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Qualifications lead to quality

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When we talk about quality early childhood education, one of the commonly accepted prerequisites is qualified educators. It’s a pillar of the National Quality Framework and the NQF’s support of higher levels of qualification for all people working with children has had a life-altering effect on many in the sector.

Amplify’s editor Bec Lloyd spoke with CELA’s CEO, Michele Carnegie, with new CELA policy and research consultant, Megan O’Connell, and with Sydney University lecturer and early childhood specialist Jennifer Ribarovski, to look at what the evidence does – and does not – say about the link between qualifications and higher quality early childhood education and care.

Wth the introduction of the National Quality Framework’s long-awaited higher qualification requirements for the sector, most people celebrated. Raised standards of staff qualification have been a sign of maturity in many other professions, like nursing, with outcomes including improvements in service delivery, embedded professional development and higher wage structures.

When it comes to early childhood education, critics of the sector continue to label qualifications as ‘red tape’ even thought that term more traditionally relates to strictly administrative areas such as insurance, building requirements, and financial regulations. The view taken is that any cost of compliance with any regulation can be called red tape, giving it a negative spin as a form of unnecessary and bureaucratic expense.

This approach was evident yet again in the Australian Senate’s recent inquiry into – believe it or not – The effect of red tape on childcare, where ‘qualifications’ are referenced many times in the committee’s 29 page report. One of several recommendations relating to qualifications, quoted below, highlights the vast gap in understanding between a sector moving ahead in professional maturity, and a political and economic argument that ‘childcare’ is essentially a job of low skills that should come at a low cost. After all, this tone suggests, if parents can do it, why would anyone else need any training?

Recommendation 4

2.33 The committee recommends that, in reviewing the principles of the National Quality Framework, Australian, state and territory governments recognise that formal qualifications are not the only prerequisite for the provision of high quality child care, as this can also be provided by parents.

Source:Â Select Committee on Red Tape, Effect of red tape on child care Interim report

Is there evidence?

Michele Carnegie, CELA’s CEO, says there is no doubting the evidence that quality early education is pivotal for lifting children’s outcomes, and that quality early education is dependent upon highly skilled and supported educators.

Source of evidence can be found in a wide range of research including:

  • Longitudinal studies that show a strong correlation between educator levels of training, quality of services and children’s long term outcomes.
  • Australian data showing children who experienced preschool programs delivered by trained educators scored higher on literacy and numeracy at Year 3 NAPLAN, pointing to the enduring effects of quality early education.

“There’s certainly a stubborn perception filter where some people see professional qualifications primarily as a cost to the employer versus the majority who see professional qualifications as an investment in both the workforce and the outcomes that workforce delivers, early childhood isn’t alone in dealing with that,” Michele said.

“If we start with the outcome we want to see – greatest possible benefit for children – and work back along the things we need to make that happen? A universally well-trained and qualified workforce of educators is absolutely essential. There’s no other logical approach.”

Why do qualifications matter?

Megan O’Connell, formerly Director of the Mitchell Institute and welcomed last week as CELA’s research and policy consultant, says there are a number of reasons for a qualified educator being able to deliver higher quality early years education and care than an unqualified person.

“Qualified educators can create a program of learning that stimulates children and lift children’s outcomes throughout early years and beyond,” Megan said.

“Through their professional studies, they gain an in depth understanding of child development, which enables them to plan activities that meet the individual needs of each child.

“Highly trained educators are able to support children to develop their language skills, to work with families who have complex needs, and to build relationships with staff across their centres.”

For more on this type of evidence, you will find studies showing early learning educators need to plan programs of learning to engage a variety of children, to be responsive to children’s needs and motivations and to engage and extend children (Cascio & Whitmore Schanzenbach 2013a; Yoshikawa et al. 2013).

Do all qualifications support quality delivery?

More work is needed, Megan says, to identify connections between different kinds of professional qualifications and the outcome of high quality early childhood education that has lasting benefits for children.  She quotes the E4Kids report from 2012

there is still important disagreement about what kind of postsecondary credentials best promote positive classroom interactions and about the role of recent professional development training relative to higher levels of pre-service training

Source: E4Kids (2012)

The Mitchell Institute conducted widely-shared research in this area, releasing a report in 2016 that noted the benefits to children came most directly from the ‘quality interactions that educators create, the pedagogy’  rather than the qualifications alone.  This is not to say that qualifications aren’t a valuable contribution to a person’s ability to deliver quality programs, but it confirms the need for more work to shine a brighter light on the types of post-secondary education that bring greatest benefit.

“Well-prepared teachers have the knowledge and skills to provide engaging interactions and classroom environments to support children’s learning,” Megan said.

“It follows that to address the high levels of developmental vulnerability in Australian children, they must have access to high quality trained teachers and educators.”

Megan raised other studies that link the existence of qualified educators with the delivery of higher quality programs for children, here are some highlights:

The Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education project (EPPSE)

EPPSE found that having qualified teachers working directly with children had a significant impact on children’s outcomes, including their literacy and social and emotional skills at age five (Sylva et al. 2004a). In general, the EPPSE study found consistent correlation between the proportion of highly trained educators in a service, the overall quality of the service, and children’s long-term outcomes (Taggart et al. 2015, p. 8).

National Center for Early Development and Learning’s Multi-State Pre-Kindergarten Study

As part of this large study, Pianta et al. (2005) found teachers’ education, credentials, teaching experience, and teachers’ beliefs were associated with overall classroom quality.

Early Bird Catches the Worm: The Causal Impact of Pre-school Participation and Teacher Qualifications on Year 3 NAPLAN Outcomes

An Australian study by Warren & Haisken-DeNew (2013) uses Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) data to analyse the impact of teacher qualifications on Year 3 NAPLAN results. They found that children who experienced preschool programs delivered by diploma qualified or early childhood degree-qualified teachers scored higher in numeracy and literacy.

The Relationship between Teacher Qualification and the Quality of the Early Childhood Care and Learning Environment. Campbell Systematic Reviews 2017:1

The review, by Manning, Matthew; Garvis, Susanne; Fleming, Christopher; Wong, Gabriel T. W., summarises findings from 48 studies with 82 independent samples. Studies included children from pre-kindergarten and kindergarteners prior to primary school. They found ‘positive relationships’ between teacher quality and program structure, language and reasoning, interacting with parents and staff, indicating that higher level qualifications support increased process quality.

Understand, and do

Teacher qualifications are critical to optimal learning and development outcomes for children, says Jennifer Ribarovski, Sydney University lecturer, early childhood education consultant and formerly a senior manager in the NSW regulatory authority. She points to a number of studies showing that better qualified teachers are more likely to engage in the kinds of quality interactions that are essential to children’s learning and development.

“A raft of national and international research provides evidence that degree-qualified early childhood teachers (ECTs) undertake practices that less-qualified staff are less inclined to do, such as engaging in warmer, more responsive, sensitive and stimulating interactions with children and more in-depth observation and monitoring of children’s development,” Jennifer said.

“The evidence also highlights that ECTs engage children in higher level thinking using sustained shared thinking, which is essential for brain development.

“Findings have also demonstrated that ECTs provide pedagogical support, mentoring and leadership to other staff and have the most impact on overall service quality.”

Jennifer says the difference is that people who have engaged in a course of study are better equipped for the very wide range of children’s ages, personalities, developmental stages and social and emotional needs than those who have not studied or have only personal, family experience of a small number of children.

“It’s a case of when we understand, we can do.  It’s great to have natural instincts for working with children – I guess that’s what that Senate Committee recommendation is getting at,” she says.

“But in an early childhood service children are in larger groups than any parent is ever likely to experience – except perhaps at a birthday party – and without the benefit of the lifelong connection a parent has with their own child. We want consistently good outcomes for all children, and for that we need consistently well-qualified teachers and educators.

“In the most significant period of growth and development in a child’s life, that has the potential to impact on their success at school and in life, why would ECT’s, as a key contributor to quality, be in question?”

Jennifer suggested additional evidence readings can be found in:

Fenech, Harrison, Press & Sumsion, 2010

Seung-Hee et al. 2013

Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2003

Sylva et al.  2004

Whitebook, 2003

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Bec Lloyd

Bec Lloyd is the founder and managing director of Bec & Call Communication, providing professional writing, editing and strategy services to the school and early childhood education sector since 2014. In 2018 she launched UnYucky mindset and menus for happier family mealtimes. Formerly the communications lead at ACECQA and BOS (now NESA), Bec is a journo and mother of three who produces Amplify for us at Community Early Learning Australia.

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