Driven by children’s rights and the importance of early education
Karen Roberts is not the kind of person who can turn away from a problem without attempting to find a solution. In her 45-year education career she has certainly encountered a spectrum of issues and seen a lot in the sector. However, it was her foundational understanding of what early education could be and do that set her on her current path.
My whole approach to early childhood education back in the '70s was one of social justice and inclusivity,” she says of her mindset at the start of her career. “I had that way of thinking about the world that everybody's equal and everyone should be included.
She studied special education and in the 1990s took a job in Canterbury, a local government area of Western Sydney. Coming to Lakemba, one of Sydney’s most multicultural suburbs, from the Sutherland Shire, further embedded those notions of justice, equality and inclusivity.
“I was also completely driven by the fact that children had rights,” she says, referring to the emergence of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. “Child protection has been another huge aspect for me. It was about finding ways to make a difference.”
That early education could be so formative is something she has taken into her current role as Manager for Children’s Services at City of Canterbury Bankstown. When CELA last spoke with Karen in 2019 for a Meet the Member focus in our tri-annual magazine Rattler (Issue 128), she had just launched an initiative with the Sydney Alliance Group to provide childcare places for asylum seeker families.
At the time, asylum seekers had access to food, housing and even job-seeking assistance but were not eligible for subsidised childcare, which had an adverse effect on workforce participation, study commitments and connection to the community.
Karen saw a solution in the oversupply of childcare services in her area.
“We had been discussing the oversupply of centres in some of our suburbs impacting on enrolments,” says Karen. “I had been thinking about what a waste it was - that educators are employed to meet ratios, the numbers aren’t there, and centres are therefore overstaffed. I realised that adding an extra child a day to overstaffed centres would cost next to nothing, so I suggested that we could either give a place for free or a very minimal fee to a family who has survived hardship and even torture."
Supporting the Asylum Seekers Centre and other members of Sydney Alliance, she attended a meeting with Mayor Khal Asfour to advocate for this solution, resulting in the mayor’s immediate endorsement.
"Karen understands deeply the importance of ECEC for all children, and for children seeking asylum in particular,” says Chantelle Ogilvie-Ellis of Sydney Alliance. “She was willing to do the research and planning that could make our dream for ECEC access a reality for these families. Karen put together the report and proposal that the City of Canterbury Bankstown then adopted for the pilot program.”
Children blossomed, families thrived
Almost two years on, the results of the initiative have been fruitful. Children who were at first “tentative” about attending daycare “just blossomed,” Karen describes. “They are outgoing, playing, learning the language better. They went off to school in a much better place than they were.”
But it was the effect on the families that showed the wider impact of childcare as a keystone community service. “They talked about the great benefits to themselves as well,” Karen reports. “They were thrilled at the children's progress, but also for themselves. We had people enrolling in TAFE, people working a bit more than they were able to before.”
Despite the hit the early education sector sustained during COVID, Karen says these benefits continued throughout 2020 and 2021, even as the area endured some of the hardest lockdowns in the country.
"I’ve been lucky to work in local government where I was supported in my goals," admits Karen. "My biggest hurdle would be having patience, knowing that change is a process that can take a very long time — but I realised that persisting to speak up and help others learn and embrace children’s rights and social justice for all is worth the wait."
Awarded for leadership and intergenerational care
Karen’s innovative approach to early education has recently come to the fore once again with recognition for Individual Leadership at the HESTA Early Childhood Education and Care Awards 2021.
Award judge Christine Legg, CEO of KU Children’s Services, acknowledged Karen’s track record “in establishing one of Australia’s few UNICEF Child Friendly City Projects culminating in the 2019 Child Friendly City Action Plan as well as the Asylum Seeker initiative in the City of Canterbury-Bankstown Council LGA” and says this new project has the potential to have far-reaching effects.
Her work goes beyond her teaching role in the ECE setting and her advocacy and commitment benefits all children in the Canterbury-Bankstown area that will have a long-lasting social impact on the community,” Christine notes.
“It’s humbling because there are plenty of people doing good things,” says Karen of the accolade. “I didn't expect it, but I really wanted it.”
The prize money will go towards further research into different models of intergenerational care, which could result in a hybrid nursing home and childcare centre. “It just makes sense. Our centres for years have had visits with nursing homes, children going there and them coming to the centre when they can. It was inspiring to see how the children learn so much from the older people and how the older people would change as well.”
Leading great initiatives: What we can learn from Karen's exprience
Karen has managed this innovative program as part of her regular workload at the council where she’s worked as manager since 2003. She also manages four nationally accredited long day care centres for children up to age six, plus a family day care service, an outside school hours care program, occasional care and early childhood intervention services. She has also worked for CELA as a valued content writer, facilitator and consultant.
We asked Karen what she would say to other ECEC leaders who have a vision they would like to achieve. Here are four key takeaways from her experience:
- Great initiatives don't have to be planned, they can come from a single thought or realisation, or evolve from a series of thoughts or discussions
- Having a real passion and conviction for what you are doing will help you to work through the challenging times, and allow you to stay focused on the end goal
- Nobody knows everything, so seek out likeminded people to collaborate with on your journey and be open to opportunities
- Don't underestimate the importance of being part of a supportive organisation that embraces innovation
"We need leaders with a vision that will ensure all children receive quality early learning and leaders who continue to strive for recognition of our profession," says Karen.
Members can read more about Karen and her initiative with the Asylum Seekers Centre in Issue 128 of Rattler magazine (note: you will need to be logged in to access it).
Download Rattler 128
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.