Many childcare workers across Australia left when parents started pulling their children out of childcare due to the pandemic, especially . And when the federal government introduced its temporary free childcare package, centres struggled to get the staff back.
The situation is not new. In of 1,200 early childhood educators and teachers in childcare centres and preschools across Australia, one in five said they planned to leave their job within a year. The reasons included low pay, feeling undervalued and increasing time spent on paperwork.
Based on unpublished Mitchell Institute analysis of , just over half the educators who have gained early childhood certificates since 2012 (when qualification requirements were introduced) are still working in relevant jobs. In comparison, almost all of those who completed vocational certificates in building are still in relevant roles.
1. Early childhood careers need to be valued
Teaching and caring for young children is complex, and requires people with the right training and qualifications. , which benefits children’s learning and development, as numerous international studies have shown.
These educators are vital to the sector’s survival: they make up almost 40% of the early childhood workforce, working alongside colleagues with diplomas and degrees.
More people using early childhood education and care services, and governments lifting the bar for quality, means Australia will still need to recruit to 2024, as well as with vocational diplomas and certificates. This will only happen if all educators are valued, and have opportunities for rewarding careers.
2. Educator well-being needs to matter too
COVID-19 has been tough on early childhood educators’ well-being. While with the transition to remote learning, early childhood educators also had to contend with rapid changes to policy, funding and work arrangements, as governments worked to keep the sector afloat.
The well-being of educators matters to children’s learning. Recent shows that educators with greater well-being can better respond to children in playful, educational ways that support their learning and development. Educators need support for their physical health and well-being, especially given the challenges of .
Early childhood educators have . Many have worked hard to adapt their services to the changing needs of children and families, whose lives were turned upside down. Others have experienced financial insecurity themselves, or uncertainty about their future employment.
Research shows and well-being for early childhood educators is to have meaningful career paths and supportive workplace cultures. While , low wages and limited access to professional development and promotion constrain educators’ careers.
3. Streamline funding responsibility
The reason it’s so hard to get educators’ pay and conditions right is that the money comes from different sources.
Governments pay around half the total cost of early childhood services, mainly through the childcare subsidy from the Australian government that helps families pay fees. State governments also contribute to preschool. Families pay the remainder of the fees, with many paying .
Employers ultimately make decisions about how much to pay their staff, within various industrial agreements.
This means educators’ wages and conditions are everybody’s problem and nobody’s problem. Former Education Minister Dan Tehan has said . Employers and unions argue governments need to contribute more funding to the sector before educators’ wages can increase.
Families are already stretched, and passing costs on to them seems unthinkable in the current economic climate.
Similar problems arise in determining who pays for improvements to educators’ conditions, such as making sure they have enough time for professional development (something few currently receive).
Government funding to early childhood services needs to be high enough to support fair wages, and delivered in a way that ensures it is spent well. With different funding models in each state, and thousands of employers, it won’t be easy to design a system that works for everyone. But governments have a responsibility to Australian families to ensure all educators are paid enough to stay.
Can Australia get this right in 2021? Maybe – in 2020, governments, employers and unions worked together on some of the most critical workforce challenges Australia has faced. Perhaps the education and care of our children will be important enough to bring them together again.