find out more). Professor Neilsen-Hewett further explains the thinking behind this innovative degree and its effectiveness so far." />

By Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett on 22 Dec, 2023

There is much promise and potential within our national early learning landscape. The strong commitment to investment that we have witnessed nationally provides a unique window of opportunity (and certainly the most significant window in my lifetime) to build a system that ensures high-quality education and equitable access for all children 

The successful transformation of our ECE system will require courageous thinking and a willingness to explore options and to test new models and ways of working that account for both individual and organisational needs. 

While many challenges lay ahead, there are also many opportunities. 

I’d like you to imagine for a moment that you have been tasked with the responsibility of solving our national ECE puzzle – you have all these pieces that we know are essential to construct a high-functioning early childhood system in front of you but you’ve lost the box, so you don’t have an image or an end product of what you are trying to solve.  

When we first teach young children how to solve jigsaw puzzles, we scaffold their approach by providing them with a strategy — we begin with the corners, complete the edges and then move into the centre  

If we are going to build a high quality and functional ECE system then we need to not only think about the key components of our puzzle — the pieces — but also the order in which we place those pieces down. This speaks to the need to think about how we prioritise and sequence initiatives to achieve a high-quality and sustainable ECE system for all children. 

The first piece—achieving access and scale with quality

Transformation of our system means prioritising investments that are the most likely to lead to children’s learning. If children are learning then there are many other things that we know are going well – in fact, it is our lead indicator of quality. 

This speaks to the need to create learning contexts that reflect the needs and developmental capacities of individual children, and to adopt developmentally appropriate and evidence-based pedagogies while ensuring that the environments in which children are learning are safe and stimulating. 

This means that access to early childhood education should not be expanded if adequate quality cannot be provided. This is because it will not lead to more learning, and can actually be detrimental, worsening children’s developmental outcomes.  

We know qualifications are positively associated with service quality and have a positive impact on children’s language, reasoning and social/emotional well-being. They also impact on the quality of interactions between staff and children, relationships with families and programme structure. 

To successfully expand ECE means identifying evidence-based, cost effective and actionable strategies for delivering quality at scale, identifying the best ways to support children’s learning and understanding how to facilitate these practices across different contexts and amongst the children and families with the greatest need. 

The second piece — workforce

The shortage of qualified early childhood teachers is currently the single most pressing issue facing Australia’s early learning system. As a consequence of this, we are now in a situation where we are looking into different models or alternate pathways into the profession as well as ways to build capacity within our sector. This includes innovative approaches to in-service professional learning as well as the emergence of accelerated or fast track routes for upskilling.  

The third piece — breaking down barriers through partnerships

The barriers to workforce development are very real and the disconnect between university priorities and the needs of the workforce can make university study particularly challenging. To solve this puzzle effectively and efficiently we need to find ways for sectors to partner strategically and to build bridges.

It was with this caveat that we embarked on the design of our accelerated degree pathway. Our successful tender with the NSW government birthed an exciting opportunity for cross-sectorial partnerships. The co-design and delivery brought together the NSW government, the University of Wollongong and our sector partners ELACCA. 

The fourth piece — The accelerated degree

The Bachelor of Education – The Early Years (Accelerated) is delivered over two years and features mentoring, online study and work placements. It’s designed to increase the supply of early childhood teachers by targeting educators who are interested in taking their careers to the next level but who have faced financial or logistical challenges in undertaking a four-year course.

Throughout the accelerated degree program design process, we actively collaborated with ELACCA and the sector and we drew upon the important work we have been doing within the UOW School of Education and Early Start in the area of professional learning. This approach directly addresses challenges previously faced by educators seeking to enhance their qualifications.

This approach ensured the program was evidence-informed and prioritised content and pedagogies needed to ensure children flourish. It includes structures such as our mentoring program, community of practice sessions and work-integrated assessment because we know are essential to achieve practice change.  

Key components of the degree that remove barriers to study

  • The flexible and blended structure strongly supports equity of access with educators enrolled from across four states and two territories. The program is structured in a way that supports educators to move through the degree within an accelerated pathway without compromising quality or content.  
  • Educators complete content across three sessions per year rather than two and engage in rich and contextually relevant work-based placements and work integrated assessments. 
  • While 12 weeks of a professional experience program are required across the two years, there is flexibility around the timing and sequencing of placements. We have created opportunities for enrolled educators to do placement swaps within the organisations – reducing the need for them to take leave and lose pay while reducing the impact on services needing to backfill staff.  
  • The course acknowledges and builds upon educators' prior knowledge while adopting a model of critical reflection where educators are encouraged to apply their new learnings as they move through the program while empowering their colleagues with new practices and research evidence 
  • Each educator is assigned a mentor from the sector — this not only serves to support the educators but builds capacity across the sector more broadly (mentor program supported by PD which we have designed and delivered).

By removing existing barriers to study, we’re empowering strong educators to genuinely embrace the new academic learning and integrate this with their own sector experience 

Success to date

After the end of our first semester, we were encouraged by the level of engagement, enthusiasm and commitment demonstrated by this cohort of educators – currently, our attrition sits at just 16%, which is significantly below comparative degrees.  

Moving forward

Ultimately, effective teacher professional learning — whether that is within the pre-service or in-service context — needs to focus on supporting educators and teachers to adopt and sustain the right behaviours that will allow them to employ effective teaching practices within the educational context.  

At its heart, effective professional learning is about behavioural change, it’s about trying new things and trying to do something better. The way we have designed our degree program is to help teachers do just that – but to do it in the here and now.  

Ongoing evaluations, which we are using to inform our responsive design, show educators continue to be concerned about limited access to study time in the workplace, balancing work obligations with university obligations and the need for financial contributions (payments and fee relief).

As we move forward, we need to advocate for continued support from the sector — conditions within the workplace have been the biggest barrier or challenge for educators, including demands related to assessment and rating, a lack of available staff, and a lack of support or push back from the workplace. 

Interested in enrolling? 

The course offers one intake per year commencing in the Spring session (July) and operates across three sessions per academic year. 

Find out more about the degree via the University of Wollongong

About Cathrine

Professor Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett is the Academic Director of the Early Years at the University of Wollongong. Her current research projects focus on quality early childhood education and care environments, integrated service delivery, and enhancing access to early childhood education and health services.  

Cathrine joined the CELA board in late 2023. 

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