By Jo Fletcher 

For most families, the choice of what childcare is best for their family is a hard task and one that cannot be avoided for too long. 

Parents are generally bombarded with a variety of different opinions about ‘Which centre is best’ for their family. All parents want what is best for their child and family, which in itself is a huge statement, as every family is different and has different experiences and opinions of what is best for them. 

Early Childhood Education and care services across Australia could well be the most heavily regulated service providers.

From kitchens, maintenance, outdoor space and pest control to the early childhood curriculum and pedagogy, staffing qualifications and ratios, environmental care, governance and management, even how, when and why centres communicate with families – every single part of the day is governed by overarching State and National Regulation and Law. 

To top it all off, childcare centres are also given a publicly available ‘Rating’ determined by Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authorisation (ACECQA), based on a variety of evidence shown to Assessors who visit the centre every couple of years which determine their opinion of a Quality level. 

So, not only are parents faced with a multitude of other family’s personal opinions of each centre, they are also told by the government what Quality rating centres have. Quite often, these quality ratings don’t match up with parents’ personal experiences and expectations of the centre. 

That’s why it’s important that families also understand that while ACECQA’s Quality Rating is one measure of quality when it comes to quality in childcare, there are other indicators of Quality – that can quite easily be determined by themselves and their family. If the centre is right for you – then it’s right for you! 

Some of the indicators you should be looking at include:

The People

This includes placement of educators, their qualifications, and their engagement with the children. All centres have to maintain a ratio depending on the age of the children that is the minimum standard required by law to operate. 

However, a quality centre will exceed this ratio and provide more educators than the minimum standard. This is especially beneficial at those peak times in the day when the children need the support of their key educators most, such as pick up and drop off times. Included in this quality indicator are the placement of the educators, is staffing consistent in that the same permanent staff are in your child classroom as much as possible? Young children need to feel secure and safe before anything else, and this will happen if they are given the opportunity to build strong relationships with the educators in their team. With consistent staffing, you will be able to build a strong connection with your child educators as well and before you know it, they will become the trusted people your child and your family will rely on.

Last but certainly not least – educators engaging with children. You will be able to see this the first time you take a tour of a centre, educators sitting down with children, educators that are present with the children, on the floor with babies, making themselves available to children. Teachers reading stories, hosting group time, assisting children with care practices, calling children by their names. Educators that greet you as you walk in and take a minute to say hello to you and your child.

A Centre Manager or Leader who takes time to ask what your expectations of childcare are, takes time to explain the centres programming and room configurations and any exciting projects or events that are coming up. That will be able to provide you information on the fees and inclusions, on the food that is served to the children, and provide more information about going on a waitlist and how it is maintained, and something to take home like a flyer or handbook or a follow up email with more information so you don’t forget. After you leave the centre you should have all these answers and more and have a good feel of if that centre is what you are looking for – or not!

The money

Have you considered how much you can afford in the way of childcare fees? You will need to contact Centrelink and they will help you apply for any Childcare Rebates you are entitled to. These rebates will significantly lower your fee, resulting in you paying a Gap fee – similar to how it works with Medicare, but it is dependent on your combined annual income. You will need to consider what the centre includes in its fees, such as Nappies, Meals, Wipes, Milk, Sunscreen. Does the centre offer a How much are the fees? How do the owners of the centre invest your fees back into the centre, and are the classrooms well stocked and resourced with stimulating and fun materials for children to explore and learn? Are the outside spaces suited to the children who access the space? Are rooms comfortable and do they feel like home away from home, or a school like environment? What you prefer will definitely depend on your family alone.

Some centres ask families to provide their own meals for children, but the best centre will have the best food menus – check out the kitchen and speak to the chef, ask to see the menus and notice what goes into them. It is a requirement that all centres display their menu and list the ingredients of each dish – look for whole foods and healthy foods.

The Curriculum and Learning Programs 

Ask to see each classroom’s programs and curriculum documents. This will help you better understand what learning experiences are planned throughout the time your children will attend. It is a requirement that the program will be displayed in the centre for families to see. The best centre will be able to show and explain the centre’s program, and what it means for you and your child. They will be able to explain how you can contribute to the planning itself and show you where you can find more information about your child’s individual planning and learning as well. 

You should be able to see the ‘learning’ happening as you complete your tour, educators teaching children, helping them with play, or simply being present to support the children around them.

Every centre is required to have their own ‘Philosophy’ – which is like an overarching statement or set of values that sets them apart from other centres. Ask about the centre philosophy and how they live it – you will be able to align your own values with the centre that is right for you. 

The best centre will spend time and money on their learning programs and curriculum, which includes professional development for their teams so they can offer the best program to their community. They will make the program as easily accessible to all families and ask for your input frequently.

The Locality and ease of access

A centre close to your home is perfect! A centre which is open the times and days you need is even better. Childcare centres busiest days tend to be the days in the middle of the week – Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Some centres close over the Christmas Period – it all depends on their community and the needs of the families within it. During your tour, ask about what their centre offers.