Opinion

OPINION: Early education is facing a workforce crisis – and we don’t have a plan

Australian Government departments produce a wonderful bunch of publications for data nerds like me. They tell us things we really need to know. Of course, they would be even more wonderful if the people that make policy, i.e. politicians actually read them, but you can’t have everything eh?

One of these is Australian Jobs 2018. This gives us trends in employment. From this we know that there are roughly 162,400 early childhood educators in Australia. (Quaintly they are called “child carers” in the report, but I’ll stick with the correct language.) We also know that we need to find another 25,800 of them over the 5 years to 2022. We also need to find 34,000 new early childhood teachers by the same year.

Now when I say find, I don’t exactly mean we need to go and search for them in the park, or wherever they might lurk, I actually mean we need to train them – because, as everyone reading this knows, you need qualifications to work in our sector.

So are we, as a country, doing it?

What the data tells us

Of course we’re not. The number of people studying through our VET system is dropping. In NSW for example, the number of students studying an early childhood Diploma has dropped 63% over the past two years. Our unis are only producing an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 new early childhood teachers of the 7,000 more we need each year to meet the 34,000 teachers needed by 2022.

There are some rather scary statistics available through the Draft 2018 Industry Skills Forecast from the Children’s Education and Care Industry Reference Committee. This report tells us that in the last 3 years there was 140,000 enrolments in the Certificate III and only 35,000 completions. Likewise 177,000 enrolments in the Diploma and only 25,000 completions.

At best our sector takes forever to complete qualifications, at worst a lot of people start qualifications and never finish them.

When you look at the most recent Education and Care Workforce Census you discover that the average years of experience in the sector for paid contact staff was 6.6 years.  Average years for contact staff at their current child care service? Just 3.3 years. You know what that means? 44.8% of contact staff have worked in the sector for less than 3 years!

And we say that the key to quality is relationships? Short term ones, obviously.

And then you can also discover from the Census that 17% of the sector is over 50, so unless we all have to keep working until we drop (because we have such terrible superannuation) a lot of us are also due to retire soon.

Another fun fact from Australian Jobs 2018 is that 51% of educators and 39% of early childhood teachers work part time. So the actual number of new bodies we need in the sector is even higher than it appears. (No that wasn’t a snide comment about how worn down and tired the bodies of current educators and teachers are!)

No plan in sight

So what are Governments doing about the fact that we are going to have a massive shortage of staff in this sector? Surely they have a plan? Some State Governments are doing some things, it’s true. The NSW government announced in its latest budget that it would cover 75% of course fees for those studying Certificate IIIs and the Victorian Government announced  $8 million worth of scholarships for Early Childhood Teachers in Victoria.

The Federal Government? What is its response?

Well it recognised that “Building a well‑skilled and capable workforce is necessary for implementing the Government’s early childhood reform agenda. To ensure that children in preschool and child care will be supported in their social and educational development by highly qualified professionals, ongoing investment is needed to train and retain more education and care professionals, particularly in remote and disadvantaged areas.”

That’s why it committed:

  • $60.3 million to support around 8000 child care workers to gain a qualification by removing TAFE fees for child care diplomas and advanced diplomas;
  • $53.9 million to create additional university places for early childhood teachers starting with 500 places and rising to 1500 places; and
  • $12.4 million to reduce around half the HELP debts for early childhood teachers who work in regional and high‑disadvantage areas.

Oops. Halt the presses. I looked up the wrong budget papers. These were quotes from the 2008 budget papers.

The 2018 ones, of course didn’t have anything to say on the issue of the education and care workforce. All in fact they have said in recent years was that they were going to remove funded professional development from the sector. You would never read language like the above in current Federal government budget papers.

Some of us remember though. Some of us remember that the heart of the National Quality Framework, when it was first envisioned in 2006, was a commitment to ensuring the sector was more qualified and that there were better educator to child ratios.

The next steps

We need to keep remembering that there was a time when the Australian Government got it. When they understood the need for a plan to ensure enough qualified staff, examine the reasons for qualification dropouts (wages, anyone?) and understood that the sector needs staff to be equipped with affordable professional development post-qualification to ensure their learning is embedded and they are able to keep up to date with evidence-based practice improvements.

The recent Lifting our Game report commissioned by COAG made the following recommendations: “Australian governments [should] agree to a new national early childhood education and care workforce strategy to support the recruitment, retention, sustainability and enhanced professionalisation of the workforce, thereby improving service quality and children’s outcomes.”

To which really all of us in the sector should just say, “hear, hear”.  But just saying this isn’t really enough.

Who’s also up for fighting like hell to ensure our next elected government is one that once again understands the need for a workforce plan for this sector, then develops, funds and implements it?

You can count me in.

Lisa Bryant is a consultant in the early education and care sector, and is a co-host of The Early Education Show.

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