Will the Productivity Commission deliver for the childcare sector?

Research shows children in early learning benefit from having a stable relationship with one teacher, but with 180 qualified early learning teachers leaving every week, that can be difficult to maintain. Shutterstock

Last year in an open letter to the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, early childhood employers and peak bodies joined forces to ask for a commitment to early learning. They warned the political leaders that prices will rise and the quality of services suffer unless more government funding is made available to boost the wages of childcare workers.

They argued that the wage of a Certificate III educator is A$19.07 an hour, similar to the wage of a fast-food worker. That’s well below wages of workers with comparable qualifications in other sectors. This wage does not reflect the high level of responsibility, training and expertise of educators.

Good educators are leaving in droves

United Voice, the union representing childcare workers, has warned that the plan to overhaul the sector will cause more childcare workers to leave the industry because it fails to solve the problems of low levels of pay and professional recognition. The average wage in the sector (A$21.83 an hour) promotes a high staff turnover.

A community-based staff member in Queensland noted:

We’re losing all our experienced staff due to poor conditions, so there is no one to train and mentor younger staff coming through.

The Productivity Commission has been presented with substantial evidence of widespread staff shortages in the early learning sector, particularly in long day care. Family Day Care Australia reported:

The early childhood education and care sector is critically short of appropriately qualified staff.

The mass exodus is one of the issues the commission has had to consider.

Research by the Productivity Commission found the turnover rate in the childcare industry was 15.7%, and was highest among qualified early-childhood educators. It has been estimated that passionate educators are leaving the sector at a rate of 180 a week, because they cannot afford to stay.

This continued disruption does not create the continuity of care children need to thrive and learn. Attracting and retaining students to the profession will also suffer.

High staff turnover is bad for children

We know that children benefit when a “key worker” system is in place - where a staff member is assigned to a small group of children to develop a relationship with the children and their families. This way one staff member becomes close to a few children and their families rather than all staff taking an interest in all children. Where secure infant-staff relationships occur they have been found to promote more advanced types of play and more positive peer relationships.

Since January 2014, childcare services must have an early childhood teacher working with the service at least 20% of the time implementing the principles of the Early Years Learning Framework. In December assistant minister for childcare Sussan Ley acknowledged there are issues with pay in the childcare sector and said:

The Fair Work Commission is now in the process of determining professional wages for the sector. The report […] is awaited with much interest by the childcare sector and parents.

When childcare is of poor quality and opportunities for meaningful relationships with stable childcare staff are not available, studies show children are more aggressive with peers, more withdrawn, spend more time unoccupied and have difficulty with maintaining relationships.

Australia’s national quality regulator in childhood education has been collaborating with universities to introduce the Australian Early Years Learning Framework in teacher education programs. The principles are based on new approaches to caring for children that acknowledge the importance of early childhood learning in developing strong and supportive relationships with children and their parents. Ensuring that workers are well trained, behave sensitively and are stable rather than transient figures in children’s lives is a key factor in quality childcare.

Pay better wages for future economic pay-offs

A recent report, Putting a Value on Early Childhood Education and Care in Australia, by Pricewaterhouse Coopers successfully made a case for “why” access to quality early childhood education should be improved. The international evidence presents a compelling case that quality childcare in the early years pays dividends later. In their Australian research, PwC agrees that investment now will pay off in the future:

  • through improved productivity of the children who have experienced quality early childhood learning

  • through improved earnings and overall national productivity when children reach their economically active years

  • through benefiting vulnerable children.

The challenge for economists is to figure out how this can be done, with childcare workers’ wages central to costs. It’s not a question of whether Australia can afford to professionalise childcare, it is a question of whether we can afford not to.

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