An Australian study portraying the standard of teaching in Australian preschools as ”very poor” is a wake-up call for New Zealand’s early childhood sector and political leaders, a leading local childhood education and care expert says.

The just released national study of standards and teaching in Australian early childhood education services showed that children were in many cases experiencing little more than a ‘glorified playgroup‘.

We might see a nice environment, but there is a low level of quality interactions. Staff don’t see the opportunity to teach. It’s a very poor story in terms of the educational content of these programmes,” lead researcher of the E4Kids study, Professor Karen Thorpe told the Sydney Morning Herald.

The researchers observed ‘constant’ missed opportunities for teaching children. National co-ordinator of ChildForum Sarah Farquhar says parents who expect their children to receive a good early education at a kindergarten, childcare or home-based service need to be aware that there are no guarantees of quality teaching for their child in .

In some services you can see brilliant examples of effective teaching appropriate to the individual child, but in many others teachers are either unable to or don’t have the conditions that allow them to be much more than supervisors or group controllers“, says Dr Farquhar. The NZ Government funds places at early childhood services and aims to get more kids participating earlier and for longer hours in the day because early learning is recognised as being important for children’s long-term educational achievement.

However, if the Australian study is anything to go by on Early Childhood Education standards, New Zealand authorities should be more alert and must recognise shortcomings in our various child centres, Dr Farquhar, who also authored the Education Ministry’s best evidence synthesis on quality teaching in the early years, says.

“The Australian study is a shocking indictment and the results are alarming and provide a wake-up call for the early childhood sector and political leaders.”

The study probably provides a reasonably accurate picture of what kiwi parents can expect their children to experience in early childcare and education here, Dr Farquhar says.

In some cases a well-run playgroup may actually be better than trusting a service with your child’s education because in a playgroup parents are involved, watching, and spending quality time interacting with their child, she says.

ChildForum gets regular complaints from parents who do not like the structured programmes provided in some early childhood centres.

“The parents say they are too organised and the teachers are too busy taking photos, and not playing alongside children and interacting with them and letting children be children.

“And the parents are right because these are examples of ‘mis-education’,” Dr Farquhar says.

The Australian study of 2500 children found that on a scale of one to seven, the quality of instruction for four-year olds – regardless of whether they attend preschool, a childcare centre or family day care – averaged a ranking of just two.

This put on par with the , which has an unregulated sector considered to be of poor quality.

Professor Thorpe said the results of the study were ”shocking”.

In , early childhood centres are becoming more visually attractive to adults and providing a cute looking environment, with artificial turf replacing grass and natural play spaces and fancy learning equipment suitable for only one or two children, thus replacing equipment that encourages social dialogue and group play. However, this kind of environment can be very boring and frustrating for the child attending for more than an hour or two and provides little in the way of opportunities for children and teachers to have shared experiences on which to build learning, Dr Farquhar says. “The conditions of work can also make it difficult for teachers to find time to talk to each child and get to know a child well enough to have a meaningful conversation.” Conditions in centres include: high number of children – teachers can be caring for as many as 150 preschoolers or 75 babies; low ratios – one adult to every five babies attending and one adult to every 10 preschoolers; and gaps in the training and knowledge of teachers within a team as only half (50%) of teachers need be qualified. Teachers face different conditions in home-based settings with a legal maximum of four children but they can work long hours without breaks and no one to assist them, and most do not hold a qualification recognised for teaching young children. Professional expectations for assessment of children have overtaken the child, Dr Farquhar says. “It has become common to see a teacher not engaged with the children playing around her because she is sitting and concentrating on writing or typing up a story about a child.”

A 1999 NZ study by Professor Anne Smith observed that one third of toddlers attending childcare centres had no joint interaction episodes with an adult or teacher – they were just left to their own devices. “If this study was repeated today it is likely the same or worse results would be found,” Dr Farquhar says.

While one harmful practice is leaving children for long periods to play without teacher input and involvement, commercially based structured programmes now appearing in some preschools can be just as harmful because teaching is top-down and does not require much skill on the part of the teacher.

Meanwhile, leading experts in early childhood education will attend a national conference, organised by ChildForum, in at the end of January with a focus on raising the effectiveness of teaching.

Dr Ken Blaiklock, a senior lecturer at UNITEC, will address problems of our national early childhood curriculum not including some crucial learning areas for children and in a separate presentation he will examine major concerns with the method commonly used in centres to assess children’s learning.

Assoc Professor Claire McLachlan from will discuss the Education Review Office 2011 report findings that many early childhood services are failing young children because of poor literacy teaching practices and policies, and what effective literacy teaching in an early childhood education centre would look like.

Other presenters will cover topics of cultural differences, such as working with immigrant children, child health, such as having edible gardens in ECE centres, and social issues such as young solo fathers with small children. “ChildForum hopes that by laying research on the table and having a critical discussion on learning and teaching in early childhood education, research might begin to filter through to policy level so policy can be developed that will provide the conditions to enable effective teaching to take place”.

Further information is available at

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