Early Childhood Education: Emperor’s New Clothes?

The new Early Years Framework (at least in theory) and the federal government’s long overdue acknowledgment that early childhood education is important gives us hope that Australia at last is moving in the right direction. Time will tell if this rhetoric translates to meaningful changes and not a scenario where the profession moves two steps forward and then three steps back! However Australia still has a long way to go when we consider it continues to lag behind most western countries in many areas of early childhood focus and expenditure.

While the rhetoric provides a potential catalyst for change there are many things that are needed to progress such rhetoric into action. Any profession requires reflection, vision and a commitment to move forward in a positive and constructive way. Currently the early childhood profession appears to be highly sensitive to critical reflection. A profession that cannot tolerate open discussion to some of the challenges and practices at the current time is leaving itself open to slow progress. Ironically it is this open, candid and critical discussion that is the very essence of moving forward as a profession.

Some of the current issues that require critical reflection are:

  • The move to 15 hours per week
  • The EYLF interpretation and link to assessment of centres
  • That child development is “old hat” and that socio-cultural and other theories are more relevant – as if in the 21st century children are no longer influenced by biological and neurological development
  • That projects are more important than process
  • Eligibility for working in early childhood education (qualifications and training)

We hear a lot about the increase to 15 hours meaning higher levels of quality. But what is the actual reality in hundreds of preschools right now? Committees, staff and parents struggle to find room availability and there is angst and debate about the loss of so many 3-year-old programs that are highly valued in so many communities. There is little public understanding or acknowledgement of the short turn around between sessions. Staff have little or no time to discuss, to brief or to have a professional handover – to consider anything about the child and family. Too often educators move into the next session without even having the opportunity to eat lunch! There is no acknowledgement that some centres are now running 6 or 7 hour days back-to-back, and that the children spend most afternoons lunching and resting and for the rest of the week they access nothing in terms of preschool education. Trying to argue that transition times of lunch and rest are “quality” when the children are tired and the hours are simply there to make up the hours is really stretching the quality argument in preschool sessions.

So where is the quality being offered in the 15 hours with tired teachers, different teachers and actually less time for the children in learning experiences despite the increase in hours?

The EYLF itself being linked to assessment of centres is another area, which seems to have been so mildly accepted. Educators, in the name of the EYLF, are spending so many hours making documentation look beautiful – but where is the substance in the documentation? Too often we observe wonderfully attractive documentation that reads like a great narrative of interest – but where is the substance of an educationalist or clinician who actually understands learning, development, and the acquisition of skills? Too often across Australia children now have written in their records, transition reports or beautiful portfolios that they are “developing a sense of community and wellbeing.” What does this actually mean? Where is the rigour and how does that help other professionals in relation to early intervention? Can the educator actually articulate what this means in plain language for each individual child? Also in the name for the new EYLF, some early childhood educators are so consumed with taking so many photos they never stop to actually be in the moment to scaffold a skill or build an attachment with the child!

So how has the new EYLF and its implementation resulted in improved clinical rigorous documentation that is meaningful and that informs teaching, where is the demonstration of the importance of attachment and authentic relationships with children?

It seems at complete intellectual odds that contemporary academics being so distracted by latest theories they are not even recognising (or acknowledging) the empirical evidence of science, neurology and basic biological development. As if child development is so passé, so ‘old hat’ no academic in his or her right mind would be considering child development! Yet it is the genetic template and child development that forms the platform that everything else for each individual child builds on – to ignore child development as passé is a rejection of the profession in itself! Understanding child development is so extremely important alongside (not independent of) influences of environment and culture.

We even have projects and themes now returning where children as young as 3 are all supposedly interested in following through an interest for the interest’s sake. What happened to using brain research to remind us that young children are actually not thinking and reasoning in the same way that older children and adults do? I even noticed 4 year olds having to work on a project about water levels in the Sylvan Dam in Victoria. When I asked one of them what they were working on, she responded with, “I don’t know but it’s about water and can I stop now?”

Whatever happened to planning for learning and skill through open-ended play-based experiences that exposed children to a range of different experiences both inside and outside and also included some children’s interests instead of using children’s interests to plan about more interests?

We want to improve the qualifications and status of early childhood professionals and yet increasingly some RTA’s are producing diplomas from little more than attendance records – sign here, attend and out you go! The more the profession accepts poorly trained educators to work in the field the more the quality of the profession is compromised and the more the child we teach is compromised!

This is a reality check for those watching or working in early childhood at the current time who speak to me across the country with despair but are too afraid to speak out. Feel freer to acknowledge that despite all the great intentions and all the hard work, and all the recent movement in the right direction, something important has been lost along the way: The rigour of actually teaching young children, the clinical ways in which we document and the time to spend with children in authentic relationship. Quality is not about time (15 hours) or how pretty something looks – it is highly qualified intelligent professionals having time to work with children and families in a rigorous and professional manner.

Lets not pretend everything is wonderful like those looking on at the Emperor who had no clothes on but were too afraid to say!

Kathy Walker and Shona Bass