroom, a child in my study described that he clearly participated in the organisation of his classroom by constructing his number line.

Hear the children

I believe there is a need for researchers, educators, and organizations to hear, through different modes, the views of children.

This qualitative study, and the use of child-led tours and video-stimulated recall interviews, proved a successful measure of investigating how young children describe their role in organising the indoor kindergarten classroom. More research is needed to further under children and their interactions with non-human material to organise their early learning space

Due to the long period of time required to conduct research, the researcher recommends conducting workshops with teachers (in kindergartens, childcare centres), leaders (director, educational leader) and pre-service teachers in ways to discuss how children’s voices can be and are involved in organising their early learning spaces. Participating teachers would be networking and learning from each other.

Finally, it is emphasised by the inclusion of children in research, as seen in this study, children are capable and competent to interpret their world. The decisions made in how a classroom is organised and, with the use of a research story, any feedback about the daily operation of an early learning setting in a kindergarten classroom, can be investigated.

For those who want more detail Children’s participation in the organisation of a kindergarten classroom


Evangeline Manassakis is a research assistant for Griffith University in Queensland. She completed the Master of Philosophy (Education) that investigated children’s involvement in the organisation of the kindergarten classroom. Evangeline received for her study the Jean Ferguson Memorial Award and was made the runner up for Outstanding Thesis Award 2020. Her current research interests include children’s voice, classroom design and organisation, spaces, participatory methodology and design, Rights of the Child.