By CELA on 4 Dec, 2019

In brief:

  • NSW services must display new quality ratings graphic from July 2020

  • Changes motivated by two key research studies showing lack of family understanding and National Quality Review feedback

  • Impact of the graphic to be evaluated with independent parent research

  • NSW RA confirms cultural shift to ‘strength-based’ A&R approach

  • $13 million fund to expand sector quality training and community awareness

  • Wiggles ambassador program aimed at connecting with children and families who are not engaging in early education

A requirement for NSW services to display a star-based quality rating guide has come in response to the sector’s need to improve family understanding of the National Quality Standard, but that’s not all.

Speaking exclusively to Amplify, NSW Executive Director of Early Childhood Education, Nancy Chang, said she has heard ‘loud and clear’ that changes to the way we work are also required around the assessment and ratings process (A&R).

She says action is underway to ensure NSW services will soon see a ‘strengths-based’ approach to A&R from their assessment officers. The introduction of ACECQA’s self-assessment tool to allow services to convey what they do best is the beginning of this journey.

All about awareness

Releasing the graphic as part of a new Quality Ratings Guide at a Sydney event on 25 November 2019 the NSW Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning, Sarah Mitchell, focused on its ‘family friendly’ approach to symbols and language and promised resources to support implementation.

Her media release announced another $8 million to help providers improve quality at their services. Added to the $5 million invested in current NSW quality initiatives, that’s a total of $13 million. Nancy Chang says ‘very little’ of that amount is allocated to the new ratings graphic and almost all will go to sector support and wider community awareness activities.


In November 2019, a newsletter from the regulatory authority to NSW services announced:

A family-friendly quality ratings guide is being introduced to help explain Children’s Education and Care quality ratings to families. The one page quality rating has a new look, and will show the overall quality rating of your service, as well as how your service is rated against each of the 7 quality areas and when your service or scheme was last rated.

The new quality ratings graphic looks like this:

The stars are just one part of the graphic, which services in NSW will receive as wall stickers and be required to display from 1 July 2020.

Breaking down the outcomes

As well as allocating a colour coded star to each service’s overall rating, the new system converts the text-based description of element outcomes in each Quality Area into progress bars, like this:

CELA’s CEO Michele Carnegie says it’s important that families better understand what quality means in early education and OSHC services, so as Directors and Educators can speak confidently about quality in their service. She also says it’s vital for the sector to have faith in a sound A&R process.

Sector support, not stickers

Ms Chang says those are the Department’s aims too, telling CELA:

“The vast majority of that $13 million funding is for expanding our sector support, like the A&R training sessions, to give educators more confidence in the quality process.

“Another funded project is to extend the Working Towards training programs that ACECQA is running so that all NSW services can apply, not just long day care and family day care. There is a registration link in our latest edition of EC Extra.”

Ms Chang explains that some of the funding will be for communication packs that every NSW service will receive to help communicate their quality rating and the new quality ratings graphic. Building on the success of ACECQA’s communication packs for Excellent Rated services, she says that the NSW government has commissioned the national authority to develop similar packs that will help educators explain what it means to be Working Towards, Exceeding or Meeting the NQS.

Awareness: a known problem

Low public awareness of the National Quality Standard is nothing new. In 2018 ACECQA’s Annual Performance Report featured a finding that around half of all families with children in ECE are unaware of the NQS. CELA covered the story here, and here.

Ms Chang says that ACECQA’s research played a part in the NSW Quality Ratings Guide development. As well as the above report, the most recent ACECQA Family Research Report (2018) found most parents were confused by the language around quality ratings.

One observation we found, for example:

“Before seeing the ratings, participants in the focus groups tended to assume that the NQS ratings would use a generic and familiar scale such as stars (e.g. similar to the Health Star Rating system for food products) or, less commonly, the alphabet (A, B, C, D etc.).” Page 53, Family Research Report.

The NSW Department of Education has also conducted recent research into family understanding of early childhood education. Similar to the national research, the NSW study showed:

… quality is a very broad term for parents and they find it quite difficult to define.

More than 1,100 families were surveyed for the NSW study, alongside 12 focus groups and a number of in-depth interviews to explore the findings. View a copy of the report.

Ms Chang says that both the state and national reports influenced the graphic’s development.

“Over and over again we hear parents saying they don’t know about quality ratings – we have to find the best way to reach them.”

Consultation base, and regrets

Responding to the absence of standard consultation over the quality ratings guide, Ms Chang says that the NSW government did make use of extensive discussions with the sector about this topic during the NSW Roadshow for the National Quality Standard Review:

“People who attended those NSW consultations will remember what a big issue public awareness of quality was in every discussion.

“There was a very strong stakeholder concern about lack of understanding about quality in all those consultation events, and those discussions included considering graphical representations of quality.

“In effect, we took advice we received from the sector during that consultation. The NQF Review could take a number of years to culminate into changes for the sector and we did not want to wait that long to act on what is a very strong message from parents.

“My biggest regret is that because of the timing we couldn’t communicate this initiative in our most recent Roadshows in October, but we will certainly be featuring the new system in Roadshows in March.”

Ms Chang also calls for the sector to send through suggestions to improve communication and feedback on the new ratings graphic by email, through peak bodies like CELA, or by attending the next Roadshows.

Communication skills

CELA CEO Michele Carnegie says communicating quality to families is an area that challenges many educators in the sector.

“It’s an area where services regularly seek support from CELA’s Learning and Development team,” says Ms Carnegie.

“I urge the Department to provide the level of sector support needed for educators who feel they need to enhance or hone their communication skills”.

“Achieving the level of confidence to communicate the value of what they do every day is professionally empowering for educators – I have seen this evolution and it is magnificent!”

Building advocacy

According to Ms Carnegie, we need both the general awareness of ECE participation and the specific understanding of quality ratings to be improved.

“If families don’t understand that we work under a National Quality Framework, they can be left equating price with quality, or measuring services by other factors such as the newness of equipment,” she says.

“And when families do understand what high quality looks like they become incredibly valuable advocates for our sector.”

Families and The Wiggles

While reluctant to endorse the choice, Ms Carnegie believes that educators will appreciate Ms Chang’s clarification that the Department’s engagement of The Wiggles as ambassadors is not about the new quality rating graphic.

Ms Chang has told us that the presence of Dorothy the Dinosaur at the quality ratings guide launch with the Minister was a fun addition for the children at the service. The engagement of The Wiggles as ambassadors for ECE, however, is about a more substantial awareness campaign for ECE participation in 2020.

“I understand what people are saying about those characters speaking to children, rather than parents, but The Wiggles are incredibly well recognised by people of all ages.

“We feel lucky to be able to engage them as ambassadors, especially since the original team’s origins were in early childhood education, and they’ll be working with us on a campaign specifically about reaching those families who are not already engaged in ECE. Part of that message is also about NSW having introduced a system that will assist parents find good quality services and make it less confusing for them. Ultimately the aim is to have more children engaged in quality early childhood education.”

Ms Carnegie says: “I’m not personally convinced about the choice, but I can see it makes more sense when it’s part of a community awareness campaign about the vital importance of quality early childhood education for every child, especially when the NSW parent research shows that one in five families whose children don’t attend ECE believe there’s ‘no need’.”

Entry level discussions

According to Ms Chang, the research about family ECE and quality awareness shows that 45% of parents with children attending ECE ‘did not know very much’ about the NQS, and 23% of parents surveyed had no knowledge of it at all.

“It’s hard enough engaging families whose child is already enrolled, but we really need to reach parents and caregivers before then,” she says.

“ACECQA’s report and our own parent research is very clear on this – so many families are saying they didn’t know quality ratings existed before they enrolled their children, and that if they had known it would have affected their decision.”

Cautious pending evaluation

While she can see merit in continuing to invest in family communication strategies, Ms Carnegie is cautious about the new star graphic and its connection with consumer products.

She welcomes Ms Chang’s commitment to using independent benchmarks to evaluate the effectiveness of the new graphics versus the ratings certificates and the logos ACECQA provides for display.

“Nancy tells us that NSW will use ACECQA’s regular parent research to measure behavioural change based on the star symbols,” says Ms Carnegie.

“We’re fortunate there’s a clear baseline for the level of awareness families currently have for the NQS, and we’ll be monitoring NSW as it evaluates the effectiveness of these new displays for higher awareness.”

Ms Chang says there’s an ‘in-principle’ endorsement of the evaluation and more details will be available in the new year.

The consistency problem

Ms Carnegie also welcomes Ms Chang’s commitment to cultural shifts in the A&R process in NSW. As the largest jurisdiction population, NSW issues with consistency tend to be more extreme.

“Educators in NSW who are concerned about the star rating display are often doing so because they feel the rating process itself isn’t yet consistent,” says Ms Carnegie.

“We regularly provide feedback to the Department on the Assessment & Rating process and the areas that we raise are in common with the wider sector feedback from Roadshows.

“I am encouraged to hear that these very real concerns are being addressed and we will continue to work with the Department on this and other practical implementation issues associated with the NSW Quality Rating Graphic”

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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