The University of Wollongong’s $44 million Early Start teaching, learning and research facility will open in 2015. Early Start is based on international research that shows the importance of high quality educational experiences in the early years of life—from birth to five years—in establishing learning patterns, and the transformational impact this can have on children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Early Start initiative involves a state-of-the-art building with innovative teaching, research and community engagement areas, a Discovery Space with public access for children and families, and a connected network of early childhood education and care centres throughout Australia.

NICK HARTGERINK spoke to two UOW graduates who are both passionate about the importance of early childhood education, and who share a commitment to innovation.

John Goh is Principal of Merrylands East Public School. He is widely regarded as one of the most innovative school leaders in NSW, encouraging his teachers and students to be flexible and constantly challenging conventional ideas about education. He regularly uses social media and blogs to communicate his ideas to the wider community.

There are no school bells at Merrylands East Public School. From the day they start kindergarten, students are expected to self-regulate their time and know where they need to be throughout the day.

No traditional classes or timetables either. All Merrylands East’s 22 teachers are involved in team teaching and are also available to students from Kindergarten to Year 6 
as needed. 

And the school day starts at 8am and finishes at 1.15pm to capture the children’s optimal learning time—the only primary school in NSW to adopt these hours.

Principal John Goh doesn’t sit behind a desk, but rather operates from a virtual office wherever he happens to be in 
the school.

Technology rules, with teachers using their teaching skills to provide the tools and ‘scaffolding’ to engage the students in learning. The students in turn use technology to explore options undreamt of even a generation ago.

For example, Merrylands East students access digitalised images, manipulate the images using the latest software programs and print out the results on sophisticated 3D printers. 

Some have used their technical skills to start commercial ventures. After she completed Year 6, one student started a business producing acrylic finger nails and had an e-store selling them to the world. Others are designing e-games and blogging about a range of topics.

Goh, who graduated from UOW with a Bachelor of Teaching (Primary) degree in 1991, is leading this education revolution. He says Merrylands East isn’t so much pioneering new ways to educate as simply preparing its students for the realities of 21st century life using 21st century methods and technology, which allow for learning any 
time, anywhere.

However, he does concede that he and his staff are, in effect, researchers who are “exploring the possibilities to improve ourselves as teachers and to improve the outcomes for our students”.

It’s all based on the premise that students, even the four and five-year-olds starting kindergarten, are capable of self-regulating their own learning.

Many of our students have quite advanced technical skills before they start school.

So Goh doesn’t need any convincing about the value of the early years in a child’s learning. He sees it every day in his own school.

“The early years are fundamentally crucial to a child’s development,” he said. “Think of what a child learns before he or she comes to school: socialising, language, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, imagination, the ability to take concepts to reality, connection with the world, independence.

“The wonderful world of print becomes meaningful for the first time and they are increasingly engaged 
with technology.

“Many of our students have quite advanced technical skills before they start school. It is not uncommon for children starting school to know how to use a keyboard, be familiar with tablet technology and know about social media. They have more and more access to content and are having experiences with technology in their early years that are almost beyond our comprehension.”

Goh says the approach to learning at Merrylands East is in part a response to the experiences many of the students have before they start school.

“We are faced with the challenge of engaging these young children who have already had all these experiences and capturing and nurturing their ability to learn. Technology engages the students, but what and how they learn using that technology depends on the pedagogy skills of the teachers.”

Goh says a key strategy is encouraging students to pursue what they are passionate about. 

“That’s where self-regulation comes in,” he said. “You don’t take children who have grown up in a technology environment and switch them to a 
rote learning environment when they start school.

“The worst thing a teacher can do is disengage the engaged, so we want our students to have a passion for what they are learning. Part of that is giving them time and space to solve problems. 

“That’s why we don’t have timetables. We give our students the opportunity to lead their own learning.”

Goh says Merrylands East is moving towards being a class-less school.

“We’re moving along a road where each student’s learning is not determined simply by age or grade,” he said. “All our students are able to benefit from the skills or expertise of any of our teachers. If a teacher has specific skills that a student needs, he or she can access 
that teacher.”

He says the Merrylands East approach has been in part driven by its diverse cultural mix and its high proportion of students from refugee families, many of whom have had interrupted schooling. “Some of our students come to us with big gaps in their formal schooling… but they also come with many skills, knowledge and experiences. We need to capture and enhance those skills.”

He concedes that the approach may not work at other primary schools, but that all schools share the same goal—to improve outcomes for their students. 

“There are remarkable programs happening all around Australia, where teachers are making a fundamental difference to the lives of their students,” he says. “Australia has a variety of tests and other data to measure success, but in the end it comes down to what you value in terms of education and success. It comes down to how the children are engaging in learning, and the best school to measure is your own.

“In the past teachers would run a lesson and then measure two or three outcomes. Now students can demonstrate a lot more skills like blogging, animation, developing an iPhone app… so we can measure a lot more outcomes in the curriculum.”

Goh has been Principal at Merrylands East since 2005. He says the whole school community—students, parents and teachers—have embraced the school’s approach to learning.

“Our teachers have really embraced our approach, and the parents can really see the difference. But most of all it’s about the students, and I am constantly amazed by our students. I see magnificence every day!”

Q&A WITH A BIG FAT SMILE

Bill Feld is Chief Executive Officer at Big Fat Smile, a Wollongong-based not-for-profit organisation that runs preschools, long day care centres and after-school care centres across the Illawarra, Southern Highlands and Sydney. It also offers family support and child inclusion programs. With 500 staff and an annual turnover exceeding $35 million, it is a serious player in Early Childhood education in NSW.

Big Fat Smile is an important partner in the University of Wollongong’s pioneering Early Start education, research and training centre and five of your centres will be Early Start engagement centres. What is your experience of the importance of early years education?

Close to 90 per cent of human brain development occurs before the age of five. As a nation, we can invest in early education or, alternatively, we can spend much more on difficult interventions later in life. Early years’ education is important in shaping young lives, and particularly in disadvantaged communities. With that in mind it’s disappointing that the [Australian Government] Productivity Commission has recommended relaxing the qualification requirements for early childhood educators who work with children aged under three. It’s counter-intuitive and completely at odds with the international research on foundations for learning and development.

What contribution do you see UOW’s Early Start making to early years education in the future?

I’ve watched the Early Start engagement centre pilot at Bellambi Point from its beginnings and Early Start is already making a difference. The children have access to a program and technologies that are preparing them better for life and the rigours of ‘big school’. It also brings families closer together through shared curiosities and experiences. 
Many local families now have aspirations that their children will go on to higher education and careers. Early Start’s legacy will be its facilitation of opportunity and breaking the cycle of disadvantage.

How important is it to your organisation that early years’ education is now being taken more seriously with dedicated academic research and training?

It’s very important, but there’s still a view that early education and care is a time to be endured—a costly prelude to the main game of formal schooling. We have a long way to go before early education and care is regarded as an investment, rather than as a cost.

Big Fat Smile is a highly successful organisation that clearly takes early education very seriously. As the name implies, it also believes that young children should also have fun. What is the cross-over between fun and learning?

Learning is so much better when you enjoy it!

What are some of the more successful innovations that Big Fat Smile has introduced in recent years?

We’ve invested in roving teams of artists, musicians, sports leaders, cultural experts and environmental educators to extend and enhance our local programs. We’ve built art studios in Corrimal and Miller, which have become sought-after excursion venues. We’ve also opened new, purpose-built preschools in Sydney and regional locations to meet local demand for early education and care.

We established Green Bean Play Café in Corrimal. It hosts important community initiatives like our postnatal depression therapy groups, delivered free and in partnership with Illawarra-Shoalhaven Medicare Local.

Our latest international partnership has educators from our preschools exchanging with educators from Moon City, Ming Xing and Mei Qi Bi-lingual Preschools in Yangzhou, China. The purpose is to gain better understandings of our respective education systems, teaching practice and cultures, and to bring exciting new experiences to the children. The cultural exchange already has the children connected via Skype and practising Kung Fu.

We’ve also teamed up with the Capital Institute of Pediatrics and China Disabilities Federation to initiate systemic funding of therapies and interventions for children with Autism across China. With in-principle agreement secured, we’re now at the funding application stage for the pilot project. We’re really proud of our work in influencing better outcomes for children wherever they might live, and we’re thrilled that the University of Wollongong has joined us in the 
research phase.

Around the world but particularly in developing countries, education is seen as the all-important passport to escaping poverty and building a better life. Does Australia (and do Australians) place enough value on education?

Australians understand the importance of education, but gains in one sector are too often made at the expense of another. The most encouraging signs have been in the national investment in early education and care, which has quadrupled in the past 10 years. Early education and care now gets media attention and is routinely an election issue. This wasn’t the case just a few elections back. 

Is there sufficient equity and fairness in Australian education? Do we give people from all socio-economic backgrounds the means to be 
educated properly?

The short answer is no. The access of people in disadvantaged communities to university education is not what it should be. The ‘buy now, pay later’ system for higher education is not equitable, fair or smart. It simply compounds disadvantage. Our system lacks vision and places us at a competitive disadvantage on the world stage.

The Australian Government’s early years education investment in disadvantaged communities encourages parents to pursue higher education for their children. Ironically, just when so many families are gaining new insights into the power of education, we see real access to higher education diminishing.


  • JOHN GOH
    UOW Bachelor of Education (Primary) 1991
  • BILL FELD
    UOW Master of Business Administration (Management) 1994