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Dr Marianne Fenech

Timely study into quality in Australian childcare

Dr Marianne Fenech

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Marianne Fenech, completed a Masters degree in Community Management and a PhD on the topic of optimising quality long day care through regulation.

It’s no surprise then that she’s in the team of Macquarie and Charles Sturt University researchers who won a prestigious three-year ARC Discovery Grant of $257,196. They are now into the final year of a multi-modal investigation of current and proposed structures and processes determining and sustaining quality in Australian centre-based childcare.

Research clearly demonstrates, she said, that high-quality childcare has the most positive impact on young children’s wellbeing and development. It is of even more benefit to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is also a strong body of evidence that shows that the benefits of high-quality childcare flow on to strengthen families, communities and the economy.

What contributes to the provision of high-quality childcare in Australia is the focus of Dr Fenech’s current research. The investigation began with a critical review of more than 300 published peer-reviewed journal articles reporting on quality care.

“A key finding of the review was that university-trained teachers play a critical role in the provision of high-quality early childhood education and care. Interestingly though, what teachers believe contributes to the provision of high quality child care is relatively absent in research. Very little attention has also been paid to parents’ understandings of quality in childcare.” 

The researchers have sought to address this research gap by exploring teacher and parent perspectives of quality childcare through six in-depth case studies of externally rated high-quality centres in NSW. They have gone into centres, observed, documented, videoed staff practices, examined budgets and policies, and conducted interviews and focus groups with staff and parents. Findings have highlighted the investment needed to support high quality childcare.

“All of our case study centres exceed current regulatory standards in terms of the number of qualified teachers employed and the staff:child ratio utilised. There is also high investment in the staff working at these centres, which in turn has contributed to ongoing professional development, strong and sustained intentional leadership, job satisfaction, and extremely low rates of staff turnover. All these factors attract and support high-calibre staff and enhance children’s learning experiences.

“This is an important finding because what parents read about in the media is how childcare costs are going up. What is given far less attention is how these investments enable high-quality childcare which in turn optimises developmental outcomes for children,.” Dr Fenech said.

This issue of quality childcare is a hot political topic, with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) announcing in December last year a National Partnership Agreement on the Quality for Early Childhood Education and Care. The Agreement adopts a nationally consistent approach to providing quality early childhood education and care in Australia. In addition to streamlining regulatory requirements and implementing a new quality rating system, the Agreement establishes a National Quality Standard from January 1, 2012. Under the new rating system, services will be assessed under a five-tier system and rated as either;

  •         unsatisfactory
  •         operating
  •         national quality standard
  •         high quality or
  •         excellent.

The ratings will be made public so that parents will be able to make more informed decisions.

The detail of the National Quality Standard and how services will be assessed under the new rating system have yet to be released. Dr Fenech and colleagues will use her ongoing analysis of the data collected from the case-study centres to inform and critique these policy developments.

Dr Fenech welcomes COAG’s intent to improve quality standards but is concerned that the developments may not go far enough to support the high quality the case-study centres are providing in spite of, and not because of, current regulatory systems.

“In terms of the number of university teacher qualified staff and staff:child ratios, the proposed standards are still not as strong  as those implemented in our case centres,” said Dr Fenech. “And while COAG has set a policy trajectory to improve quality standards, as yet no reforms aimed at improving the status and working conditions of early childhood teachers have been announced.

“This means that operating at high quality may still be dependent on the commitment and will of centres, which can be problematic. Currently two-thirds of childcare centres in Australia are for profit. When a profit imperative needs to be met, investing in high-quality childcare becomes more difficult.”