How Canberra is failing the early learning sector

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16 September 2016

After the re-election of the Turnbull government, Australia’s early childhood sector faces renewed uncertainty over future funding along with a looming teacher shortage as low wages and heavy workloads take their toll.

The future of universal access – the provision of 15 hours a week of preschool education to every child in the year before primary – remains under a cloud, with funding due to expire at the end of 2017.

The Coalition went to the federal election without a pledge to make 15 hours an ongoing entitlement. Until now it has been funded under the former Gillard Labor government’s national partnership, extended by the Coalition while a long-term decision has been repeatedly deferred.

The uncertainty is taking its toll on educators. A national survey of 1,200 early childhood teachers and educators in kindergarten and long day care has found that one in five plan to leave the sector in the 12 months to June 2017, forced out by

Demand for degree-qualified early years teachers and certificate III or diploma-qualified educators is growing, thanks to Gillard’s national quality and early years learning frameworks.They set minimum qualifications for educators and for the first time required every long day care centre to employ a qualified teacher.

From 2020, many long day care centres will be required to employ two qualified teachers.

It is in long day care that pay and morale are lowest, according to the Australian Research Council-funded study by Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Charles Sturt University academics.

Kindergarten teachers are generally covered by union-negotiated agreements similar to those of school teachers, and several states boast pay parity between preschools and primary.

However, long day care centres are largely covered by award rates that can be as low as $18 an hour for educators and less than $33 an hour for centre directors – roughly the starting rate for a graduate school teacher.

Workforce Planning Needed

Governments and employers urgently need to begin workforce planning for the sector, says study co-author Susan Irvine, associate professor at the School of Early Childhood, QUT Caboolture.

“It has been put in the too-hard basket for too long. It’s the forgotten issue,” she says.

“We have some extremely motivated and highly skilled people in the workforce who are really keen to do the right thing by their children and think their work is important.

“We also have this continual focus on accessibility and affordability and growing the sector.

“So we have to ask: who is going to be working there?”

Dissatisfaction with pay and lack of respect was amplified among long day care staff, with nearly all feeling underpaid, says Irvine. A common refrain was that they could afford to work in early childhood only because their partner had a better-paid job.

They also felt undermined by the national discourse that described early childhood education and care as vital to allowing new parents to go back to work. Many felt that reinforced the view of their work as glorified babysitting.

“There’s been an overemphasis on workforce participation and a neglect of recognition that early childhood is the foundation of a modern education system,” says Irvine. “It should command more respect from the government and the community.”

High Turnover

In Victoria, AEU early childhood vice-president Martel Menz warns that the sector is losing an entire generation.

“There is a high turnover in long day care, particularly for graduate teachers, which we just don’t have in stand-alone preschools because the pay and conditions are better,” says Menz.

“Long day care is where they enter the profession, and they’re lasting such a short amount of time. And unfortunately they’re not just leaving to find work elsewhere. They’re leaving [the sector] entirely.”

Teachers in particular have dual qualifications that allow them to work in primary schools, and many end up there.

“Most of our teachers are 50-plus – they’re highly experienced – but there isn’t a new generation coming in behind them.”

Churn is bad for kids as well, says Menz.

“These children in long day care centres aren’t getting the consistency and continuity of education and care they need. They’re constantly seeing new faces coming in and out, and that’s clearly not good for them.”

“Steadfast” campaign win in Victoria

But Victoria also has some good news with preschool teachers receiving pay rises of 8-13 per cent, backdated up to a year, as they celebrate striking hard-fought new agreements.

The deal sees teachers in community and local-government-run preschools win parity with school teachers at the top and bottom of the scale for the first time.

Importantly, they also secured safeguards against workloads rising under the sector’s national reforms.

AEU early childhood vice-president Martel Menz says a workload index would help “put parameters around teaching time, non-teaching time and caseload” – essential because new staffing ratios can mean classes of up to 33 children per teacher.

An excessive and unreasonable workload clause links to formal dispute resolution processes, and an annual workload survey conducted by the Education Department will feed useful data into future negotiations.

“I credit members with the outcome we got,” says Menz. “They remained steadfast throughout the campaign and they got parents really engaged as well.

“Parents understood this wasn’t about greedy teachers wanting a pay rise.

It was about really significant concerns about workload and making this a better profession for their kids and the community.”