A caring economy


27 May 2024

Access to early childhood education and care (ECEC) is intrinsic to the fabric of workforce participation for women, addressing skills shortages and the economic growth of Australia. In addition to the significant long-term individual benefits for children, investment in high-quality ECEC also has significant benefits for families and for the social and economic benefit of whole communities, which is why ECEC is a primary focus of Jobs and Skills Australia (JSA).

The past decade has seen copious reports, inquiries and reviews into the provision of ECEC, yet few recommendations been implemented thus far – especially in regard to the ECEC workforce, which is largely underpaid, undervalued and overworked.

Within this renewed focus on ECEC provision in Australia, TAFE has an important role to play if Australia is to catch up with its Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) peers and address deeply ingrained inequity.

It’s about systemic inequity

At the Jobs and Skills Summit in 2022, business, union, and academic leaders all expressed the urgent need for Australia to address gender inequity in workforce participation, remuneration and benefits. Central to that was access to affordable childcare and quality early childhood education for all.

Key figures presented – that the percentage of Australian women aged 25-54 employed full-time is 10 per cent less than the OECD average (69 per cent in Australia compared the OECD average of 79 per cent), the high cost of childcare (Australian families spend 31 per cent of their household income on childcare, compared to an OECD average of 11 per cent), lack of access to childcare and especially in regional areas, and the wage gap between men and women all play a part in women not participating in society economically as much as they may wish to.

Considering women typically earn less than men, women often are forced out of the workforce to care for children. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2023 annual survey found the average total remuneration gender pay gap is 21.7 per cent, meaning for every $1 on average a man made in 2023, a women earned 78 cents, which over the course of a year on an average salary adds up to a gap of $26,393. The Child Care Subsidy (CCS) system and high cost of childcare further disincentivises women from returning to fulltime work compared taking on part-time roles.

Yet in 2021, according to Workplace Gender Equality Agency figures, only five per cent of employers offered subsidised childcare, and despite government subsidies for childcare, Australia still only spends about 0.6 per cent of GDP on ECEC compared to an OECD average of 0.8 per cent, meaning the high cost and scant places continues to keep women out of work.

In women-dominated industries such as Education and Training (78 per cent women across preschools, schools and TAFE) which are facing acute workforce shortages, this means access to affordable childcare is even more imperative if women are to return to work or move into full-time roles.

This is evidenced by recent reports of teachers moving to the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia and to Sydney from the UK and then not being able to work due to lack of childcare places for their own children.

It’s about pay

ECEC teachers are paid significantly less than their schools-based colleagues with the same qualifications, and qualified educators earn less than often lower qualified roles in other fields of work. A Level 3.1 Certificate III qualified educator earns $26.18 an hour for example, which is less than the average cashier wage in Australia.

The Productivity Commission in its A path to universal early childhood education and care draft report stated that governments need to prioritise the workforce challenges saying: “The pay and conditions offered to the ECEC workforce – which are critical for recruitment and retention – may be improved through processes arising out of recent changes to the Fair Work Act. But more work is required to improve career and qualification pathways within and into ECEC professions.”

Unions hope that the new Aged Care Award pay rates confirmed by the Fair Work Commission which are 23-24 per cent higher than Certificate III ECEC educator wages, will serve as a base line for increases for the Modern Award in the May budget, but the government has yet to commit to increasing ECEC sector funding.

The Regional Education Commissioner annual report 2023 also weighs on the urgent need for better wages and conditions for ECEC workers: “In some cases, addressing workforce shortages may include attracting qualified locals back to the profession. A study into childcare in the Maranoa and Western Downs regions of Queensland found there are nearly twice as many people with relevant childcare qualifications as there are employed in the childcare industry in these regions, with pay and work conditions cited as core reasons qualified ECEC educators were leaving the profession.”

It’s about access

In addition to more typical workforce and vocational education and training needs, as part of its skilling Australia mandate the JSA could look at recommending all TAFE campuses provide free childcare on site for staff and students, as well as servicing the broader community for example, and for TAFE ECEC programs to be expanded in regional centres and provide additional support and services in areas considered childcare deserts. This would also allow ECEC students who live in childcare deserts much needed work placement opportunities closer to home. The Mitchell Institute’s 2022 report on ‘childcare deserts’ found 35 per cent of Australians live in childcare deserts – which is where children outnumber available places by a ratio of at least three to one. Lack of access to childcare is a key barrier for women accessing tertiary education including TAFE and returning to work full-time.

In Victoria, the announcement of the forthcoming closure of Timboon’s only early childhood centre due to staff shortages highlights the urgent need for action on early childhood education and care for every community given the failure of for-profit ECEC services to meet community expectations.

By providing access to VET for communities most at-risk of being ECEC deserts, public TAFE institutes develop a local ECEC workforce invested and interested in working with their local community. Complementarily, the increased public provision of ECEC services would both deliver for communities neglected by private ECEC services and would be advantaged by having access to a locally available ECEC workforce educated in local public TAFE institutes, that would also be culturally appropriate for local communities.

This is especially important if the government plans to meet its Closing the Gap priorities. According to the Commonwealth Closing the Gap 2023 Annual Report and 2024 Implementation Plan, the “Department of Education will lead work to refresh Target 3 to improve enrolment and participation of First Nations children in Early Childhood Education and Care and focus its efforts on improving Target 4”, which is to see First Nations children thrive in their early years. To achieve this, the government will need to also attract significant cohorts of First Nations people to take on ECEC qualifications.

This was echoed in the Productivity Commission’s draft report, which recommended the government prioritise support in locations where providers were unlikely to invest and roll out a new universal system and commission to address the issue. This provision could be supported by TAFE working with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) for example and improving the cultural capability of all ECEC services through publicly funded professional development for staff. The report said if barriers to local training and recruitment were all addressed, an extra 44,000 full-time workers could be added to the labour supply.

It’s about legislation

This is also something the Thrive by Five, of which the AEU is a supporting partner, is campaigning for – that the gaps in access and outcomes that exist between children in the regions, and First Nations children, in comparison to children growing up in major cities to be addressed. The Every Child’s Right to Thrive by Five Make It Law campaign asks all levels of government to work together to pass legislation that creates a guarantee of access to early childhood services for young children across Australia including three days of early learning per week for every child, capped at a cost of $10 a day.

In addition to entitlements to parental leave, healthcare and education, the proposed legislation includes defining a high-quality, inclusive and integrated early childhood development system that crosses sectors, location and tiers of government, define a nationwide entitlement for all Australian young children and families, establish a joint statutory body between the Commonwealth and state/territory governments and legislate a 10-year timeline for delivering a high quality, universally accessible early childhood development system and early childhood entitlement.

It’s about quality

The Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority’s (ACECQA) National Children’s Education and Care Workforce Strategy (2022-2031) identifies that the ECEC sector’s workforce demands include requiring an additional 16,000 education support personnel and 8,000 teachers by November 2025.

This can only be achieved by the ECEC sector training and retaining cohorts of highly skilled, well-remunerated, and well-respected ECEC teachers and education support personnel. TAFE is best placed to achieve this, as stated in the Carmichael Centre analysis of the ECEC workforce needs Educating for Care: Meeting Skills Shortages in an Expanding ECEC Industry:

“To meet the needs of a world-class ECEC system, Australia’s VET system would need to dramatically ramp up its capacity to train highly qualified ECEC workers. And our review of the existing performance of VET providers in Australia makes it equally clear that the only institution with the capacity to meet that task is the TAFE system. Australia’s state and territory TAFE institutes are the anchors of quality, public, accountable vocational education in Australia… In this context, enhancing the ability of TAFE to train future ECEC workers, by developing a powerful and reliable skills pipeline, is a natural complement to the parallel goal of building a public and accessible ECEC system to meet the needs of Australian parents, children, and employers into the future,” the analysis says.

TAFE ECEC programs too are well known to be fulsome and robust. Maintaining the integrity of early childhood teaching qualifications is critical to lifting the status of the profession and helping the community appreciate that early childhood teachers, like those in schools, are qualified teachers.

It’s about supporting communities

For the ECEC workforce to develop skills and capacities to meet the needs of diverse communities and complex needs children, the ECEC workforce must be expanded to be available to work in geographic areas currently under-serviced by the largely private, for-profit ECEC providers.

TAFE institutes based in regions which are largely under-serviced by private for profit registered training organisations allow local students to study without the cost and social burden of moving away from the region and allow students and workers to maintain work and social connections to the local community. As a result, public TAFE institutes have been found to have higher rates of enrolments of students from regional and remote areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students with disabilities, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Being able to support and serve local, diverse communities on a local level is an imperative for successful ECEC provision and student outcomes.

Alongside public provision of vocational education to the ECEC workforce, the increased public provision of ECEC services is a key opportunity to improve candidates’ attraction to and the retention of the ECEC workforce, not only for the better pay, conditions and employment stability public providers offer over most private for profit providers, but also for the reason most people become ECEC educators – to allow them to prioritise the wellbeing and education of children over profits.

By Diana Ward

This article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Autumn 2024