ACECQA’s National Partnership Annual Performance Report has revealed that families view a service’s National Quality Standard rating as the least important factor when choosing a service to enrol their child in.
In a panel sample of 2511 families from 2017, only 40% of respondents knew about the quality ratings system. Of those 1010 respondents that were aware of the system, only half actually knew what rating the service their child attended (or was planning to attend) had received.
When asked what were the most important factors in choosing a service for their child, the quality rating of the service was rated as the least important out of 8 possible responses. The two factors rated the most important were accessibility and affordability.
In a Performance Report that generally reveals slow but steady improvement across most areas of the NQF, the data on family attitudes highlights a significant problem with Australia’s capacity to articulate the importance of early childhood education to the community.
There are always a wide range of causes and factors that inform a problem like this, and it is challenging to identify solutions to such a complex issue. Shifting attitudes to early education away from entrenched notions of “babysitting” and “welfare” will take time, but this does not change the fairly alarming implications of 60% of families not even being aware that services are rated on quality.
But in many ways, if you have been following trends in how early education is referred to in the public sphere over the last few years, these results are not surprising.
The first significant factor is the Education Department’s, and the Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s, active campaign to remove all references to early education from official publications, websites and branding, and return to the old days of just “childcare”. This can be seen strongly on the Education Department’s website, and their marketing material for the “New Child Care Package”.
It is disappointing that a Department that should be focused on achieving educational outcomes for all children, and should be championing the idea that a child’s most important period for learning and development is the first five years, is instead trying to take the early education and care sector back a decade or two to the old days of childcare.
This has unfortunately also been evident in ACECQA’s own guide to families seeking an enrolment in an NQF service, the Starting Blocks website. The site predominately uses child care, and while takes steps throughout the site to attempt to inform families about the early education and care terminology, the first homepage of the site refers to “child care” no less than four times, twice in large letters.
ACECQA notes the challenges with language and terminology that is used with families in the Report, stating that in a 2014 pilot study they identified “some sensitivity and resistance from parents to language that promotes formal education or learning for children under kindergarten age”.
That is undoubtedly true, and is a challenge. But given the levels of community knowledge seen in the Report, it’s time to take braver steps in how we communicate with families. There’s a real concern that if we wait for family attitudes to catch up before we insist on using the language that is legislated as part of the National Quality Framework, it will never happen.
Attitudes will shift as we use them consistently, exclusively and regularly. The Education Department and ACECQA have leadership roles in the sector and must take the lead, but this also applies to the sector as a whole. The language articulated in the NQF is designed to provide a common language for the sector, and it’s time that “childcare” and “childcare workers” are banished from everything we do.
The Federal Government is planning on spending more than $18 million advertising its new Child Care Package. It’s not hard to imagine this survey being conducted again in a couple of years, with even worse attitudes to early education.
Yes, it’s an uphill battle. But attitudes don’t change by themselves. We have to embody professionalism and professional language in the work we do every day. And we should expect it from those in leadership positions in the sector.