Seeking an identity for quality in early childhood contexts in Australia

By Deborah Harcourt


As an early childhood consultant, I have the great privilege of working with educators, children and families almost every day. I would hazard a guess and say that 90% of my professional life is spent with early childhood educators who wish to ensure that they are improving the quality of experiences for children and themselves in their contexts – well at least that is what motivates my engagement with them.

But experiences over the past month have made me really stop and think about three things:

  • Can quality really ‘look like’ something?
  • Can quality be branded?
  • How easy is it to put on a mask that masquerades as quality?

I am going to use this opportunity to be transparent and bold in my assessment of the current ‘quality’ landscape – so please be warned. I am open to robust and respectful dialogue, debate and discussion on this issue, which I believe might expose an elephant in the room – one I have often heard about behind closed doors but not ‘out load’.

The ‘new look’ quality

I am a bit of a fan of Facebook and have my own business page where I try to share inspirational stories from early childhood and beyond. In my search for articles, research papers and transformative practices I often come across pages that might be hosted by early childhood settings, that advertise open days for new centres or suggest tips and ideas for working with children. Almost without exception (but of course I acknowledge there are wonderful exceptions), I am offered a view of a glossy setting replete with timber furnishings, loose parts, mirrors, light boxes, same coloured pencils sorted into glass jars and the latest ‘must haves’ from the catalogues. Particularly noticeable are the big networks of early childhood centres who are purporting that they offer quality environments – many “inspired by Reggio Emilia” (I am going to come back to this) – but they are all beginning to look the same, something that the schools in Reggio Emilia certainly do not.

Two things are absent in of these types of postings – there are NEVER any children demonstrating their active engagement in such settings and we are NEVER offered a rationale as to why this type of environment supports young children’s thinking. Without intentionally identifying any organisation, the image below is an example of the type I am talking about, as a general indication of environments being advanced as quality – particularly to families.




Quality now seems to have developed a certain new look – especially if it is part of a new build. Timber has replaced plastic, wooden bowls and woven baskets have replaced storage cubes, white paint has replaced coloured paint, loose parts have replaced toys, and perhaps a large Swedish chain is replacing the early childhood catalogue of furniture. None of which I object to in principle – but I am hearing or reading no discussion in these posts as to the why.

In the example above it is, in my view, difficult to see what might inspire children’s thinking, what might capture their curiosity, what might support connections to previous work and, what might offer educators a foundation for researching with children and colleagues. What clues are available to children that suggest a possible map of intention as laid out by thoughtful educators? What evidence is there that daily life is important and worth knowing about? What access do children have to transformative languages that bring new perspectives to theories and hypotheses? These have become my pressing questions as I ponder the plethora of such images as the new look of quality in Australia (and elsewhere I assume).

In addition, we are now seeing a rise in the number of large centres with no outdoor space. These have been replaced (usually in a high-rise or shopping centre locale) with simulated outdoor experiences where I read just today, “children have access to all manner of gross motor skills and sensory experiences” … BUT NO ACCESS to fresh air and the elements of a natural environment where they can engage with ideas and theories about the natural world. With an international early childhood community that is currently promoting the benefits to nature play, where do these centres fit in? How do waivers for these centres support Australia’s quality agenda where children are supposed to be at the core of all decision making? Where is the landscape for research and inquiry in such environments?

Branding quality

With the advent in the last 20 years or so of private (and more recently not for profit) large, medium and and small networks of early childhood centres – competition for occupancy (and recruitment of staff) has become fierce. I believe individuality and community reflective practice is at great risk of becoming lost in the branding game.

If quality has begun to look like something, as I have referred to above, it can often also be ‘hooked’ on to a particular early childhood approach or recognisable practice framework. Again, in principle I do not have any objections to this UNLESS it has been made with very tenuous links to a rich understanding of that model, method, theory or philosophical position – which unfortunately is more the norm than the exception.

“Inspired by Reggio Emilia” is a case in point. The Reggio Emilia Educational Project (or the Reggio Approach as it is often referred to) originates from the northern Italian town of Reggio Emilia in the Emilia Romagna region. It has become synonymous with high quality early childhood education and is based on a community’s value and belief in the competence of children and teachers as thinkers and learners. In my experience of the principles that underpin this way of working it takes many, many years to try to understand what our colleagues are offering us as a deeply philosophical and thoughtful approach, which we must carefully and respectfully translate in to our own contexts.

While imitation can be viewed as a mark of respect, blatant use of the work and thinking of schools in Reggio Emilia as a discrete marketing ploy for centres is, I believe, disrespectful. As an example that is not presented to vilify or identify, I recently experienced a small network workplace that had the following:

  • School buses with ‘Reggio Inspired’ emblazoned on their exteriors
  • A painted copy of Malaguzzi’s (the founding philosopher) poem “100 languages” in the foyer without reference to its author
  • ‘Studios’ (classrooms) with Italian names – many of which staff could not pronounce
  • A ‘piazza’ (the town squares in Italian towns) replete with a water park, climbing bridge and faux grass
  • ‘Ateliers’ (the spaces for investigating the 100 languages) but staff did not know how or have the expertise to work in this way
  • Use of the Reggio Children logo throughout
  • One person only, had been to a Reggio related conference (within the last month)
  • Staff who openly admitted to “knowing nothing about Reggio”
  • No introductory professional learning offered to explore the principles of Reggio Emilia
  • A non determined/defined role of ‘pedagogista’ (Reggio has a network of highly experienced and skilled pedagogical leaders who support at least four schools each)

Those who deeply engage in the principles of Reggio (and other approaches) over a long period of time, and I can think of quite number, refrain from exploiting this connection as a branding opportunity. Rather, they attend study tours, seminars, conferences, networks groups, engage in rich internal professional learning, read widely, use experienced and well versed mentors to guide their practice based on sound understandings and research – and definitely do not try to ‘look like’ Reggio. Their relationship with Reggio Emilia is based on a deep respect and understanding of their principles, rather than superficial nuances and dubious practices.

Masquerading as quality

Ok, so this is the largest of all elephants. I spent 10 years overseas during the years dominated by a very large profit driven company, but heard regularly from early childhood colleagues that ‘flying squads’ were deployed when an accreditation visit was impending. This meant that equipment, staff and other resources were shipped and shifted about to address the accreditation ‘tick and flicks’ in order to meet the requirements. We all ‘tut tutted’ about this and denigrated the organisation for the practice – and I think, rightly so.

BUT … I have personally seen flying squads on FIVE occasions in the last month (July 2017). Pressure from the operations teams (and/or owners) of network organisations to achieve exceeding, even though they have previously ignored (failed to visit or pedagogically supported) said centres for the past 6, 12, 18, 24 months. Action is only taken when notice is given for an assessment and rating visit. It would be my view that an assessment and rating visit should be undertaken without notice. Our youngest citizens attend these centres every day, and what ever that experience of quality is, is what should be assessed and rated.

Case example:

  • One previous visit from person who oversees the network – Assessment and Ratings visit notified – person there everyday for 2 weeks prior
  • No targeted professional development offered to team since centre opened – Assessment and Ratings visit notified – 2 external consultants employed
  • Flying squad deployed consisting of various employees from other centres – NONE of which consulted with Director, Educational Leader or room teams about changes – and overrode the Consultants’ advice
  • Flying squad changed all documentation to reflect a consistent message without consulting with room teams
  • All rooms were reconfigured without consulting room leaders – one room was changed 3 times while the children were there – you can only imagine what happened!
  • None of the flying squad met with the team as a whole (this was left to one of the consultants) to provide guidance, suggestions or support

This is reality. I am suggesting that centres can play the game of quality very easily. A centre I was asked to support would have, in my humble (but experienced) opinion, have breached a number of regulatory requirements on any given day I was there. This included treating children in very disrespectful ways (carry a young child (less than 2 years old) across a play space by ‘hanging arms’), shouting at children (“get over here now”), grouping children at lunch time in very cramped conditions and ‘dumping food’ on their plastic plates. The educators generally had no idea how an appropriate observation and planning cycle could work and the resources were also generally not appropriate for the age and number of children. The children ‘trashed’ resources, treated each other and the educators with physical aggression, some educators were rude and disrespectful to each other, families ignored … I could go on, but you get the gist.

Outcome is this centre gets exceeding ACROSS ALL SEVEN AREAS!!!! …

It’s time to get serious

There some amazing early childhood settings in Australia. Centres such as Flinders Early Learning Centre on the Sunshine Coast, St Peters Girls’ Collegiate Early Learners Centre in Adelaide, Goodstart Red Hill in Brisbane, Kindamarlee in Landsborough, Cornish College’s ELC in Melbourne, Northside Community Services’ early childhood centres in Canberra and many others. An authorised officer could visit these centres on any given day and they would see consistent, inspiring practices. An exemplary early childhood education setting takes years to develop. It demands skilled and inspired leadership, committed and well versed educators and teachers who are invested in their craft, strong alliances with families and communities, a focus on inquiry and research and contemporary knowledge of child development and learning.

We cannot accept that centres can put a mask on for the few days of an assessment and ratings visit and achieve meeting – or even exceeding. We cannot accept that quality has begun to look like something. We cannot accept that young children, who are the bearers of rights, are being subjected to practices that do not acknowledge them as thinkers and learners. We cannot accept that too many employ a quality ‘brand’ without a deep commitment to understanding its origins. We cannot accept that the quality system in Australia can still be rorted … we need our own unique identity for quality that is consistently and rigorously applied.

Food for thought



Article originally posted on August 13, 2017



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