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.
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.