Thousands of early childhood teachers are quitting in Australia, abandoning their profession due to low pay and a lack of professional recognition.
Estimates suggest that around one in five are leaving, just as demand for their services is soaring: almost 300,000 more children will need a government-subsidised childcare place in 2019-20 than in 2016-17.
The future achievement of Australian kids is at stake. Well-qualified early childhood teachers are essential for quality early years education. Not all teachers in Australia have taken further training or gained an early childhood degree. But, alarmingly, those who have recently upgraded their qualifications are most likely to leave.
Perhaps this is unsurprising. Around 70% of early childhood educators rely on low minimum wages, compared to only 20% of the broader Australian workforce. This works out at around half the average earnings for all occupations; many would be earning more by stacking shelves overnight at a supermarket.
But the crisis has much deeper roots. Low wages are the product of a fundamentally unequal early childhood system. So what’s wrong with early education in Australia, and what can be done to fix it?
A divided system
Australia’s early childhood services are largely divided according to where they take place: teaching in preschools is perceived as “education”, whereas education in daycare centres is labelled “care”. This historical distinction has created vast differences in funding, despite the fact that early childhood teachers do very similar work in each sector.
The majority of preschool teachers work in Australia’s 7,300 daycare centres, and are paid according to the minimum wage for the sector. Standalone preschools, meanwhile, of which there are almost 4,000 in the country, tend to offer better hours, pay and conditions owing to their status as educational facilities.
Preschool-based early childhood teachers need a four-year early childhood university degree as a prerequisite. That could go some way towards explaining the pay discrepancy: education levels of staff vary more in daycare, where teachers can hold shorter vocational qualifications. However, teachers working in daycare centres who do hold early childhood degrees earn about A$13,000 ($10,000) less per year than their colleagues doing the same job in preschools.
“If we’ve got constant turnover of teachers, that’s disrupting children’s learning”
This discrepancy is caused by two different funding models. Preschools receive “supply-side” funding, largely from government, which pays for operational costs such as staff wages. In daycare, however, funding is “demand-side”: parents receive subsidies to help cover their childcare costs. Wages are therefore more directly linked to parents’ fees, which tends to keep them pegged to the minimum wage.
The Australian government’s Early Years Workforce Strategy, which ran from 2012 to 2016, introduced a number of reforms to increase access to quality early childhood services, said Susan Irvine, a professor of early childhood at Queensland University of Technology. However, the strategy “excluded any opportunity to talk about wages and conditions,” she pointed out, an issue left for the daycare centres and their staff to settle. After educators walked out for a third time in 12 months in March 2018, demanding better conditions, government may need to be more proactive.
As well as struggling with low pay in some parts of the sector, teachers regularly complain of feeling undervalued professionally. Unlike teachers in primary and secondary schools, preschool educators — especially those in childcare — can sometimes be perceived as “glorified babysitters”.
Around 85% of early childhood educators describe their work as a profession, not a job, but struggle to get this recognition more broadly. Some wrongly believe that it doesn’t require qualifications, which has an impact on pay and conditions.
In a profession which is 94% female, such views are strongly gendered. “The problem is that this notion of ‘caring’ is often associated with mothering,” as opposed to an important part of childhood education, Irvine explained. According to her survey data, the majority of early childhood educators felt their work was undervalued by the broader community.
Far from babysitting, early childhood educators play a key role in children’s brain development: by the age of five, a child’s brain is nearly full-grown. The growing brain in the early years is “experience-expectant”, meaning a child’s experiences — including with a teacher — shape their brain capacities.
“Learning hinges upon children and their families developing secure and trusting relationships with educators,” said Irvine. “If we’ve got constant turnover of teachers and educators in these services, that’s disrupting those attachments and disrupting children’s learning.”
Learning from others
Australia’s problems are not unique. Bifurcated early childhood services exist in various countries including the UK, US, Canada and New Zealand, causing similar workforce issues and wage divides. Fortunately, so do some potential solutions.
One answer is topping up wages. In Ontario, Canada, a similar pattern to Australia occurred where full-day kindergarten teachers were earning CAD$20-26 ($16-20) per hour in 2014, compared to teachers with the same training in daycare centres, who earned CAD$13-15 ($10-12) per hour.
In order to reduce the gap, in January 2015 the government raised childcare salaries by CAD$1 ($0.78) per hour, paid through the licensed centres, and 94% of centres applied for the enhancement. One year later the government added another CAD$1, from an overall budget of CAD$269 million ($210m) over three years.
“Early childhood is recognised to be the foundation for a quality education system”
Meanwhile, New Zealand has used incentives to boost wages in early childhood services according to qualification levels. The government offers higher funding to education and care services, but that is conditional on their paying qualified teachers certain salary levels. Instead of introducing a sector-wide minimum wage like Australia, the levels are graded accorded to the teacher’s qualification category, from a degree to a diploma.
The Queensland state government within Australia has also introduced a subsidy for early childhood services, designed to offset the cost of employing qualified teachers. The subsidy can be 50% higher in remote areas where trained staff are harder to retain. However, Irvine said, “the funds aren’t always being invested in providing extra wages and better conditions for teachers”. Despite that loophole, “it’s certainly a good starting point,” she said.
As demand for preschool education increases, there has rarely been a more important time to retain qualified staff. This may cost governments more money and time but, in the long term, it should pay dividends in the form of higher-achieving, more productive citizens. “Early childhood is recognised to be the foundation for a quality education system,” said Irvine. “It needs to be treated in an equitable way.”
(Picture credit: Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education)