Should NQF services be looking to #ChangeTheDate?

The movement to change the annual date of Australia Day has grown steadily, now often highlighted with the hashtag #ChangeTheDate. The date, January 26, represents the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. For many, including many Indigenous Australians, this date represents the beginning of a colonial invasion that decimated communities and a culture that had endured on this continent for tens of thousands of years.

But resistance to the campaign to select another date calls on it to be a day of national unity that includes all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. With Australia Day arriving at the end of this week, many National Quality Framework services may be asking questions about what role they should play in Australia Day. Should we celebrate it? Should we not celebrate it and advocate to #ChangeTheDate? Should services have to “take a side” in this debate at all – is it OK to involve children in these kind of fraught discussions?

What does the National Quality Framework tell us?

The Early Years Learning Framework is clear that what we choose to do, and what we choose not do, is important.

Curriculum encompasses all the interactions, experiences, routines and events, planned and unplanned, that occur in an environment designed to foster children’s learning and development.

The Early Years Learning Framework, p. 9

So we know that what we choose to do about Australia Day is part of our curriculum choices, and is part of our approach to intentional teaching (one of the Principles of the EYLF). It does not mean that any of those choices are “bad” or “wrong”, just that they are intentional and directly affect the children at our services through the curriculum.

Whether we see it as fair or unfair, we cannot ignore the issue. What matters is why and how we make a choice. Asking these questions are a key part of the process of critical reflection. The EYLF includes a number of prompts including:

Who is advantaged when I work in this way? Who is disadvantaged?

The Early Years Learning Framework, p. 13

Our intentional teaching decisions as educators do not operate in a vacuum. They have an impact, directly or indirectly, on the children and communities we work with. Given the historical significance of January 26, who are we advantaging if we go all-out in celebrating it? Critically, who are we disadvantaging? Whose voices and lived experiences are being silenced? Can the same questions be asked if we choose not to celebrate Australia Day?

The NQF, and particularly the EYLF, do not give us easy answers to these questions. But they do require that we at least ask those questions, and ensure that any decisions we take are meaningful and informed. Doing things by default, or just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or “that’s what everyone else does” are not practices that support quality.

If you celebrate Australia Day, ask yourself – why? What are you teaching children? What are children learning? Is it more about the adults in the service than the children? If Australia Day at your service just means flags and decorations, what learning is taking place there? There is nothing wrong with a service using an important day to provide learning opportunities for children, but just putting things up on walls is not teaching.

The other thing that services should closely consider when making decisions are the Guiding Principles of the NQF, one of which is:

Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are valued.

Guide to the National Quality Standard, p. 10

What does your philosophy tell you?

Ensuring that our approaches to curriculum and intentional teaching are informed, meaningful and understood by your community of children, educators and families is very important. This not only helps services have a vision for their work and head towards it, but it ensures that people joining your community know what they can expect.

This is why a service philosophy is one of the key requirements of the NQF. Including statements reflective of respect for Indigenous perspectives and culture, social justice principles, or a strong commitment to critical reflection, mean that services are much better prepared to tackle these kinds of issues.

It is important to remember that communication of the philosophy is often just as important as the document itself – if it just sits on a wall in the foyer it is difficult to argue that your community knows and understands it. Making sure it is a key part of orientation for new children and families gives you a chance to articulate the values you hold as a service.

But if your philosophy does include principles of respect, inclusion or valuing Indigenous perspectives, it is difficult to ignore it when deciding what to do about a day that holds many different meanings for different people.

Listening to the Indigenous community

A key strategy for non-Indigenous services and educators who are reflecting on their approaches concerning issues that affect Indigenous people is a simple one – listening. There are many prominent Indigenous leaders and advocates, as well as peak body organisations, that have articulated their views on whether the date of Australia Day should be changed.

But it is also important to remember that Indigenous Australians do not have one view. Listening to and reading the words of the Indigenous community reveal a wide spectrum of views on Australia Day. There is a very large movement to change the date, as well as the view that it is a distraction from more important issues related to Australia’s ongoing struggles to Close The Gap. There are also many Indigenous people who support keeping the current day.

It is also important to acknowledge the complex and varied understandings of what January 26 can mean beyond Australia Day – for many people it is Invasion Day, a day that is hurtful and demeaning to the Indigenous Community. But it is also sometimes seen as Survival Day, which acknowledges the strength and resilience of Indigenous communities in surviving colonisation and Government policies designed to assimilate or remove Indigenous culture.

A great way to get a local view of the issue is to make contact with Elders in your area, and invite them to visit your service.

What about the other 364 days of the year?

One of the biggest challenges with a debate that focuses on one day and our reaction to it, is that in can overshadow the larger work that NQF services are faced with across the entire year.

According to the Report on Government Services, 14 991 Indigenous children are currently in out-of-home care. This represents almost 35 per cent of children in the out-of-home care system, despite the fact that Indigenous children only represent around 4 per cent of the total number of Australian children.

Over-representation of Indigenous children in both the out-of-home care system and the juvenile detention system (where, according to ARACY, Indigenous children are also 10 times more likely to be represented) appears to now be embedded in Australian society. As SNAICC points out, these statistics have increased by 65 per cent since Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations, which was meant to mark a turning point in reconciliation within our country.

We know that addressing structural disadvantage and vulnerability must start in the early years. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has conducted a significant amount of research demonstrating the necessity of early childhood being a critical part of the Closing the Gap strategy.

No matter what choices we make about Australia Day, we have to acknowledge that the Day does not stand alone in the year. Our responsibility to be active and engaged educators working with children means we need to think about all of the decisions we make.

So… what to do?

There is not a single answer to how services should approach Australia Day. The only certainty is that whatever services choose to do, they have to acknowledge that they are making a decision and a choice. So they must have a strong understanding of why they have chosen a particular approach, and why it is meaningful to their community of children, educators and communities.

Although there is no categorical “right” or “wrong” approach, we must consider the guiding principles of the NQF, the requirements of the EYLF and the broader context of the lived experiences of Indigenous Australians, particularly Indigenous children.

Given all those factors, it is very difficult for an NQF service to not, at the very least, acknowledge the difficulties many Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have with celebrating an event that was so negative for Indigenous Australians.

To help services think about their approaches, here are three different ways that Australia Day could be looked at.

  1. For services that have a strong focus on social justice and Indigenous perspectives, and have clearly communicated this to their community through their philosophy and planned curriculum, they may choose to not acknowledge Australia Day in any significant way – or may use it to highlight the issues around the day and the need for greater efforts to Close the Gap.
  2. For services that choose to celebrate Australia Day, it would demonstrate strong engagement with critical reflection and the principles of the NQF to include acknowledgements of and engagement with the Indigenous experiences and perspectives of the day. Services could also ensure that celebrations are not “overwhelming”, and that they have strong engagement with Indigenous-focused days such as Aboriginal Children’s Day and NAIDOC Week.
  3. If we’re choosing to celebrate Australia Day, and if we’re particularly going all-out with decorations and clothing for weeks, we really need to think about how that positions us against the requirements of the NQF. What are children learning? How do our celebrations of Australia Day compare with other national celebrations, such as NAIDOC Week or Reconciliation Week? Do they also see the same amount of focus, time and decorations as Australia Day? If not, who is being advantaged and who is being disadvantaged?

The key message here is to not just do things “by default”, or try to ignore the issue. Whatever decision services make, it needs to be made for a reason that is meaningful for the service and their community, and that reflects the requirements of the National Quality Framework. Some of the key requirements of the NQF are continuous improvement, and building and sustaining of critical inquiry. This can start by asking questions about days like Australia Day.

Just because the answers might be hard, we still have a responsibility to ask the questions.

I state clearly here that I do not and would not presume to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I am a white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon male and as such am representative of many of the past and continuing struggles that face the First Australians on this land that was, is and shall always be Aboriginal Land.

For the perspectives of Indigenous people regarding these issues, I recommend visiting the websites of SNAICC and Reconciliation Australia.

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