At a time when accessing childcare of any sort can be extremely problematic, being offered a place in a centre for your baby or child is almost akin to winning the lottery. Some would say the odds are even similar.
Given the scarcity of childcare places, few parents have the luxury of comparison shopping to really sort the good quality service from the not quite so good. If the educators and carers seem OK and your child appears to be happy and well cared for, isn’t this enough?
The truth is, it isn’t. We know from brain research that a child learns more in their first five years than at any other time. The early years are critically important, not just in setting a child up for school but, in fact, for life. This is why you will now increasingly hear childcare referred to as early education and care, and childcare workers as educators.
Parents can often find checklists of what they should be looking for in an early education and care centre on parenting websites, but many of these are so lengthy that they make the task of choosing (presuming you are lucky enough to have a choice) even more complex. Luckily, decades of research about what makes quality childcare gives us unequivocal (if not well known) answers.
Staff to child ratios
The first criteria to assess quality is staff to child ratios. This generally makes sense to a new parent or even an old hand at parenting – struggling with a few under-fives is hard work! National regulations for early education and care centres brought in last year mandate a ratio of one educator for every four babies, 1:8 for toddlers (reducing to 1:5 in 2016) and 1:11 for pre-schoolers. Really high quality centres will have better than these mandated ratios.
The second determinant of quality is educators’ qualifications and again, it isn’t rocket science. The higher the qualifications of the educators in a service, the better early education and care the children attending will receive. The national regulations have made it mandatory for all staff at a childcare centre to have a minimum Certificate III qualification in childcare, with half the staff at each centre having to hold a diploma or an early childhood teaching degree.
Each centre licensed for more than 25 children is required to have at least one university qualified early childhood teacher at the centre, with some states like NSW requiring even more teachers. The employment of early childhood teachers, with their specialist study on early childhood development, is a crucial factor in ensuring children get the best early education possible.
The main thing that makes one childcare centre better than another is the quality of the relationships that children form with their carers. This one probably is not a surprise for parents, but how dependent quality relationships are on the first two things may be. Educators have more time to form quality relationships with the children in their care when they have fewer children to care for. Studies show that educators with higher qualifications have the best skills at forming strong and enduring relationships with children.
So these are the three things parents need to look for when assessing a childcare centre. Do the children appear to have great relationships with the staff? Does the centre have a high number of staff with higher qualifications, such as early childhood teaching degrees? And does the centre meet or exceed the required staff to child ratios at all times?
Obviously, ensuring childcare centres make good relationships with children cannot be mandated or enforced by government regulation, but the ratios and qualifications are. The National Quality Framework for Early Education and Care was agreed to by the Commonwealth and each of the State and Territory Governments in 2009. This framework is improving both of these elements over a six year period which started last year. By 2014 every educator is to have, or be studying, a Certificate II in childcare. By the same time, half of all staff at a centre are to have a Diploma or early childhood teaching degree. All services are to have a university qualified early childhood teacher by 2014 and by 2020 larger services are to have a second teacher. The first ratio change (which meant that for babies the ratio is now one staff member to four babies) came in last year. The next one, which will drop the ratio for toddlers to 1:5, becomes law in 2016.
All these changes to improve the quality of education and care in childcare centres may be in jeopardy. The new Commonwealth Government is seeking to delay the ratio and qualification changes, purportedly to give childcare services more time to prepare. Many educators think that services have already had time enough to prepare and that any delay in the changes will mean that some children will miss out on getting the best possible early education and care possible.