OPINION: The educator workforce is in for a shock in 2018

As we heave ourselves over the line into 2018, the year that will see the introduction of this new legislation, I wanted to highlight an issue I am worried is not getting anywhere near enough attention.

One of the foundations of the reforms is a move to hourly billing. If you only look at this at a surface level, it seems innocent enough. Full-day ECEC services currently charge a daily fee, but children may only attend for 8, or 6, or 4 hours. Why should families pay for a full day if their child isn’t attending for 10-11 hours? That’s unfair, right?

Education Minister Simon Birmingham certainly thinks so.

“It is unacceptable that families who routinely need and use only four, six or eight hours of care are charged for 10 or 12 hours,’’ he told The Australian. “Offering more flexible ­options is especially important where children are primarily ­accessing services for early learning outcomes, rather than requiring childcare that supports families juggling work commitments. – The Australian, 23 November 2015.

And again, early in 2017.

But what we don’t want to see is a situation where taxpayers are being asked to pay for hours of care and support that aren’t frankly being used or accessed. There is no point the taxpayer subsidising and families having to subsidise care that isn’t actually being utilised. – Doorstop interview, 8 February 2017.

It’s hard to argue. When it’s put that simply, it does seem ridiculous to pay for hours that aren’t being used. But there’s a simple reason why a daily fee is charged, and it has a direct impact on every one of the nearly 109,000 early childhood educators working in ECEC.

A full-day fee, and an operating model that is predicated on full-day sessions, means that services and organisations can plan for full-time work for early childhood educators. Regardless of exactly when children are arriving or departing, most educators can work full-time – which is obviously good for educators, and good for the economy (although educators are not paid nearly enough for their incredible work). This provides an overall ability to have operational certainty. Recruitment and retention are big challenges now – imagine if you couldn’t offer full-time hours? This is the crux of the Government trying to shift the sector to hourly billing.

I outlined this concern in my submission to one of the many Senate inquiries held into this appalling legislation.

The proposal to move to an hourly fee cap … will severely undermine the current service delivery model for early education. [It] will mean the shifting of educators currently employed full-time to casual or part-time hours. – Social Services Legislation Amendment (Omnibus Savings and Child Care Reform) Bill 2017 Submission 1

This outcome can only be inevitable given the legislation, and the responsible Minister’s public statements. Instead of being able to provide full-time hours to educators based on operational certainty of full-day fees, in order to remain viable there will be no alternative but for organisations to match educator hours to the hours used by families. If a lot families are only attending for half the day, how can you have most of your educators working a full-time shift? Remember that attendance patterns will also fluctuate over the year. What other alternative will there be but for organisations, in order to remain financially viable, to ensure that educator work hours are flexible to meet those changing hours? The best-case scenario here is just a dramatic reduction in educators working full-time hours. The worst-case, and by no means unlikely, is that all educators simply become casual, and are brought in on an as needed basis.

I want to keep this post focused on educators, but let’s take a quick moment to think about the affect this will have on children. We know that positive outcomes for children can only be delivered by professional, qualified and stable teams of educators. Imagine the scenario where you have no idea who will be actually working in what room, for how many hours, on any given week. Imagine how much this will impact the experiences children are having, the relationships they form, the sense of wellbeing and security they have. A child’s enrolment treated like paying for a car-parking space. How many hours do you want? Make sure you’re gone when the time limit is up.

But the affect on educators will be similarly devastating. Already underpaid and expected to work miracles in challenging and difficult roles, educators now face uncertainty as to whether they will even have a stable full-time job in the near future. This is incredible given the fundamental purpose of these reforms. It’s about getting families back to work, and contributing to the economy. To do this, they are willing to structurally undermine an entire sector of the workforce.

Given the impact this change will have, you would assume this was a big issue being debated by the sector as the legislation was preparing to pass Parliament, right. Well – not as far as I can tell. I spent quite a while scouring the submissions of early childhood organisatons to the various inquiries over the last couple of years, and find a couple of very small dot points talking about it at best. It doesn’t get a look in at all in the big combined sector submissions (check them out here and here) – and together they employ a huge proportion of the workforce that will be affected by these changes.

We’re in 2018, and only six months away from the implementation date of the new Package. Organisations and services will be preparing, and working out how to operate in this new sessional hours-based model. Now might be the time to ask those organisations that largely supported this package what changes they are planning to make to their own educators. If I am just a doom-and-gloom merchant, and not a single educator who currently wants and has full-time hours will have to be reduced to part-time or casual, I would like to know how that will be the case. I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t see any other way to interpret the legislation and the Minister’s public statements.

The Pay Equity Case for early childhood educators, which has been running for what seems like forever, is expected to finally report this year. Incredibly, 2018 could see one of the sector’s biggest possible wins – a significant win on pay that is decades overdue – completely undermined by legislation that sees educators as little more than car park attendants.

This opinion piece was originally published at LiamMcNicholas.com.

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