The government has committed an additional A$1.7 billion over five years to reduce the cost of childcare for around 250,000 families with more than one child. Another $1.6 billion is going into ensuring each four-year-old child gets 15 hours of preschool a week.
But these budget announcements, framed in part as being a boost for women’s participation in the workforce, hold no good news for the early childhood workforce — 95% of whom are women.
The increase in families using early childhood education and care relies on the stability of the workforce. At the moment, however, an increasing number of educators are leaving the profession due to low pay, feeling undervalued and too much time spent on paperwork.
Problems for early childhood educators
More than 150,000 educators and teachers work in the early childhood education and care sector. Most of the sector’s workforce are certificate III and diploma qualified educators, but an increasing proportion are degree-trained teachers.
In 2019, workforce projections for the five years to May 2024 suggested the sector would need an additional 30,000 educators (a 20% increase) and 7,000 teachers (a 16% increase).
These projections do not take account the impact of COVID-19 and may not reflect the current conditions. The beginning of the pandemic — when parents started taking their children out of early childhood education — saw an exodus of educators. This was especially the case for casuals who weren’t eligible for JobKeeper.
Our research with more than 70 Australian early childhood educators found 60% feel emotional exhaustion at least once a month, and 20% at least once a week.
We also found the rates of physical injuries, including stress on the body and falls and slips, were higher among early childhood educators than the national average.
Psychologically and physically unhealthy work environments, and a lack of policy support, play a key role in why childcare educators are leaving the sector.
What we need to do
These are all not new problems.
But responses to our recent online survey show the additional pressures of COVID-19 have pushed the early childhood workforce to breaking point. One participant wrote:
Being deemed essential during COVID, yet completely dismissed in terms of our own needs has been incredibly demeaning. The fact that this country relies on childcare to keep everyone working, yet doing nothing to keep educators safe or financially compensated has been insulting and degrading […] This is a systemic problem and it is wearing us down.
The well-being of early childhood educators during the COVID crisis didn’t even reach the lowest rung on the priority ladder. It highlighted for me how undervalued we are in society and has been an integral factor in my decision to leave the sector.
The International Labour Organization, which brings together governments, workers and employers to set labour standards, notes early childhood educators are central to realising universal provision of quality childhood education and care.
Making the early childhood workforce strong and sustainable must be seen as essential to the national interest.
Workforce well-being is one of the focus areas of the proposed early childhood education and care National Workforce Strategy. But the strategy only stresses increased supports once educators’ well-being is compromised, rather than helping to prevent it.
The strategy recognises service providers and management have clear responsibilities for educators’ well-being. But this also means every organisation must adhere to a consistent set of accountability measures.
To ensure all early childhood education workplaces support educators’ well-being, specific standards could be included in our existing National Quality Framework for early childhood education and care. The quality of childcare centres themselves have improved due to having to meet certain standards in the framework. Educators’ well-being can be included as part of this overall quality.
Making the work environment safer might also decrease the alarmingly high rates of injury in the sector. This could lead to lower workers’ compensation premiums for businesses.
Schemes could be established so savings are shared between employers and employees in the form of increased wages. At the end of the day, early childhood education is a public good, so governments need to play a bigger role in finding solutions to these problems.
Implementing policy options such as these might mean cracks that are getting deeper might mend instead of completely giving way. If we really care about investing in the quality of early childhood education, we also need to invest in those who do the educating and caring.