EDITORIAL: The gaping hole in Australia’s education system

In centres, community halls and public squares all over Australia today, early childhood educators will gather today with a simple and long-overdue ask – don’t ignore what we do for this country. Not for one more day.

United Voice, the union for educators and teachers in early childhood centres, is running a walk-off campaign aimed at raising family and community support for raising the wages of educators.

The story is stark. Metal-fitters can study for a year and gain a Certificate III, and get paid about $40 an hour. Early childhood educators study for the same length of time, for the same qualification, and get paid about $20 an hour.

Metal-fitters do important work, but can anyone seriously make the argument that it’s value to our society is twice that of the work of educators?

The reasons for this disparity between professions are complex and historical, but let’s not shy away from a crucial fact. One of those professions is dominated by men, and one is dominated by women.

No prizes for guessing which is which.

There’s not point going over all the arguments for valuing the work of early childhood educators. We’ve known them for decades now, and they haven’t changed anything. This campaign deserves the support of everyone in our community – whether they have children in an early childhood centre or not – because the work of educators supports everyone in our community.

Our expectations of educators are huge. We expect them to work shifts, support every single child who walks through the door with their individual needs and requirements, and get paid half the average wage for the privilege.

Not content with that dismal state of affairs, the current Government even saw fit to end funding for professional development in 2016 – not trim, not lower, completely remove. In the same year allowed the national Workforce Strategy for educators to lapse. There has been no word whatsoever that either will be revived.

Every argument for paying educators a reasonable – not an exorbitant, not a ridiculous – living wage is about the present and the future, is informed by evidence and facts, and acknowledges the increasing world focus on the early years.

Every argument against paying educators a reasonable wage is about the past, when women did this work for free, and people should do it “for the love of it”, and “kids should just stay at home with Mum”.

Valuing educators is about addressing the great unfinished business of our education system. The last decade has seen the evidence of the importance of the early years become a tidal wave, and Australia’s policy and regulatory response has been OK. The National Quality Framework is an internationally-regarded approach to quality. We’ve acknowledged how work in the early years can change trajectories, lift people out of disadvantage and create better and safer communities.

But when educators have dared to ask for a wage they can afford to live on while they are given the task of supporting young children’s learning and wellbeing, and allowing Australia’s economy to function at all, we have turned our heads away and ignored them.

We’re told it is an issue for the market. We’re told it’s too expensive. We’re told it’s too complex to fix.

They are excuses, and should be called out as such. We need to stop getting bogged down in those arguments. Yes, it would cost a lot of money to increase wages to a reasonable level. Yes, families can’t afford it. Governments can, and they should.

Things that are good and right often cost a lot of money. It amazes me that as a society we focus more on the second half of that equation rather than the first.

The Early Years Learning Framework describes families as “a child’s first and most important teacher”. Let’s change the definition of an educator to “a child’s first and most important formal teacher”.

The experiences a child has in a formal education setting in the first five years can radically change every experience they have in a formal education setting afterwards.

Until we acknowledge, fully and properly, the role that educators play in the education system, Australia’s approach to children will have a gaping hole in it. Let’s hope the voices we hear today will be listened to.

“Don’t ignore what we do for this country. Not for one more day.”

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