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Curriculum in Early Childhood Education (Australia)

Curriculum in Early Childhood Education (Australia)
by Deborah Pino-Pasternak

Deborah Pino-Pasternak is a senior lecturer at Murdoch University, Western Australia . Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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DOI: 10.5040/9781474209434.0015

  • Editor(s):
    Laura Perry (Regional Editor) and Manjula Waniganayake (Editor in Chief)
  • Publisher:
    Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
  • Identifier:
    b-9781474209434-015
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The Australian context

Australia is a federation of six states and two mainland territories. In 2009, the federal government agreed on a National Quality Framework for Early Childhood including national-level legislation and regulatory structures to ensure a high-quality educational provision for all young Australians. The governance and administration of the framework and key components is, however, the responsibility of each state and territory. This structure provides the necessary independence to manage early childhood (EC) provision in a way that best meets the needs of different Australian regions. There is some degree of diversity in the nature of how such provision is implemented and, in turn, this challenges the conceptualization of early childhood services in Australia as a unitary set of practices.

This article focuses on the birth to age five range and includes the first year of compulsory schooling named foundation year/pre-primary/kindergarten/prep/transition (depending on the state), as well as other formal EC provision located within schools. Children in Australia attend early childhood settings for a variety of reasons with the predominant ones being parents’ participation in paid employment and the provision of learning and social experiences for children. The rates of participation of children in EC settings indicate that the most prevalent form of EC provision for children under four years of age is long day care centers with 45 percent attendance among two-to-three-year-olds. The peak attendance is reached at four years of age with 87 percent of children participating in some form of EC provision and 82 percent of them attending formal EC settings including preschools located within primary schools (Baxter 2015). A detailed report by Baxter and Hand (2013) also suggests that families manage the early care of their children in multiple ways and that the multiplicity of family solutions is enabled by the wide range of services available, including informal care by family members, long day care centers, playgroups, occasional care, and early intervention services among others.

Approaches to curriculum

Despite state-based differences in EC provision, the vision that underpins the educational opportunities of young Australians is clearly laid out in the “Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia,” a document developed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and produced by the Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR 2009). This is the first Australian framework to guide curriculum and pedagogy in EC settings across the country and has been regarded as “one of the greatest accomplishments of early childhood education” in Australia (Edwards 2017: 6).

This document, which was the result of extensive consultation among the EC sector, EC academics, as well as the federal and state governments, aims to assist educators in providing young children with sound educational opportunities to maximize their developmental potential and to provide them with a solid foundation in preparation for school. As such, the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF) is central to realizing the Australian vision of all children having “the best start in life to create a better future for themselves and for the nation” (COAG 2009).

The terms Belonging, Being, and Becoming further illustrate this vision. Belonging acknowledges the importance of relationships and of place in creating individual and collective identities. Being highlights the fact that early childhood education is not only about preparation for the future but about being present and engaged with children through meaningful experiences here and now. Finally, Becoming stresses the rapid developmental change and the readiness to respond to environmental stimulation that characterizes early childhood (DEEWR 2009: 7).

Table 1. Structure of EYLF (DEEWR 2009)

Principles Practices Learning Outcomes
  • secure, respectful, and reciprocate relationships

  • partnerships with families

  • high expectations and equity

  • respect for diversity

  • ongoing learning and reflective practice

  • holistic approaches

  • responsiveness to children

  • learning through play

  • intentional teaching

  • learning environments

  • cultural competence

  • continuity of learning and transitions

  • assessment for learning

  • children have a strong sense of identity

  • children are connected with and contribute to their world

  • children have a strong sense of well-being

  • children are confident and involved learners

  • children are effective communicators


The EYLF is organized under three major elements: principles, practices, and learning outcomes (see Table 1). The principles are based on research evidence and are meant to underpin the practice of educators. Practices assist educators in providing young children with multiple high-quality opportunities for learning and growth. Learning outcomes are holistic and address different areas of development. For each learning outcome, a number of behavioral indicators illustrating how the outcome is evidenced in children are presented, followed by a description of practices that promote its achievement. Further information about Australia's national accreditation policies and processes is available at the website of the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA 2017) who has oversight of the system.

Child-centered and child-led curriculum

In line with well-established and traditional thinking in early childhood, the EYLF sees the child at the center of the curriculum (Grieshaber 2010). It values child-led learning experiences including play, discovery, and exploration, and recognizes the role of the educator as the provider of stimulating environments that promote child-led curiosity. At the same time, the EYLF sees the educator as an important actor in extending the potential and scope of child-initiated learning initiatives through conceptually-rich and meaningful dialogues as well as scaffolded opportunities that promote the incremental development of cognitive, socio-emotional, and physical skills (Siraj-Blatchford and Sylva 2004).

All the above suggests that a successful implementation of the principles and practices of the EYLF is a challenging task, and one that requires significant leadership and professional learning on the part of educators. As mentioned, the Australian government has introduced national systems and structures to support the effective implementation of the framework. In Australia, the quality of early childhood provision is guided by the National Quality Framework (NQF) and administered by the Australian’s Children Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). A central component of the framework is the National Quality Standards (NQS), a set of demonstrable outcomes that EC settings are required to achieve. Since the introduction of the NQF in 2012, approved Early Childhood services (including long day care, family day care, preschool/kindergarten, and outside school-hours care services) have been rated by qualified assessors on a five-point scale (“Significant improvement required” to “Excellent”) on seven quality areas: (1) educational program and practice; (2) children’s health and safety; (3) physical environment; (4) staffing arrangements; (5) relationships with families; (6) collaborative partnerships with families and communities; and (7) governance and leadership.

EC settings operating below the expected achievement standards are provided with adequate guidance and expected to move forward to achieve accreditation under the NQS. According to the latest ACECQA report (2017), 93 percent of the approved service providers have a quality rating, with 75 percent being rated as “Meeting the NQS standards” or above. In addition, 69 percent of those providers rated as “Working towards NQS” have improved their overall quality ranking at re-assessment. The NQS also state the minimum requirements in terms of educator qualifications that settings are expected to comply with if they are to operate as approved providers. At present, those requirements include the presence of a university qualified early childhood teacher with a three-to-four-year EC Bachelor Degree for centers with an attendance of up to fifty-nine children per day and in operation for fifty or more hours a week. This requirement is extended to two fully qualified early childhood teachers for centers who cater for sixty to eighty children, and which operate for fifty hours or more per week. Other staff in contact with children are expected to have achieved a short term vocational training certificate in early childhood, completed during one to three semesters (six to eighteen months).

Overall, the data presented above suggests that Australians have access to a wide range of EC services, and the majority of these settings are meeting the national standards for quality provision. International comparisons seem to confirm a positive outlook of Australian’s early childhood education, with studies positioning Australia ahead of countries like the United Kingdom and the United States in terms of the average quality of EC provision (Fenech, Sweller, and Harrison 2010). The information above, however, concerns services that cater for children from birth to age five. Though the early childhood period (as defined by UNESCO) extends until eight years of age, it is during the first years of schooling that children and families experience a shift in educational expectations. This may be a sign of discontinuity in discourses and principles underpinning curriculum documents guiding pedagogy pre- and post-entry to school.

Key challenges

The transition to school has been identified as a critical period for young children and their families. While it can provide fruitful opportunities for growth and development, if not managed carefully, it can be harmful to children causing, for example, emotional stress, poor academic efficacy, and underachievement (OECD 2006). In recognizing the importance of positive transitions, several government and nonprofit organizations within Australia have produced research and guidance documents supporting families and educators during this process. The government of Victoria, for example, has developed a Transition Resource Kit (Department of Education and Training-Victoria 2017) aimed at supporting schools in creating effective transitions to schooling. An important aspect of this resource is to show educators the alignment between the EYLF and the Australian Curriculum (ACARA, n.d.), the latter being a set of documents that guide pedagogy from school entry (e.g., foundation year) to the final year of schooling in the country (year 12).

Despite these efforts, research shows that the transition to school in Australia is “marked by differing curriculum, pedagogical and assessment practices that … can create discontinuities in children’s experiences” (Dunham et al. 2016). Grieshaber and Shearer (2013), for instance, identify five discontinuities or areas of difference in these two curriculum documents as shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Discontinuities between the EYLF and the Australian Curriculum

  Early Years Learning Framework Australian Curriculum
  • Learning

  • Content

  • Pedagogy

  • Assessment

  • Reporting

  • Holistic view of child and learning

  • Child driven/Educator choice

  • Driven by high standards of achievement

  • Based on standards

  • Recommended by not mandatory

  • Subject-based

  • Prescribed

  • Combination of play-based learning and intentional teaching

  • Based on holistic outcomes

  • A-E report card every subject, every semester, every year

Source: Based on Grieshaber and Shearer 2013: 17.


The discontinuities identified above are also reported by practitioners who express concern about: the “erosion of play” in school-based early childhood programs (Barblett, Knaus, and Barratt-Pugh 2016: 36); the increasing push for formal and standardized assessments; and the pressures of a content-packed curriculum. Sadly, these concerns are echoed by researchers in other countries (See Barblett, Knaus, and Barratt-Pugh 2016).

Therefore the challenge for Australia is how to strike a balance for young children, where the school experience involves a healthy combination of child-led learning opportunities rich in play and experimentation as well as guided or intentional learning opportunities scaffolded by educators. This is the joint responsibility of government, school leaders, educators, researchers, and families.

Further reading and online resources

Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (ACEQA). 2017. NQF Snapshot Q3 2017. Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. http://files.acecqa.gov.au/files/Reports/2017/NQF_Snapshot_Q3.pdf .

Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). n.d. “National Quality Framework (NQF).” Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. www.acecqa.gov.au/national-quality-framework .

Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). n.d. “National Quality Standards (NQS).” Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. www.acecqa.gov.au/national-quality-framework/the-national-quality-standard .

Barblett, L., M. Knaus, and C. Barratt-Pugh. 2016. “The Pushes and Pulls of Pedagogy in the Early Years: Competing Knowledges and the Erosion of Play-Based Learning .” Australasian Journal of Early Childhood 41 (4): 36–43. Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/our-publications/australasian-journal-early-childhood/index-abstracts/ajec-vol-40-no-4-december-2016/pushes-pulls-pedagogy-early-years-competing-knowledges-erosion-play-based-learning/ .

Baxter, J. 2015. Child Care and Early Childhood Education in Australia (Facts Sheet 2015) . Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. https://aifs.gov.au/sites/default/files/publication-documents/fs2015.pdf .

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). 2009. “Belonging, Being, & Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia.” Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. www.education.gov.au/early-years-learning-framework-0 .

Department of Education and Training–Victoria. 2017. Transition: A Positive Start to School Resource Kit. Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/childhood/professionals/learning/Transition%20to%20School%20Resource%20Kit%202017%20FINAL.pdf .

Irvine, S. 2017. “How are We Doing on Early Childhood Education and Care? Good, But There’s More to Do.” The Conversation. December 25, 2017. Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. https://theconversation.com/how-are-we-doing-on-early-childhood-education-and-care-good-but-theres-more-to-do-89275 .

References

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). n.d. “The Australian Curriculum.” Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. www.acara.edu.au/curriculum .

Barblett, L., M. Knaus, and C. Barratt-Pugh. 2016. “The Pushes and Pulls of Pedagogy in the Early Years: Competing Knowledges and the Erosion of Play-Based Learning .” Australasian Journal of Early Childhood 41 (4): 36–43. Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/our-publications/australasian-journal-early-childhood/index-abstracts/ajec-vol-40-no-4-december-2016/pushes-pulls-pedagogy-early-years-competing-knowledges-erosion-play-based-learning/ .

Baxter, J., and K. Hand. 2013. Access to Early Childhood Education in Australia (Research Report No. 24) . Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. https://aifs.gov.au/publications/access-early-childhood-education-australia .

Baxter, J. 2015. Child Care and Early Childhood Education in Australia (Facts Sheet 2015) . Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. https://aifs.gov.au/sites/default/files/publication-documents/fs2015.pdf .

Council of Australian Governments (COAG). 2009. “Investing in the Early Years—a National Early Childhood Development Strategy,” Commonwealth of Australia. Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. www.startingblocks.gov.au/media/1104/national_ecd_strategy.pdf .

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). 2009. “Belonging, Being, & Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia.” Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. www.education.gov.au/early-years-learning-framework-0 .

Department of Education and Training–Victoria. 2017. Transition: A Positive Start to School Resource Kit. Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/childhood/professionals/learning/Transition%20to%20School%20Resource%20Kit%202017%20FINAL.pdf .

Dunham, A., H. Skouteris, A. Nolan, S. Edwards, and J. Small. 2016. “A Cooperative Pedagogical Program Linking Preschool and Foundation Teachers: A Pilot Study .” Australasian Journal of Early Childhood 41 (3): 66–75 .

ECA–ACARA. 2011. “Foundations for Learning: Relationships between the Early Years Learning Framework and the Australian Curriculum.” Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. http://det.wa.edu.au/curriculumsupport/earlychildhood/detcms/navigation/resources/research/ .

Edwards, S. 2017. “Play-Based Learning and Intentional Teaching: Forever Different? ” Australasian Journal of Early Childhood 42 (2): 4–11 .

Fenech, M., N. Sweller, and L. Harrison. 2010. “Identifying High Quality Centre-Based Childcare Using Quantitative Data-Sets: What the Numbers Do and Don’t Tell Us .” International Journal of Early Years Education 18 (4): 283–296. doi: 10.1080/09669760.2010.531615 .

Grieshaber, S. 2010. “Departures from Tradition: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia .” International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy 4 (2): 33–44 .

Grieshabver, S., and A. Shearer. 2013. “Continuity?: The Early Years Learning Framework and the Australian Curriculum .” Every Child 19 (4): 16–17. Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/our-publications/every-child-magazine/every-child-index/every-child-vol-19-4-2013/continuity-early-years-learning-framework-australian-curriculum/ .

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2006. “Starting Strong II: Early Childhood Education and Care. Summary in English.” Accessed Janaury 30, 2018. www.oecd.org/edu/school/startingstrongiiearlychildhoodeducationandcare.htm .

Siraj-Blatchford, I., and K. Sylva. 2004. “Researching Pedagogy in English Pre-Schools .” British Educational Research Journal 30 (5): 712–730 .

Long day care, occasional care, family day care, multi-purpose Aboriginal children’s services, preschools and kindergartens, playgroups, crèches, early intervention settings and similar services (EYLF, DEEWR 2009: 45).

A guiding document for educators to assist with the planning and implementation of high-quality early childhood curriculum. The document focuses on curricular experiences for children ranging from birth to five years of age, including the transition to school (EYLF, DEEWR 2009: 8).

Involves educators being deliberate, purposeful and thoughtful in their decisions and actions. Intentional teaching is the opposite of teaching by rote or continuing with traditions simply because things have “always” been done that way (EYLF, DEEWR 2009: 45).

An essential element of the National Quality Framework. It contains eighteen standards in seven areas of quality. The standards are expected to assist families in making informed decisions about early childhood settings as well as informing providers of areas that require improvement.

A context for learning through which children organize and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects, and representations (EYLF, DEEWR 2009: 46).