Flowers, chocolates, promises: now too late for early childhood educators

By Marg Rogers and Margaret Sims

The newest Productivity Commission report: A path to universal early childhood education and care glosses over or ignores many fundamental problems within the early childhood education sector .

Scarcely mentioned, or tactfully ignored, are the:
* systemic issues relating to educator burnout,
* poor wellbeing and morale of educators,
* increasing burden of quality assurance,
* emotional cost of caring, and the
* increasingly complex needs of families.

These are crucial challenges creating chaos in the sector as educators head for the door in droves since before the pandemic. This alone is impacting families and the ability of Australian parents to work.

Neglect and abuse

After successive government neglect (poor pay and status) and abuse (overwork, underpay and unpaid hours) of educators over the years, suddenly the sector is getting attention. However, as this report shows, the Commission’s attention is on the wellbeing of the children and families. 

While families need attention and are very deserving, there still seems to be a reluctance to talk about educator wellbeing. When educators are mentioned, it is about how to attract more, rather than real solutions on how to nurture and retain those who have had enough.

An early childhood sector in chaos

The Commission does report on the vacancy rate which is over 5000 (over 4.5%), but this does not
show the number of services that have given up advertising. Many have simply closed down or
reduced the number of rooms they have open.

Many are operating under waivers, meaning they are being staffed by those who are currently
studying to meet the mandated requirements of the service. Studying can be difficult when an
educator’s service is short staffed.

The report does explain that in ‘childcare desert’ areas, that is, where the need for early learning is
greatest, children and families are spending years on waiting lists to access any care they can find.

The Parenthood’s ‘Choiceless’ report about effect of a lack of early learning in regional, rural and remote (RRR) communities shows, this is impacting the:
* mental health and wellbeing of parents
* access to screening services for children
* economic stability of households
* safety of children as they are taken to work with parents,
* viability of rural businesses and communities, and
* viability of families living in RRR communities.
In these communities, educators’ role in providing a link to services and supporting parents in their
role is vital because access to other services is severely limited. Educators in these areas need more support, because they are often providing more than early learning. They often undertake family support and mental health support roles with the families.

Supporting early childhood educator wellbeing

Educators need an investment in their wellbeing. They need access to funded wellbeing programs,
peer support and/or counselling programs. These should be conducted during work hours, otherwise it is only increasing their unpaid hours.

Pandemic stresses

The draft skims over the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sector, which fared poorly compared to the school sector. The services were: told to stay open, roll out wave after wave of new health care policies, enforce new rules about attendance, required to do additional cleaning with no extra funds or hours. It was as though educators were on a ghost train ride to ‘burnout central’.

Additionally, they were labelled as essential workers, but were not given priority for vaccinations, nor given any recognition. The educational leaders showed great innovation in implementing a range of new ways of working, many which have remained in a post-COVID era.

The report also highlights the benefits of investing in the sector to free up parents to work and
increase the access children have to early learning. The report also highlights the overwhelming amount of data available on the sector. They fail to mention how this is collected, often by overworked educators who are trying to collect government data whilst educating and caring for children.

This has led to a ‘datification’ of the sector. It is a constant source of complaints as educators want to work with the children and families. Ironically, the report says there are gaps in the data! Many educators give up trying to complete data collection done while they are on the floor and do the work for free when they are at home. This is appalling given they are the 13 th lowest paid workers in Australia. So, in other industries where no qualifications are needed, workers can earn far more (e.g. in shops, manufacturing, farming and construction).

What the report gets right

The draft report outlines the dire need to remove unpaid practicums for educators because this leads to higher levels of attrition and poverty among educators. Many state governments are offering scholarships to remove university fees, which is encouraging. The report also discusses a range of improvements to assist families to access childcare three days per week, by removing the activity test.

Too little! Too late!

Whilst the politicians are quick to report on their moves in the right direction, the flowers, chocolates and promises have come far too late for many educators who cannot afford to stay in the industry any longer. Many educators can only afford to do the job they love if their partner earns far more, or their parents provide support. In the era of the #MeToo movement, the feminised workforce has had enough of neglect, poverty, being ignored, undervalued, demoralised and abused. They are saying ‘too little, too late’!

Dr Marg Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in the Early Childhood Education. Marg researches marginalised voices within families and education especially in regional, rural and remote communities. Specifically, she researches ways to support the wellbeing of military, first responder and remote worker families and early childhood educators. Marg is a Postdoctoral Fellow within the Commonwealth Funded Manna Institute.

Margaret Sims is a Professor in Early Childhood Education and Care and has worked in the areas of family support and disabilities for many years. She researches in the areas of professionalism in early childhood and higher education, families, disabilities, social justice and families from CaLD backgrounds. She is an Honorary Professor at Macquarie University.

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6 thoughts on “Flowers, chocolates, promises: now too late for early childhood educators

  1. Eloise says:

    What I don’t see being addressed is the amount of “domestic” chores we are required to do at work. People are surprised when they learn that University qualified teacher are mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, doing the laundry, cleaning the kitchen and taking out the rubbish. I have worked at services who expect staff to clean the staff toilet and the staff room.

    Can you imagine primary or secondary teachers having to do these tasks? Or any other professional in any sector?

    These tasks take us away from caring for and educating the children. It is also a safety issue – a lot can happen in the 15 minutes one educator is cleaning the kitchen while the other educator is left caring for 22 children.

    The only other choice is to stay back after your shift and do your “job” unpaid.

    Neither of these choices are acceptable.

    I think that the sector needs a new role in each centre – a full time person to clean and help with setting up and packing away each day.

    That will give teachers and educators more time to do their actual jobs, rather than being unpaid cleaners. It would also help with our status as professionals.

  2. Marg Rogers says:

    Absolutely, Eloise!

    Thanks for your post. I recommend we have full-time cleaners and full-time administration officers to do the government’s paperwork and leave educators to do what they are good at and what they love.

    It would also improve educator wellbeing and reduce or eliminate the work they take home. It would reduce feelings of guilt when they are trying to do paperwork and cleaning, and are unable to respond to the children or parents.

    Thanks for your feedback and I will be adding that to the long list when I respond to the Commission.

    You can also see another article about the issue here:

    Take care,

  3. Maree Aldwinckle says:

    As usual Sims along with Rogers has hit many nails on the head. There does seem to be a concerted effort to push early childhood staff wages and conditions off the agenda. Current campaigns such as those by the Minderoo Foundation and The Parenthood although well meaning are not helpful in the current staffing crisis. Meanwhile, I get regular reports from LinkedIn that job vacancies in my sector are increasing by 7% a week.

  4. Marg says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Maree. We all keep advocating. Unfortunately, governments only tend to listen when there is a crisis. We certainly have that now!

  5. Anna Harris says:

    Thank you Marg Rogers and Margaret Sims, for pointing out many of the injustices in the sector. A quick look at a Government site listing details of pay rates showed that Early Childhood Educators with Diploma qualifications and Senior First Aid earn $10 per hour less than Disability Support workers with Cert 3 qualifications (and no mandatory first aid training), and $6 per hour less than Aged Care Workers with Cert 3 qualifications. Further, the high casualisation of the sector, along with low rates of pay mean many Educators will never be in a position to obtain a mortgage.

    Many Educators were poorly treated during COVID, suffering pay cuts due to jobkeeper while being asked to work more shifts as families took up free childcare. Educators were constantly exposed to COVID, and as you stated, became a form of gatekeeper for all manner of Government requirements.

    Recently, I walked away from the sector, burned out. I currently experience a trauma response when I remember how some Centres treated me. So much was required of us in our own time, and for what? I could stack shelves at Coles and earn more.

    I used my experience in inclusion support to work in the office of a Disability Services Provider. I earned double my Early Childhood Educator’s wage on day 1 and it has only increased over time. My knowledge of children and families’ needs is respected. I am paid to complete first aid refreshers each year and an allowance of $16 / week to be first aid officer. In the Early Childhood Sector, all of these were personal expenses completed in the Educator’s own time.

    The risk of a manslaughter charge is real enough that I chose never to even apply to work at services offering a bus service. Mistakes happen. Even parents have driven to work and left their own child sleeping in a car!

    The staff in this sector have been abused and taken advantage of for many years now. They have little to no rights in negotiating better pay and conditions. Despite their high standards of care, education provision, family support and hygiene practices, Educators are seen by parents and community as little more than babysitters. They are seen as too expensive, a cost begrudgingly paid by stressed out parents. It should be noted that those high fees are not trickling down into Educator’s pockets, but I have observed that Private Centre Owners, in particular, seem to have a lot of overseas travel.

    As one of Marg’s former students, I am sad to say that the Educators, the heart and soul of Early Childhood Education and Care, have been sadly let down by the Government and the entire community.


  6. Marg says:

    Dear Anna
    I am so sorry to hear the sector has lost another talented and dedicated educator. We have lost so many already!

    Many who have left have gone to other ‘caring’ professions that have better rates of pay. Once aged care got their (long overdue) pay rise many went there. The disability sector is also reaping the rewards!

    For your own sake, I am so glad your skills and qualifications are being respected, rewarded and appreciated.

    The heartbreaking part of this is that the government (and taxpayers) are funding the qualifications of educators, then failing the sector by not paying the educators properly. This means we train more and more educators, yet the sector is in crisis.

    Many are returning to uni to qualify as primary teachers who enjoy better rates of pay, even if they have the same qualifications.

    Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. My hope is the government is forced to do something drastic to improve the sector, then all our wonderful educators, like yourself, come back and do what you do well.

    Until then, I know other industries will be LOVING having ‘our’ educators because they are so skilled.

    Take care, and best of luck, Anna!


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