A caring community


06 Feburary 2024

In Adelaide’s northern suburbs TAFE SA is seeing a massive increase in students in the much-needed early childhood educator sector, thanks to a return of government funding for the Diploma and Certificate III programs and Fee-Free TAFE at both of its Gilles Plains and Regency campuses.

Gilles Plains TAFE Early Childhood Education and Care lecturer Luella Lascala believes education is the foundation of a caring community, and now that the South Australian government has returned funding for early childhood education and care (ECEC) to Adelaide-based TAFE campuses after a four-year hiatus, early childhood educators can once again get qualified closer to home.

Historic roots at Gilles Plains

Gilles Plains which sits 10km north east of the Adelaide CBD, is a traditional family-friendly working class neighbourhood which today continues to include a high percentage of young families, people studying in tertiary education, including TAFE, and significant populations who work in community services and trades.

TAFE at Gilles Plains was established in 1979 and the Regency Park Institute of TAFE a few years later in the 1980s. The TAFE campus at Gilles Plains remains historically significant. A community college was determined to be of urgent need in the area in a 1969 report by A.F. Sando, A Study of the Future Needs of Technical Education in the Adelaide metropolitan area, and later supported by studies showing that 25 per cent of all metropolitan apprentices lived in the area. Gilles Plains thus became the first South Australian planned community or technical college with a broad-based multi-level curriculum aimed at supporting the local community as well as specific industries, and it was intended to be built at the heart of the community to allow better access for students. It opened as Gilles Plains TAFE with a School of General Studies (including home economics), Para Dental Studies, Technical Studies (building, furnishing, trades) and a learning resource centre in 1979. The small campus, designed with four buildings surrounding a central courtyard and intended to service just under 1,000 students per year, thrived.

From public good to commercial enterprise

TAFE SA became a single statuary corporation and registered training organisation (RTO) owned by the South Australian Government but removed from government portfolios and operations in 2012. The aggressive marketisation of TAFE saw drastic reductions in course offerings and student enrolments, with regular whispers of suburban TAFE campuses closing. TAFE students sometimes had to travel over an hour to other campuses to find the course they wanted to do on offer when their local campuses “streamlined” for profitability.

The ripple effect of the failed marketisation of TAFE in South Australia led to programs being reduced and cut, lower student intakes, teacher shortages and massive shortages of skilled graduates across industries, but none more so in ECEC. The sector is in the midst of a massive skills crisis due the confluence of booming demand for ECEC, fewer qualified graduates and growing worker attrition.

Favouring funding private providers rather than TAFE, the then South Australian government removed funding for TAFE ECEC programs in metropolitan Adelaide in 2019. “Our program went from a fully flourishing busy program that was being delivered at all of our metropolitan campus to a very small streamlined minimal offering, with some campuses not offering the course at all,” says Lascala.

Then in 2020, ECEC at both Regency and Gilles Plains were among the 53 courses deemed unprofitable in the state and that were floated by TAFE SA to potentially be axed, teachers at both TAFE campuses were left in limbo. “There were fears that the program would be cut altogether and for job losses… we didn’t know if we would still have jobs,” says Lascala. “Large numbers of lecturers left TAFE or took targeted separation packages.”

At Gilles Plains, the ECEC program went from over 100 students down to 20.

Following years of reducing enrolments and absent funding for ECEC programs, the Albanese federal government upped its support for the sector to help plug other skills gaps and encourage more women to re-join the workforce. The ensuing boom in childcare centre openings demand for qualified staff has added even more pressure to a starved system.

“The demand is so high for early childhood educators, there’s just not enough of them. We tell students that they will get jobs by the end of the course, usually after their placement they are offered jobs where they train,” she says.

“Services are desperate for qualified employees, because educators have to have the Cert III as a minimum to work.”

Road to recovery

Currently Lascala is teaching one of two groups of students at Gilles Plains, and senior lecturer Tasia Camacho at Regency is overseeing the Diploma cohort. Both lecturers are brimming with hope as they and their dedicated teams rebuild the ECEC programs and take on full classes once again.

Lascala, a TAFE teacher for 14 years who has been based at both Regency and Gilles Plains across her career is a former TAFE trained early childhood educator who also trained at TAFE to become an educator, something she wanted to be since she was a little girl: “I always loved being with children and wanted to be a school teacher but when I went to the school guidance councillor they said don’t do it,” she laughs. “It was the 1980s and they told me to just get a job.”

Nowadays she has the best of both worlds, teaching the next generation of educators and visiting students on placement in early education and care services, and she’s especially thrilled to be back in the classroom teaching students face to face.

“Last year we were prepping this course – it’s a brand-new program … and we’re now so busy with supporting the students and the services,” she says.

Back from the brink

Camacho is equally busy shepherding two fulltime and two part-time groups through the Certificate and Diploma courses at Regency. In the space of one year she’s gone from 20 students to nearly 100 and had to deliver entirely new programs. “I only found out we would be offering the Diploma in 2023 in November of 2022,” she says. “It’s been a very stressful, but fruitful time.”

Camacho has 20 years’ experience working in the Vocational Education and Training sector specialising in early childhood education.

“I was a long-term educator in early childhood in a community based childcare centre and worked my way up to become a director,” she says of her career journey. “I’ve always been actively involved in the building the capacity of those I work with and in professional development projects, so becoming a TAFE teacher appealed to me.”

“You get students coming in on placements, so I had relationships with lecturers and in mentoring their students – so I did training at TAFE to be a student assessor and they offered me work doing that when I qualified, so I reduced my full-time load at the centre and found I loved the work. After a few years, I was offered work as an hourly paid instructor (HPI) at Croydon TAFE and then a contract to develop the Learning Centre project at Gilles Plains - a collaboration between TAFE and local services hosting student placements.”

Then after starting a family, she decided to focus fully on TAFE. “I started my TAFE career at Croydon and at Gilles Plains and worked with such a passionate and invested team of lecturers many of whom came from community-based childcare centres and had that collaborative approach and skills focus, and today even though I’m, fulltime at Regency, the early childhood teams still collaborate and support each other across campuses.”

Centring students at Regency

A much larger campus than Gilles Plains, Regency also accepts international students, who appreciate the rigour and teaching a TAFE qualification offers. Very different in style and positioning than Gilles Plains, Regency sits 6km due north of the CBD in an industrial area with only 60 residents according to the 2021 Census. The Regency TAFE campus was designed by architect Guy Maron AM LFRAIA, who also designed the Bicentennial Conservatory in Adelaide and the Headquarters of the Australian Automobile association building in Canberra, as broad-based educational hub to support industry. Today it hosts 10,000 or 24.4 per cent of South Australia’s TAFE students and offers 151 courses. Regency is a sprawling campus that features a cooking school, mining institute and being just down the road from Coopers Brewery, an on-campus brewery. Recognised at the 2011 South Australian Architecture Awards for Enduring Architecture, the concrete and wood buildings emerge from the flat landscape with drama, yet the connectivity of the space shines.

It’s an inspirational leafy and light-filled space that Camacho has relished setting up for her students, despite spending most of last year delivering programs online.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about delivery,” she says. “We want to keep going and improve, we want our students to come out with a really good qualification and to do that, we work with the sector in tailoring our delivery to their needs.”

Part of that is the practical side of the training with extensive simulated spaces in teaching rooms, but the other side is taking the time to think about what you are doing and why.

“Reviewing and reflecting is part of our culture,” she says. “The early years learning framework curriculum calls for critical practice – and we embed that in every unit we teach. We encourage our students on their placement to reflect on every day – individually and as a group.”

Graduates in demand

Halfway between the Gilles Plains and Regency TAFE SA campuses is C.A.F.E Enfield Children’s Centre. Assistant director Lee Jones works closely with TAFE SA in both student placements and employment of graduates, and he says now that the Diploma course is back at TAFE, it will be great for the quality of applicants.

“In our experience, we value TAFE graduates as they come to us with a greater depth of knowledge and it’s evident there’s been lots of rigor and reflective practice in their study,” he says. “We find they are thinking about why they are doing the things they are doing, which makes for a more robust educator.”

He says the sector is calling out for more early childhood educators at both Certificate III and Diploma level qualifications: “In the last three years it’s become way more difficult to find educators – both because of the growth of new centres and because there are fewer educators. Across the board providers are now struggling replacing educators. For example, three years ago a job advertisement would have had 90 applicants for a Cert III position, now it’s like five, and the last ad we put up for an early childhood teacher, only one candidate made it through the pre-screening. For Diploma level graduates, now we are seeing about a dozen applicants when previously it was 60-70, and now our relief pool is down to two educators.”

Like many childcare centres, C.A.F.E Enfield Children’s Centre hosts student placements, many of whom end up taking on permanent roles at the centre upon graduation, further supporting the local community.

The TAFE effect

“TAFE supports the people that live around them … we can help students be successful in so many different areas,” Lascala concurs.

She says flexibility and understanding of industry is key to TAFE delivery: “There are many different ways of studying, face-to-face, online, a weekly workshop or a combination for our yearlong Certificate III or two-year Diploma. Our Diploma course is only run in the evenings because the students all work during the day.”

This understanding flows through to the design of classroom itself at Gilles Plains too: “Learning about it and then working on floor with children and families is very different and it can difficult for some. We spend a lot of time simulating spaces for them – to change nappies, to touch clay, to touch paint, practice reading books before they get there, so they can learn practically.”

The campus also supports students broadly with a study-hub in the library, which sits alongside student counsellors, where students can drop in or make an appointment and have help with studying or assignment structure.

“They can even get help with how to use a computer if they need that,” says Lascala. “We also have a free laptop rental service for on campus use.

“TAFE is an opportunity to be educated and it should be free for everybody.”

Putting the children first

Camacho champions ECEC as a career, but also cautions that access to training isn’t a panacea for educator sustainability in the sector, nor is it the only thing that matters.

“Early childhood education and care is a really good career pathway,” she says. “We are really thrilled to be able to support the sector to get Diploma qualified people back into the workforce, but with everyone so short staffed it can be very challenging for educators to focus on the children’s education and care.”

Over the years she has seen continual changes in funding affecting both the sector and TAFE, but sees more of a crisis now: “Fee-Free is an opportunity to get your qualification and upskill, particularly for the Diploma – but the sector is in crisis, and in some instances those with a Cert III are put in positions that they are not trained to be in expected to be acting as leaders and run rooms and they shouldn’t be put in that position – what is it doing to the sector, to the children?”

Lascala also looks to what really counts – the children that her graduates go on to educate and care for.

“Recognising what this sector is about and that the early years are the most important years has made a difference,” she says. “Children have rights, they deserve to be listened to, to follow up with, and in this career, they are the most important people at the end of the day.”

Article by Diana Ward

This article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Spring 2023