Provider in focus: Big Fat Smile
With an enviable 100 per cent National Quality Standards rating of either ‘Meeting’ or ‘Exceeding’, community-owned Big Fat Smile has a lot going for it. The Sector Editor Lyndsie Clark explores the driving factors behind the not for profit organisation and its second-to-none provision of early education and care.
Big Fat Smile is a provider of early childhood education, care, recreation, cultural and inclusion services in New South Wales and the ACT. The organisation offers early learning and care, preschool and out-of-school hours care (OSHC), in addition to initiatives such as a children’s art studio, a play cafe, and mobile artists, musicians and Activity Gurus.
Established in 1981 as the Illawarra Children’s Services Action Group, Big Fat Smile has actively campaigned for the rights of families to access affordable, quality early education and care. The organisation now operates 27 community preschools, and 14 OSHC ‘Fun Clubs’, and is widely recognised as one of the most respected providers of quality education, care, recreation, cultural and inclusion services in Australia.
The organisation employs over 650 staff – making it one of the largest employers in the Illawarra region – and provides education and care to over 8,000 children per week. The occupancy levels of its services are strong – with the 2017 overall average sitting at over 90 per cent.
A leadership team that understands community needs
Big Fat Smile is overseen by an experienced skills-based Board of Directors made up of active members of the Illawarra’s professional community – each providing a unique skill set and understanding to their roles.
In the organisation’s 2017 annual report, Chairman David Campbell (a retired NSW Member of Parliament and former Lord Mayor of Wollongong) highlighted the value of community input into the organisation’s service. “The results of our staff and parent surveys in 2017 provided a mine of data, demonstrating the high-quality education and care that Big Fat Smile delivers… [and it] also identified ideas and areas of focus for continued improvement.”
CEO Jenni Hutchins came into the role 18 months ago, and is a child and family psychologist with a background specialising in the support of families with complex needs such as child protection, mental health, domestic violence, therapeutic services and out-of-home care. Providing a community environment of support for children and families is her main tenet.
And perhaps this understanding and nuance is of particular importance to the Illawarra community. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Wollongong/Illawarra region has a higher level of unemployment compared to the Australian average, and a lower household income. The region also has a significantly higher number of families in which both parents are unemployed compared to the rest of New South Wales and the nation.
Advocating universal access
Ms Hutchins is a big champion of universal access to early education for the community, regardless of their home circumstance. Recently, she spoke with The Sector founder Jason Roberts to explain her position: “If I had a magic wand and asked ‘what would we want for our little people?’ It would be universal access to early learning and care.”
“I feel absolutely passionately that all children…should have access to quality early learning and care…I want our children to have access because education is a way out of disadvantage. I want to stop disadvantage in this country. We can contribute to stopping that by giving children access to quality early learning,” Ms Hutchins explained.
Ms Hutchins feels that the Australian Government’s new Jobs for Families Child Care Subsidy (CCS) has made universal access more challenging. She has been saddened at numerous children no longer being able to access quality education and care because their parents don’t meet the new CCS activity test. Or where third-parties – such as child protection services or an out-of-home system – had previously been paying a child’s fees but can no longer afford to under the CCS.
“Early learning and care is not about the employment of a parent, it’s about the success of a child. So, I’d like to see child-centric policies. I want policies that enable our children to be successful; one’s that enable them to flourish and thrive.”
In an interview with Care 4 Kids, Ms Hutchins explained that this may look different for each child and family: “…through the services we offer, families can develop their strengths, abilities and community relationships. Localised and connected supports such as early learning and care centres, counselling, tutoring, art classes, dancing and safe spaces to commune and talk are examples of these services and support functions”.
“We like providing addendum support services to show that we add value in different ways to the educational experiences of the children who access our services,” she said.
The interconnect between quality and growth
Big Fat Smile’s commitment to quality is admirable. From 2014 to today, 100 per cent of Big Fat Smile’s centres have achieved the National Quality Standards’ ‘Meeting’ or ‘Exceeding’ rating – a great achievement when the sector average for the last quarter sat at 78 per cent.
Ms Hutchins said “Quality is central to everything we do and is part of our accountability and responsibility to the children and families we serve. We continue to consider new and dynamic ways to support our services to provide the best quality education and care possible”.
This includes ensuring the best possible staffing ratios, highly qualified educators and centre staff, play environments designed to nurture children and facilitate creative expression, and the provision of additional services like creative programs and inclusion services for families with additional needs.
But, Ms Hutchins said, it is the retention of qualified staff that is key to exceeding sector standards due to their deep and unique understanding of the children’s and their families’ needs. “Across the early education and care sector, Big Fat Smile boasts an industry-leading retention rate of staff in our centres. This enables us to embed a strong practice framework and level of quality that continues to exceed industry standards.”
Ms Hutchins has previously credited Big Fat Smile’s quality service and its staff members’ strong connections to the community to the organic growth of the organisation. And certainly in 2017, the Big Fat Smile service continued to grow, with the addition of a new long-day care centre at Shellharbour, and a new Fun Club in Corrimal. The organisation’s Bundanoon District Community Preschool also expanded with a new building, enabling the ability to increase daily licensed numbers.
Looking to the future, Big Fat Smile is set to continue to focus on organic growth through service quality, and on the financial sustainability required in a sector environment characterised by increased competition and greater regulation.
“With communities becoming more disparate and families more isolated from their family of origin, we feel passionately about supporting families to care, protect and educate their children. By partnering with families, we enable families to feel supported and connected to their communities and aid them to flourish and thrive.”
Big Fat Smile will also continue in its original purpose, started over 37 years ago, to advocate for quality early education and care for all children. “We believe that the start that you get in life should be the same for all families regardless of income – this is how we can support positive change and growth for children, families and communities” Ms Hutchins stated.