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The Australian National University

The importance of quality early education

Nurturing confident children and easing working parent stress

 

No working parent, and that still means more women than men, can be inspiring in their career without access to the essential support of quality care for their pre-school children.

The Acton Early Childhood Centre (AECC) and its current director, Nadia Frankham, have created a nurturing environment for the children of the University’s diverse community of students, teachers and administration staff. The homely atmosphere and educational richness provided by the Centre allows parents to more easily meet study and work schedules.

Exploring how children learn has long been a fascination for Nadia Frankham: “Children are so open to learning; it motivates you to keep up.”

As the director of the AECC, Nadia is “now a step removed from working with the children. But while I’m no longer directly influencing or encouraging individual children, I’m playing a wider, equally enjoyable role bringing out the best in my teaching staff.”

Forty years ago a group of student parents, who had great difficulty getting to classes while juggling caring for their children, set up the Parents on Campus cooperative to share childcare duties. From these informal beginnings grew the Acton Centre. As an indicator of how difficult it still is to find care, the Centre currently has 420 on its waiting list, of which only five new places will become available in the new school year. Nadia is still battling the “critical and chronic shortage of available places for babies to pre-schoolers.

“I’m constantly looking at what we can do for families; particularly international students or people who have taken an international posting to Australia. They have even fewer options and no support of family or friends here to rely on. Perhaps its time to start another Parents on Campus?”

This desire to help others has been a constant in Nadia’s approach to her career decisions.

“I had initially thought I’d like to go into social work but found it too emotionally draining, I couldn’t detach. What spurred me to go into teaching was watching my youngest brother, who is 17 years my junior, and how he was investigating his little world. I became fascinated in how and why we learn. He became my first case study!”

Nadia completed her graduate diploma in primary education from Sydney Teachers College in 1980. While she was able to find some relief teaching in Sydney, at the time there was no prospect of full time work for new graduates. Nadia went home to Cooma and the Catholic school she had attended, where she was placed on a Year 1 class – despite her specialisation in primary teaching. She also taught Italian and tutored in Maths.

From this first experience Nadia “began to really enjoy teaching the early childhood years”. Having her own three children confirmed her recognition of the importance of quality early education as she saw the “love of enquiry starts with the very young. They have an innate need to explore, read and write.”

A move to Canberra coincided with Nadia “needing to find out more” and her decision to undertake an external postgraduate degree, majoring in early childhood, through Charles Sturt University in Wagga.

“And, thank heavens for family”, Nadia acknowledged. “My sister’s four year old became the subject of my thesis as I studied his progression from pre-school to kindergarten and his coping mechanisms for the move to the more rigid school environment.”

One of her course placements was at her local suburban centre, which Nadia’s youngest child attended. “I was lucky to experience the one educational facility as both a parent and a teacher and to be able to assess it from the two perspectives. I was also delighted to be offered a job share position when I graduated.”

Nadia arrived at the AECC seven years ago with an appointment as a pre-school teacher and was promoted to the director’s role in 2010.

While there is always much discussion of educational reform, the bright light of positive change Nadia sees is the new National Quality Framework for the early education sector.

“I am really passionate about what this Framework can achieve. It will not only enrich the lives of children in Australia’s daycare and pre-school centres but also, as a vital step, assist the development of a respected working environment for our teachers.

“The old registration systems looked at what was wrong. The new, more positive view is one of constant improvement. It’s moved beyond health, hygiene and OH&S and looking to overall quality and raising standards across the country. I’m very excited as I’ll have the structures in place to support my staff to gain appropriate qualifications. I’ll be better able to keep them and their growing experience in the profession, for not only the children at our Centre but all others they may teach through their careers.”

The AECC has always rated very highly but Nadia feels that when she and her team are operating under the encouragement of constant review, “as teachers and individuals we’ll keep looking at and finding ways to be better. Just by reflecting on it you always identify areas to improve.”

The hurdle Nadia sees as being slowly overcome is to be seen as educators rather than glorified babysitters.

“Teachers dedicate long hours to the education of young children – they bring a huge skillset to their workplace. I know how important it is for me to be an advocate for the professional role they play and for them to be appreciated.”

Nadia works to keep everyone fresh by moving her teachers between different age groupings. “Some staff are unsure when moved to new areas and out of their comfort zones. I sometimes see strengths that they don’t realise in themselves. But if I throw them in the deep end, I always make sure I’m there to watch over them.

“I encourage my staff to take every opportunity for professional development – I always have an eye out for new courses and programs. One of our young teachers is a talented sports woman who is being offered opportunities there while she also continues her studies. I’m helping her in any way I can to be able to have it all.”

An indicator of the Centre’s quality environment and testimony to the culture at the AECC is its low staff turnover. Nadia says teachers “only leave to become parents themselves or when partners move interstate. It’s a very happy team.”

“Unfortunately, though, there won’t be a gender balance for some time. We have some wonderful young men in our sector but they don’t aspire to stay because there’s not enough money. You can’t be a breadwinner on our payscales. And there’s still too much stereotyping happening. If you have young trainees on placement, inevitably the males will be outside doing the fun, active programs while the females are taking art and craft.”

While it could be daunting dealing with ANU parents whose lives revolve around learning and who have very definite ideas about their children’s educational experiences, Nadia has only praise for the families with children at her Centre because “they value literacy, their children’s ability to achieve and our expertise.”

The AECC is managed by a dedicated parent committee who help Nadia and her team deliver the Centre’s philosophy of building on the children’s interests through play while encompassing cultural diversity and the broader community in which they are growing.

Nadia says: “The intentional teaching is about inspiring children to be inquisitive. Each child is different and they understand far more than we give them credit for. We set the groundwork for children to have a better experience of education.”

Another rare advantage of the AECC is that it is one of the original buildings on the ANU campus, one that was built as a huge home. For Nadia “it retains the warmth of its family atmosphere rather than being a purpose-built institution. It can, however, be a bit tricky juggling its heritage listing and meeting the strict Framework standards.”

One of the greatest achievements of her team is helping to overcome the inevitable pangs of guilt felt by parents as they make decisions about work and childcare: “While there’s no longer the stigma attached to placing children in care, parents still feel awful about not keeping their babies at home.

“But they soon see that because we have such interesting and diverse age appropriate programs, the children are happy. You see the difference in their little ones, the social resilience and school readiness of those who have benefitted from living at least some of their early lives in this wider family.”

Nadia misses the day to day teaching but “my walls are covered in beautiful drawings and I have the sound of happy play outside my window.”

 

Updated:  7 November, 2012/Responsible Officer:  Convenor, Gender Institute/Page Contact:  Web manager, Gender Institute