Does one size fit all? Exploring the ECA Code of Ethics ‘beyond the fence’
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Sector.
When I was working in roles that involved training, mentoring and supporting those educating and caring for children, I would often speak about the world ‘beyond the fence’ in reference to how the rhythms of life played out for children, families and educators beyond the confines of the education and care service.
Something which seems like a small decision ‘behind the fence’ (the world inside the education and care service), for example changing the menu from a hot midday meal to sandwiches, may appear to be of small consequence to the decision makers; the children are still being fed, after all. However, in the world ‘beyond the fence’ (the home and broader community life of the child and family), the consequence of the decision may be much larger than those making it realise.
The service may be providing the only hot, protein-based meal a particular child eats that day. By changing to sandwiches the child would therefore be deprived of their one nutritious meal.
Another child may have a negative association with sandwiches due to it being the go-to meal of a disengaged caregiver or perhaps an association with an older sibling who knows the younger ones need to be fed, but doesn’t know how to cook, and is doing the best they can with the skills they have.
Decisions made ‘behind the fence’, can, and do, have significant impacts on what happens ‘beyond the fence’. The same, of course, is true in the world of educators as professionals. Many times, regulatory, procedural and financial decisions are made ‘beyond the fence’ which greatly impact on life ‘behind the fence’.
Ethics and fences
Recently the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector was given an opportunity to reflect on the role of ethics, in the form of an article about the role the Early Childhood Australia (ECA) Code of Ethics plays in governing the decision making of those ‘beyond the fence’ of working directly with children, in the ECEC sector.
Those sitting in a ‘beyond the fence’ space, making impactful decisions and commentary in relation to ECEC may include politicians; the executive of businesses which own, operate, construct or invest in ECEC services; those who provide training and consultancy to the ECEC sector; regional managers responsible for a number of services; those who write about the education and care sector;…there are many such positions, and this is by no means an exclusive list. People within these roles may be referred to as ‘allied ECEC professionals’.
The reflective piece mentioned above centres on posing three core questions to those in the ECEC sector, in relation to allied ECEC professionals not working directly with children (a.k.a, those ‘beyond the fence’):
- What ethical standards should those ‘beyond the fence’ be held to?
- Is it ok that only educators are required to meet a Code of Ethics?, and;
- Should a Code of Ethics be developed for those ‘beyond the fence’? (and, if so, what would it look like and what would it require those agreeing to it to do?)
What is the ECA Code of Ethics, and how does it apply across the ECEC sector?
The Code of Ethics is a peer-reviewed document produced by Early Childhood Australia (ECA) with the aim of providing a compass or roadmap for navigating the ethical and moral grey areas that arise when working as a professional with children and families in the early years of life.
Serving as a companion document to the ‘musts’ of the National Quality Framework, the Code of Ethics can be seen as a way to construct, scaffold and support the ‘shoulds’. It is not a prescriptive document, but rather a set of statements about appropriate and expected behaviour from ALL early childhood professionals – regardless of their position behind or beyond the fence.
The Code of Ethics reflects current pedagogical research and practice, and provides a vehicle and framework for engaging in reflection, discussion and growth around the roles and responsibilities of those who have chosen to work in the early childhood profession, however broad the scope.
In creating and sharing the Code of Ethics, ECA outlines that “being ethical involves thinking about everyday actions and decision making, either individually or collectively, and responding with respect to all concerned”.
They caution that the Code is not designed to provide answers, formulae or prescriptive solutions for the complexity of the world of education and care, but rather to foster professional accountability; provide a basis for critical reflection; guide professional behaviour; and, provide a range of principles to inform individual and collective decision making.
Key to the implementation of the Code of Ethics is both the intention and vision of ECA in the creation of the document, with the intention stated as “The Code of Ethics is intended for use by all early childhood professionals who work with or on behalf of children and families in early childhood settings,” and the Vision as “Professionals who adhere to this Code of Ethics act in the best interests of all children and work collectively to ensure that every child is thriving and learning.”
In the reflective piece above, readers are asked to consider what standards those who do not work directly with children – but whose decisions impact the professional lives of educators, and the lived experience of children and families – should be held to.
The Code of Ethics gives decisive guidance here, and the answer it brings is clear: “the same standards as those working directly with children, and along the way, support them in learning why it’s such a vital element to get right”.
There will be some within the space who are close ECEC professional allies – perhaps those who have worked directly with children in the past, and have a high degree of familiarity with the sector; and, others who are newer to the ECEC space, but may bring with them a wealth of knowledge from other areas such as health care, project management, design, business and so on.
Here, the Code of Ethics provides some clear guidance about the role of those allied professionals, and the responsibilities of those who are more established or currently working directly with children and families to work alongside and support allied professionals in developing an understanding of the impact of their decisions and commentary.
Firstly, the Code guides ECEC professionals and allied professionals alike to build a spirit of collegiality and professionalism through collaborative relationships based on trust, respect and honesty, and to acknowledge and support the diverse strengths and experiences of colleagues in order to build shared professional knowledge, understanding and skills.
All those working in or alongside ECEC are asked by the Code to use constructive processes to address differences of opinion in order to negotiate shared perspectives and actions, and to participate in a “lively culture of professional inquiry” to support continuous improvement.
As part of this process, professionals are asked to implement strategies that support and mentor colleagues to make positive contributions to the profession, and to maintain ethical relationships in online interactions.
In addition, those working directly with children, and those closely allied professionals are guided by the Code to collaborate with people, services and agencies to develop shared understandings and actions that support children and families; to use research and practice-based evidence to advocate for a society where all children have access to quality education and care; and, to promote the value of children’s contribution as citizens to the development of strong communities.
Close allies and those working directly with children and families are guided to join with allied professionals who may be newer to the ECEC sector, and to work to promote an increased appreciation of the importance of childhood – including how children learn and develop – in order to inform programs and systems of assessment that benefit children, and to advocate for the development and implementation of laws and policies that promote the rights and best interests of children and families.
Just for educators?
A question posed in the reflective piece outlined above is “Is it OK that only educators are required to meet a Code of Ethics?”
The Code itself not only outlines the importance of working with and alongside allied ECEC professionals, as shown above, but also asks those close allies and those working directly with children to consider the context of their work as professionals in the broader context of community and society.
Here, the Code guides close allies and those working directly with children to collaborate with people, services and agencies to develop shared understandings and actions that support children and families; to work to promote increased appreciation of the importance of childhood including how children learn and develop, in order to inform programs and systems of assessment that benefit children; and, to advocate for the development and implementation of laws and policies that promote the rights and best interests of children and families.
In so doing, those allies who are newer to the space, or who have a knowledge base which is not limited to education and care become closer allies, and, therefore, fall under the same professional obligations under the Code of Ethics as those who supported them to become more familiar with their obligations under the Code.
It is important here to note that educators are not beholden to the Code of Ethics. It is not enforceable, it is not prescriptive, and it is not intended to be an assessable task. Rather, as ECA notes in the Code itself, being ethical involves thinking about everyday actions and decision making, either individually or collectively, and responding with respect to all concerned.
On the question “is it OK that only educators are required to meet a Code of Ethics?”, the response is that the Code of Ethics recognises that professional accountability is vital – regardless of position title or role within the broader sector.
A separate Code?
In developing and working through the responses to the two questions posed above, it becomes increasingly clear that not only is a separate Code not required, but that the existing Code has been written in a spirit of collegiality, designed to support all those working with children and families – be that behind or beyond the fence.
Here, the Code provides guidance under the heading of “In relation to myself as a professional, I will…:” Those who choose to identify as being either an ECEC professional, or an allied ECEC professional are asked, first and foremost, to take responsibility for articulating their professional values, knowledge and practice.
They are then asked to articulate the positive contribution that the ECEC profession makes to society, to engage in critical reflection, ongoing professional learning and support research to build their own knowledge and that of the profession, and to work within the scope of their professional role, avoiding misrepresentation of professional competence and qualifications.
Within the professionalism space, those who aspire to meet the Code of Ethics aim to encourage qualities and practices of ethical leadership within the profession, model quality practice and provide constructive feedback, and advocate for their profession and the provision of quality education and care.
The Code is clear here again, that there is a space at the professional table for all those who present as willing to learn, to grow, to discuss and to become more attuned to the nuance and complexity of the ECEC sector, regardless of job title. Rather than proposing greater division, when it comes to ethics, the Code that governs and guides our profession asks us to build a longer table, not a higher fence.