PET Boles always wanted to teach, but remembers being told that she was ''way too brainy to just be a teacher''. These days she's more amused than indignant about this pernicious stereotype. It took her 20 years to realise her original ambition, but at 41, Boles now has the happy confidence of a mid-life career-changer who's landed in a professional sweet spot.
Where once she spent her days juggling international schedules and managing a vast property portfolio for a London travel group, Boles now starts each day in the Octopus Room, on the floor, singing and playing the triangle and drums with a lively kinder group.
She is in the first few weeks of her new job as the early childhood teacher at the Minifie Park Early Learning Centre in Balwyn.
She talks excitedly about the importance of ''grasping the teachable moment''. This starts by gaining intimate knowledge of each child, determining what they know and what their interests are.
Even with this small group of four and five-year-olds, you can spot the differences in development. Some children are clingy and struggle to tell you their name. Others are highly vocal and so assertive that they are already organising everyone else in the room. Yet another, one of the tiniest of the boys, has an exceptional vocabulary for his age and a sophisticated grasp of a range of concepts.
Boles says all this gives her goose bumps - seeing the way children learn from each other, and watching the sheer joy of a child who grasps something new for the first time.
''My job is not to get them to 'do' things so they begrudge it,'' she says, ''but to give them the best chance to develop a love of learning.''
With national anxiety about a decline in children's educational performance, our best hope is likely to be with committed professionals such as Boles.
As world-renowned researcher John Hattie argues in his ground-breaking book Visible Learning, teachers are the most powerful influence on a child's capacity to learn.
Boles is aware of such research and it explains, in part, her intense desire to teach.
''I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason,'' she said. ''I had some great experiences overseas, but something was pulling me in this direction. This is what I feel comfortable doing. I feel myself. And I don't know that I would have felt this way had I gone into teaching straight out of school.''
With a Master of Teaching qualification from Melbourne University's graduate school of education, and with dual qualifications in both early childhood and primary teaching, Boles is a highly credentialled recruit for a long-daycare centre such as Minifie Park, but also for the childcare sector generally, which is gearing up to meet the mandated requirements of the National Quality Framework.
By January 2014, all long-daycare services and preschool services across the country must employ an early childhood-trained teacher and have them in attendance for at least six hours on any given day.
The policy stipulates that in the critical early years when children are primed to learn, and when they are in formal state-subsidised care outside the home, they must have the support of qualified educators.
The role of other carers will also be enhanced, with requirements for extra training. By 2014, at least 50 per cent of staff at centre-based services must be working towards a diploma qualification, with others required to have a certificate III.
The approach has the full backing of the national body Early Childhood Australia, which sees the provision of quality early learning both as a social justice and equity issue.
With all states having agreed to lift the bar, we are about to say goodbye to an era that in many cases delivered little more than an expensive baby-sitting service.
Nonetheless, recruitment remains the big challenge. Historically, childcare services have been woefully deficient when it comes to investing in qualified staff. Training has been patchy, the pay low, and standards variable.
There's still resistance from some in the sector, mainly private operators who complain about costs and the timetable for change. They say the changes are ''too much, too soon'' and that the cost of complying with the new standards has pushed up childcare fees.
Yet failing to provide qualified teachers would be unthinkable at any other level of schooling. When young children start school, parents know their child will be taught by university-trained teachers who are required to continually update their skills through ongoing professional development.
Until the national framework's introduction at the beginning of last year, there was no such requirement for our youngest children. Yet, as years of brain research have shown, children's ability to perform in the first years of primary school depends on the experiences and learning acquired from birth.
Minifie Park's director Rachel Davies has worked in the sector for 10 years. She was keen to recruit someone like Boles - as she says, ''with the maturity and depth to help alter the perceptions of parents about what we do. Many are stuck with the nostalgia of what kinder was like for them.''
Traditionally, kinder or preschool programs have been offered in stand-alone facilities and across limited hours. In many places that will continue. But with more than a million young children in care across a longer day, the trend now is towards integration. Care and education are merging. Which is why directors such as Davies emphasise Minifie Park's pedagogical approach. ''Change is hard but we are striving for something here. The new standards mean that we are setting higher expectations for ourselves and for our children,'' she said.
''We've been stagnant for too long and that shows when you look at things like the OECD ranking for Australia. We are close to the bottom in terms of what we offer children.''
Out of 38 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Australia trails at No. 34 on the provision and quality of children's services. Our expenditure is high - more than $4 billion a year on combined childcare subsidies - but our pre-primary education is offered less systematically than in comparable countries.
Participation rates, particularly with the under-4s, is also comparatively low. Experts say that is because we have financed a structure that has put the emphasis on ''care'' rather than early learning.
There's something else that is ringing alarm bells. Australian students, across a range of international data, are falling behind, and the drop is across the board. Even our best students are not performing to their potential. Figures published in late 2012 show that 25 per cent of the nation's year-4 primary-school children are not meeting minimum reading standards for their age.
In terms of international rankings, Australian primary children are ranked at an abysmally low 27 on reading scores, and at 18 on maths scores.
It's why Ken Boston, a panel member of the Gonski review of school funding, has said starkly: ''We are in trouble''.
The huge gulf between our stated national goal of wanting to sit with the global top five, and the reality of falling standards, is something that is exercising the minds of many of our educational experts.
Professor Field Rickards, the dean of Melbourne University's graduate school of education, says ''the magnitude of what we're facing calls for specific strategies. A game-changer.''
Rickards says that we need to put a premium on training teachers to be ''evaluators''. In effect, highly trained professionals who are able ''to monitor their impact on learning and then adapt the lesson to meet the needs of each student - rather than expecting the student to keep up regardless of their circumstances''.
Further to that, he argues ''every child can, and should be, learning from birth, and we should have nothing but the highest of expectations about what they can achieve. That's why we need highly trained teachers in all settings, including early learning.''
Centres like Minifie Park are off to a flying start, but what about the rest? According to a 2012 report by Australian Community Children's Services and based on a national survey, the early childhood sector is making solid progress towards meeting the workforce requirements of the National Quality Framework.
More than 25 per cent of all staff are currently engaged in study in order to upgrade their qualifications, with most working towards either a certificate III or a diploma. The biggest shortfall remains the recruitment of degree-qualified teachers, with the ACCS reporting that only 15 per cent of staff in the centres surveyed have attained this level of expertise.
Filling the gap could require lateral thinking. Both Victoria and NSW have long waiting lists of trained primary teachers who can't get jobs. Yet it's likely that the idea of working with very young children, for less pay, in anything other than a school setting is an unattractive career option.
Sorting out industrial issues and funding pay parity across the board could trigger some significant redesigning and integration of early learning with the school system. Many of the country's top private schools are already doing this, offering a seamless education from age 0 to year 12.
Having worked in both settings, Boles is in no doubt this is achievable.
During her practice training at a Melbourne primary school last year, she engineered a successful intervention with a first-year primary child who was seen as the ''class problem''. Observing how distracted he was, Boles realised the problem - the ''skill and drill'' that worked for everyone else was lost on this child as he was writing his numbers backwards.
Boles decided the way to get his attention was to play a kinder-style game. With shaving cream and a reversible perspex board, she got the boy to write out the numbers from 1 to 9. The wrong way. Then the right way. They made a dreadful mess but in the end something clicked. The ''teachable moment'' was grasped, and a young boy who was close to being put into the ''too-hard basket'' ended up looking very pleased with himself.
Boles' former teachers at the graduate school of education would call this a ''successful clinical intervention''. Boles will settle for calling it another ''goose-bump moment''.
As she says, ''you can teach children so much through play. With the training I got through my degree I now know what I'm looking for and can help push children that much further.''
■ Maxine McKew is vice-chancellor's fellow at the University of Melbourne. As parliamentary secretary for early childhood education under the former Rudd government, she helped create the National Quality Framework.