Marg Rogers, Navjot Bhullar and Laura K Doan ask: How far will the Budget’s funds stretch to fix educator professional development and ‘childcare desert’ communities?
The Federal Government’s Budget announcement of $18 million of funding to be available as grants for providers is welcome. Providers will be able to apply for up to $900,000 to build more services in ‘childcare desert’ areas. These are normally in regional, rural and remote areas, and exacerbate disadvantage because children in the area miss out on early learning, and their parents miss out on working. However, this is not going to go very far since the problem is so great.
The Government has promised to support 6000 existing educators to upskill and support them to backfill positions that are vacant. It has also pledged $72.4 million over 5 years to support up to 75,000 educators’ professional development for those in regional and remote communities is welcome.
Educators in these areas often act as more than educators, and face increased pressures. They often plug the gaps for other services that are missing in these communities, such as mental health services, family support and early intervention. Sometimes they are unable to attend further professional development because they do not have the casual staff to cover their teaching load.
Despite welcome reforms to reduce the cost of early childhood education for families, staff shortages have increased during COVID as educator burnout has increased. Currently, there are over 6800 advertised positions for educators in Australia, double since the pandemic began. So, how did we get into such a mess?
To find out more about the challenges educators face, our international study explored educators’ work in five different countries. We also wanted to learn from other countries to improve policies and practices.
Australian educators’ experiences
In Australia, 51 surveyed educators told us about their experiences working in a sector in crisis. Additional data were collected from publicly available forums related to the publication of these findings. Predictably, most roads lead to gender.
Women make up 92% of this workforce. As part of the feminised care sector, it features:
“Educators were pushed to provide high quality … with minimal budget. I spent over $4,000 of my own money – not one cent reimbursed”.
“Book week, pirate day, Halloween – …centres force this onto staff. They want photo ops to market themselves on Facebook but expect staff to pay for …costumes. Unpaid overtime setting the rooms up”.
–extremely low pay
“One day I found one of them (educators) crying in the other room… she told me …she works double shifts and so tired but gets paid #%!@ all”.
“Traditionally ‘women’s work’ so it’s undervalued”.
“Quality education begins with quality educators…(who) are valued”.
“There is a lot of pressure on educators to meet the needs of others resulting in their own health being overlooked”.
-never being good enough
“Early childhood teacher’s and educator’s… qualifications are far less valued”.
“Too much work ‘from the love of your heart’”.
“So stressful due to the admin and recording”.
“Obscene documentation requirement from the government”.
“It can be stressful to try and achieve all the goals and outcomes … in these frameworks”.
“All of us have stressful days… managing behavioural issues, parent’s demands and a lot of routine tasks”.
-poor staff morale
“Very low, strained and tired”.
“Educators … are … pressured to conform early education to one box”.
What could we learn from Canada?
Clearly, our highly privatised Australian system needs urgent reform. In the meantime, to support educators’ wellbeing, we might be able to learn from other countries.
Up to 50% of educators in British Columbia were leaving the sector in their first five years. To address this, an evaluated, funded peer support program is nurturing the wellbeing of educators. Unsurprisingly, this is reducing attrition.
Why is it so effective?
The program works because it:
-Gives educators a voice
The groups create a safe space for educators to discuss their professional and private lives without judgement or recrimination. An educator in the program said:
“It’s creating a safe place for vulnerability”.
-Supports educator health and wellbeing (self-care)
This is a major focus for the individual groups as educators explore ways to sustain their practice.
“Our time together ‘filled my cup’, each sip of tea warming my insides … I felt refreshed mentally”.
-Creates a nurturing, connected community
The groups build a sense of belonging with like minded individuals, with mentoring from experienced educators.
“I would describe the PMP program as going home, being with a group of people who … allow you to be the best version of yourself…”.
The program focuses on educators’ needs, not the needs of children and families.
“I’m educated … experienced … fulltime … as a woman, why is it okay that I’m at poverty level”?
“We have nothing to give if our OWN cups are empty”.
Post-pandemic bread and butter budget
So, how do we convince governments to fund such a program?
Now, Australian governments and early childhood services are spending a lot to attract, train and induct educators. Some of this money could be better spent supporting the wellbeing of educators in our existing workforce so we can retain them.
What Australia needs to change to keep educators
To reform the sector, Australians and our Government need to take a long hard look at the following:
Do we value young children’s education and care during the critical first five years? Do we value those in the feminised care sectors enough to give them a fair go? If so, let’s address this crisis by making the necessary policy reforms to nurture, value and keep our educators. The 2023 Budget only partially addresses this.
Dr Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in early childhood education at the University of New England. Professor Navjot Bhullar is a research-focused professor of Psychology (wellbeing focus) at Edith Cowan University. She is in the top 250 most cited researchers in Australia. Associate Professor Laura K. Doan is an associate professor of early childhood at Thompson Rivers University in Canada.
Header image from Anne Aly’s Facebook page