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‘A wonderful contribution to social justice’: Red Ruby Scarlet on the EYLF consortium

To mark 10 years since the formation of the consortium of researchers, practitioners and experts that developed the Early Years Learning Framework, we spoke with many of the original members of that consortium to hear their reflections on the EYLF.

Dr Red Ruby Scarlet is an activist, early childhood teacher-researcher, consultant, artist and academic. Red has been working in early childhood for over 25 years and is devoted to creative, imaginative, inclusive practices that promote dignity and integrity in early childhood. Red has developed curriculum and learning frameworks nationally and internationally. She has won numerous awards for her teaching and advocacy. She has published widely; both academic and professional literature.

The Framework: Thanks for speaking to us. What you were doing 10 years ago when it was announced you had joined the consortium?

Dr Red Ruby Scarlet: In October 2008 I was at Tillman Park Children’s Centre, part of what was then Marrickville Council. I was the Teacher there, and I was also in the final throes of my PhD. I was also editing Talkin’ Up and Speakin’ Out at the same time. It was a rich writing time!

Can you remember your reaction to the announcement that you were part of the consortium?

Professor Jennifer Sumsion [the co-leader of the consortium] rang me and said “I’d like you to be part of the consortium” – I honestly nearly did fall over! I’m not afraid to hold critical  views, particularly about social justice, so I was surprised that somebody who had done a lot of work in critiquing systems and institutions and their processes was invited on!

Then I realised at that moment that a lot of women, and a lot of people in early childhood, undervalue ourselves. We don’t think ourselves worthy. I’ve been that person, and still am sometimes. I thought “why are they asking me?”

It was actually a little bit of a turning point in my career and how I saw myself. I was thinking I’m just a teacher in a classroom, then I thought – no, wait a minute, I’m a teacher in a classroom who’s a teacher/researcher and who’s got something to offer. It was personally and professionally a really powerful moment.

Was it important to you that practitioners were on the consortium?

Well I think at the time I was the only face-to-face teacher in the group. In saying that, it’s absolutely no dismissal of the incredible people had been working in early childhood and research. I’m sure someone has added up the combined years of experience. There were service providers and people in a management role with services, but I think I was the only person actually face-to-face in a centre.

What are your memories of developing the EYLF with your consortium colleagues?

I got to work with the fabulous Associate Professor Felicity McArdle, amongst others. It was really fun to work with somebody who I knew, but hadn’t worked closely with before. I also got to meet people like Professor Donna Bertelsen who works for QUT [Queensland University of Technology].

Jennifer Sumsion and Linda Harrison, both Professors, led the consortium. They were both amazing as well. It was this magnificent space of diversity and difference of perspectives, and it was really rich. The debates were respectful, the knowledge sharing was fun, the value of who said what was great. In terms of professional learning I couldn’t have dreamed of anything better.

What I would say firmly is that there was an enormous paucity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives and perspectives. Everybody had that on their mind, there was nobody not committed to that, but it’s certainly a question that remains in terms of what that experience was and what was missing.

What was successful about the development of the EYLF?

It was very rigorous, based on who the consortia were, based on the processes and the structures in how the content was developed. Whilst I think there was some negotiating that would have been tricky for the leaders, for Professor Sumsion and Professor Harrison, they were just so clever and strategic in being able to communicate in a way that kept early childhood knowledge and philosophies front and centre.

I’m quite proud of Page 11 because of the explicit mention of theory. I don’t think they’re necessarily very detailed descriptions of theory, and they certainly don’t encompass all of the different theories that people use, but I’m proud that there was diversity of ideas and multiplicity even when it doesn’t sit neatly together.

The fact that that post-structuralism made it into a national document, I think was actually quite ground-breaking. I’m happy to make a nearly flat-out claim that I think our EYLF was the first Framework, if you look at all the other curricula and learning frameworks in the world, that explicitly mentioned post-structuralism. Given that people like Professor Kerry Robinson and Professor Glenda MacNaughton had been talking about those ideas since the 80s and 90s, this was really amazing.

That there was that kind of the inclusion of the diversity and difference of perspectives I guess to me was one of the really powerful things, and that teachers like me who were using those perspectives suddenly had systemic and regulatory credibility.

We did have credibility before but theories, that were and still are marginal, sit in a mainstream national regulated legal document!

It also goes to show that early childhood people like Jennifer and Linda had an incredibly powerful and clever skill to have to negotiate the world of early childhood. We still find it really difficult to communicate outside our own bubble, even to ourselves sometimes!

What do you think could have been done better?

The EYLF came under reform that we were all super excited about, that was going on everywhere under the then Rudd Government. But the problem with the EYLF was – it was a little bit of smoke and mirrors to be called the National Quality Framework because there were a whole lot of “we’re going to make change to quality” but there was no money to fund it. So we got ACECQA and the EYLF, but in fact the professional development rollout was hodgy-podgy.

I think that celebrating the EYLF is absolutely worthwhile. I guess what I’d love is for people to start questioning “why wasn’t there the same kind of professional development support for this as for schools?”

You’ve seen people use, it love, quote it, it did a lot of things. But at the same time there are still people who talk about the EYLF who haven’t read it. We call it a living document, but how do you actually breath life into it? I think some of that political engagement into how we breath life into it. Let’s start working on that now, rather than waiting for the next election, waiting for people to tell us what to do. And besides – the government works for us. They are our employees.

How well do you think the EYLF has been utilised by the sector since its adoption?

I think people love it. I think outside the sector there was a lot of scaremongering of stuff that I’ve had lots of experience of since. That was actually an opportunity to go “damn straight we stand for this.” And so I think the way people have mobilised the EYLF is important. I’ve done it myself – I say this is now written into the Reg and Law it’s been passed through Parliament in every State and Territory.

So I think all of that suddenly gave us some leverage. The problem is though that leverage is based on scaring people! You can say “You can’t decide whether you want to be inclusive, you can’t decide whether you want to include Aboriginal perspectives”. So I think that the profession uses the EYLF cleverly to enable children’s rights social justice.

Social justice shouldn’t be scary, it should be absolutely normal. I do believe that the EYLF has had a wonderful contribution to that. I’m really excited when I see the ways in which people bring it to life and give it legs and use it in that kind of way. But I think that we still have more talking to do together.

If you were brought back in to review the EYLF now, what would you change/do differently?

It has some cutting edge things it has some things that could be morphed and changed based on Australian research, done by Australian people. We’ve got a set a barometer, a litmus test, of where people are up to and what they’re doing in the sector, and who are the mentoring leaders?

We’re surrounded by millennials, we’ve got to go “OK how was the EYLF embracing rather than excluding? Is it doing that job?” I think it’s not just a review of the text and ideas, because I think there’s a lot of ideas people aren’t achieving – I don’t see critical theory a lot, I don’t see a lot of critical reflection, I don’t see post-structural theory in action.

So there are things in there that are not outdated, but we need more professional development around them. How does a gorgeous, enthusiastic 18 year-old who’s just coming into the profession engage with that document? There really needs to be some thinking around what that experience is, particularly because some times that 18 year-old  is a Room Leader or an Educational Leader or sometimes the Centre Director.

How does the EYLF enable us to become the type of educators and teachers we want to see. We need to make it, and the profession, quintessentially Australian – which of course never ever goes without Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives first.

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