As the Omicron virus leaves thousands of families without childcare, because hundreds of early childhood services have been forced to close, early childhood educators are in demand. Previously there was around 30% turnover in the sector, but a 2021 survey of 4000 educators revealed 73% planned to leave in the next three years.
A multinational study I am leading listened to 51 Australian educators who had a range of qualifications and positions in different types of services. Additional data was gathered from publicly available online forums in response to other research-based news articles I have published from the study.
The study has shed light on the hidden costs of being an educator in Australia, many of which have increased during COVID. Here are five hidden costs the educators revealed.
- Hidden cost of resources
Educators talked about the extra costs to buy resources for their service that were not reimbursed. An educator commented
‘Educators were pushed to provide high-quality education and care with a minimal budget, and the centre manager received a personal bonus for not spending different budgets. I spent over $4000 of my own money on resources, with not one cent reimbursed. There needs to be more control of private companies and how they treat educators’.
Publicly available forum posts from partners of educators revealed extra costs of outfits, props and craft materials some educators had to purchase themselves, then create them in their own time at home. These items were for special themed days, which help promote the services programs via posts to Facebook and apps for families.
They reported that the children and staff posed in these costumes and props, which were popular on social media. These specified ‘days’ are often standard across private providers as they commodify education. One educator said the government should ‘Stop the privateers making their centres like Starbucks factories’.
These hidden costs for educators are alarming, given the 2021 report that uncovered the $14 billion spent on the sector each year, 80% ($11.2 billion) of which is funded by taxpayers. In addition, a $292 million turnover was reported by the five biggest companies.
- Hidden identity and self-worth
Educators revealed that despite being essential workers, they are essentially invisible and ignored. Invisibility is a feature of female-dominated professions, such as early childhood, where 91% of the workforce are female.
Educators are sidelined in curriculum documents written by the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). Their strengths and interests are not mentioned despite being a key feature of educators valued relationships with children and parents.
Instead, the documents are filled with ways the educator should constantly reflect and improve themselves and their practice, highly valued practises in Western neoliberal nations. While professional reflection is important, it needs to be balanced with acknowledging the efforts, abilities and successes educators have. Instead, the documents instruct the educator to respect and work with the strengths and interests of the children, and the strengths of the parents.
The underlying message for educators is that they are never quite good enough, even when they are trying their best in a highly pressured work environment. Women are exposed to a similar mantra via the fashion and beauty industries as they sell the need to be prettier, taller, skinnier and more fashionable.
In this study, educators said governments should give educators ‘respect as professionals’ and ‘lift the professional standing by increasing (the) pay of educators and promote the importance of early childhood education’.
- Hidden relationship costs
The extra hours and stress educators were expected to do contributed to relationship stress at home, especially during accreditation. Educators commented that it was not sustainable and made them want to quit. They said
‘(My relationships were) strained due to fatigue.
More work at home meant less time with my partner.
It made me very stressed and overwhelmed.
I feel like at times I have no work-life balance’.
- Hidden unhappiness
Other educators exposed the managerial systems that dominate their daily work meant they were drowning in paperwork, checklists, documentation and regulation. This caused unhappiness because they felt micromanaged through the government’s demands that require them to collect big data every day.
They also said they felt micromanaged by the supervisors who completed these daily tasks in a time-pressured environment. One said, ‘I ended up resigning from my position as the top-down approach of management no longer agreed with my teaching philosophy’.
The system also reduced morale, especially during accreditation (Assessment and Rating) every three years. Only 4% of educators said accreditation improved the quality of education at their service, but most revealed it made staff and children unhappy. Accreditation also took them away from interacting with children, which is the key to quality education in early childhood services.
Realising the importance of these interactions, educators actively tried to protect the children against the harmful effects of accreditation (a system that was designed to improve quality). Unfortunately, this meant more work after hours because they had to take the paperwork home in order to teach the children.
- Hidden hours
Some reported being paid for only half of the hours they worked, even asking family members to provide unpaid help, revealing the extent of this modern-day slavery. Educators talked about the effect of accreditation on their personal relationships, saying
‘Stress was felt at home by my children and husband; this is why he came and helped at the centre so that I could stop being cranky and overworked at home’.
However, this free labour is at odds with the million-dollar salaries of some CEOS and handsome shareholder dividends in the biggest childcare companies. Australia has one of the highest rates of privatisation of childcare in the world. The 2021 report by Bigsteps into the sector uncovered:
‘Financialisation of ECEC has seen the worst excesses of Australian corporate culture including wage theft, aggressive tax avoidance and other misconduct creep into the sector.
Despite receiving generous COVID relief payments and availing themselves of JobKeeper, four of the six largest for-profit ECEC providers paid no tax in 2020’.
Hidden complications that stop reform
A significant reform of the sector is needed. However, reforming the industry is enormously complex because of the mismatched mess of funding and compliance shared between federal and state governments. This tangled web means it is more challenging to reduce costs for parents and improve wages because nobody takes responsibility.
Another complicating factor is the mix of private, community and not for profit services. Educators are likely to be paid more in community and not for profit services, with 70-80% of their revenue spent on wages. However, as little as 54% is spent by privately-owned services.
One educator called for ‘more control of private centres’ to reveal what they are doing. Educators showed their frustrations, saying
‘My options include selling out to the greedy large corporations where the directors and educators do not know their children or families. They get exceeding ratings because outsourced marketing gurus write up a perfect marketing plan’.
‘We are burnt out and are leaving the industry in droves because rather than having quality educators, we are getting pushed for quantity. Children are being seen as a commodity, and it needs to stop’.
Despite these problems, the Thrive by Five campaign continues to be a beacon of hope as they petition the government for significant reform. Even NSW Premier Domonic Perrottet has flagged the need for substantial reform, which could have major implications for all states and territories.
When our governments plan for a better future, they could learn from an African proverb that reminds us that the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago, but the second best time is now. The best time for major childcare reform is right now, before we lose more of its most precious resources, our educators.
Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in the Early Childhood Education and Care program at the University of New England. Marg’s current research interests are about programming and resourcing parents and educators to build resilience and understanding in 2-5-year-olds from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families.