Australia’s two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, have set the target of delivering an extra year of learning for all children before they start school. Billed as “the greatest transformation of early education in a generation”, last Thursday’s announcement follows close on the heels of the new federal government’s legacy vision for childcare, with an extended childcare subsidy to increase access.
These moves are well justified. There is compelling evidence that such investments could lift productivity by increasing parent employment and children’s development gains and improving life chances for the most disadvantaged.
Realising the promise of these gains, however, depends entirely on the availability of a qualified, supported and thriving workforce. We can’t deliver high-quality learning without them. Developing such a workforce must be an urgent priority given Victoria’s target date for the new program is 2025 and NSW’s is 2030.
What do we mean by high quality?
Not all early education programs deliver on the promise of promoting children’s development and learning. “Cheaper childcare” may enable parent workforce participation. But it is unlikely to deliver the long-term benefits of promoting children’s learning and closing equity gaps.
Quality matters. The first five years of life are a critical period in human brain development. The quality of experiences in these years lays the foundations for lifetime achievement and well-being.
For this reason, research seeks to identify the essential components that go beyond child-minding to delivering high-quality early childhood education and care.
More than two decades of research has shown the interactions between educators and children are the critical element of optimal child learning. Policy-regulated features, such as physical resources and staff qualifications, help support higher-quality learning. Yet they alone are not enough to deliver on the promise of improving children’s life chances and reducing the stark inequities among children starting school, as documented by the 2021 Australian Early Development Census.
What really matters for early learning?
For this reason, researchers in this field focus on identifying the qualities of educator-child interactions that best support children’s learning and well-being. Our Australian research has examined the long-term effects of instructional, organisational and emotional qualities of interactions.
Instructional qualities are focused on teaching content and language interactions. Organisational interactions are focused on setting behavioural expectations and maintaining predictability. Emotional interactions are focused on relationships between child and educator, including regard for the child’s perspective.
Analysing data from E4Kids, Australia’s largest study of early childhood education and care quality, the emotional qualities of interactions emerge as the critical factor. Our study published last week in Child Development, tracked 1,128 children across three years of early education to ask how change in instructional, organisational and emotional qualities of educator-child interactions was associated with each child’s rate of learning.
We found instructional and organisational aspects of interaction did not reliably predict child learning. Changes in the emotional environment did predict language development.
Further, in a study for the Queensland government, we linked the qualities of the early learning environment at age four to the subsequent school achievements (maths, science, English, NAPLAN) of the children participating in E4Kids. Again, the emotional quality of interactions was the key predictor of outcomes. We could still see the effects in secondary school.
It all depends on a stable and supported workforce
Emotionally positive early childhood education and care environments require a stable and supported workforce. Globally, there is a shortage of qualified early childhood educators. Australia is no exception.
Our workforce study included a national survey and detailed study of services in metropolitan, regional and remote locations. We found one in five educators intended to leave the sector in the next year. In tracking a cohort of educators, each year one in three left their service. In remote settings the attrition rate was one in two.
This represents a serious loss of relationships for children and their parents. As educators leave, they take with them their depth of knowledge of each child and family.
Early childhood workers are paid well below average weekly earnings. Many struggle financially or depend on spouses or family members for financial support to continue in the job they love. Those studying for a degree are often doing so to move to the school sector where pay, conditions and status are better.
Need to boost workforce is urgent
Without significant investment in the workforce, the new early education strategies will lack solid foundations and may well fall short on the promise they offer.
A workforce strategy for the next decade, Shaping Our Future, was published in September 2021. It acknowledges the need for better pay, conditions and professional recognition to grow and sustain the workforce. The strategy also recognises their well-being as important, though it emphasises individualised supports for well-being, not systemic change.
However, the stated strategy to remedy the crisis is to “investigate options” for improving pay and conditions and well-being supports by 2025. That’s when the extra year of preschool learning is due to begin in Victoria. Our research, and the timing of the announced changes, suggests an urgent need to move from investigation to immediate action to stem the exodus of qualified early childhood educators and enable those who stay to thrive.
This article is part of The Conversation’s Breaking the Cycle series, which is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation.