Mel Duffy-Fagan

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.