Last week was a watershed moment for Australia's early childhood education and care sector. After over a decade of advocacy pushing for all children to be guaranteed access to high-quality early education, Victoria and New South Wales committed to unprecedented, sustained funding for the sector to increase access for all children.
The NSW Government has committed over $15b over ten years, of which $281.6m is allocated to the “Investing in our workforce” initiative over four years. The commitment demonstrates a recognition that there are sustained and ongoing shortages of qualified early childhood educators and teachers, with demand expected to be even higher in the wake of the pandemic.
Download the NSW Government's Early Years Commitment plan to recap all elements addressed in the package.
CELA and like-minded peaks ELAA and CCC highlighted the workforce crisis in our 2021 report “Investing in our Future: Growing the Education and Care Workforce”. Unfortunately, the crisis has become even more dire as a depleted and fatigued workforce endures significant COVID-related disruptions. Demand for places, alongside staff absences due to COVID-19 and other illnesses, professional fatigue and caring for sick family members, are impacting services’ capacity to operate.
We need to see the retention and recruitment strategies addressed in the ‘Investing in our workforce’ initiative actioned now in consultation with the sector,” says CELA CEO Michele Carnegie. “The incentives need to be targeted to reduce the number of qualified teachers and educators leaving the sector and motivate those who have left the sector to return. Retention and recruitment strategies will not be the same across the sector. As such, there needs to be a flexible system where services can apply the most appropriate incentive to the context of their service.
What our Early Childhood Education and Care Workforce Survey Pulse Check suggests
CELA runs periodical workforce pulse check surveys to gather information from our members and the wider sector. Our most recent survey ran between June 3-15. All of the data and written responses are carefully analysed to inform our advocacy, and we truly appreciate the time each respondent took to share their experience.
We received 352 responses, of which most (72%) were stand-alone services, and most (85%) were from NSW.
39% were from not-for-profit, community-managed services
33% from for-profit services
15% from State/territory/local government-managed services
63% of respondents offered long day care, 41% offered centre-based preschool. Mobile preschool, family day care and outside school hours care were also represented.
Staff job vacancies are up compared to when we last surveyed members
In January/February this year, we surveyed members about the impact of Omicron on service operations, including job vacancies. At that point, 61% of long day care respondents and 38% of preschool respondents reported having staff vacancies. Our most recent survey showed that 89% of long day care services who responded and 58% of centre-based preschools have unfilled vacancies.
Vacancies are spread across all qualification levels and are more acute than at the same time last year, when, as outlined in our joint Investing In Our Future report2, just under half of services reported unfilled vacancies.
Staff vacancies are causing reductions in planning time, ratios, and the number of children able to attend
Services are managing the staff vacancies by reducing staff planning/administrative time (73%), operating on ratio, instead of above (64%) and bringing in agency/casual staff (60%).
18% of services reported having to reduce the number of children who can attend.
The education and care workforce needs better pay and conditions
Asked what single policy intervention is most urgently needed to attract and retain talent, 58% of respondents selected better pay and conditions. Other interventions such as government-funded retention payments, funding additional administrative staff to support overstretched leaders, and skilled migration were also supported.
“Government-funded retention payments, funding for additional staff, higher pay to attract and retain staff, more time for planning and professional development, better access to resources, acknowledgement as professionals.”
“Our staff are already paid well over the award rates; having extra casual staff available to work when needed would benefit us. Our leader is overstretched, but not a lot of her work can be delegated.”
“Reduced expectations and pressure pushed down on us in terms of paperwork would make a huge difference. Higher pay absolutely as a leadership role in a stand-alone service is like being a teacher, CEO, HR officer, GA cleaner and maintenance person all in one. There is also little recognition for the sector, which contributes to the lack of casual staff available. Poor working conditions also contribute.”
“There needs to be a requirement for quality training organisations to train educators, not ones that do not provide a quality service or just give out certificates without the student completing the work or placements.”
Lifting the minimum wage, which the Fair Work Commission3 announced last week, will impact some. However, the issue of pay parity between the ECEC and primary school system for qualified teachers still needs to be addressed.
Improved pay was foreshadowed for the aged care sector. However, like CELA, peak bodies in aged care suggest that improved wages should be publicly funded4 because increasing fees for families within the context of soaring living costs is not appropriate or affordable for many.
Can we improve workforce conditions?
The survey results showed that many respondents are frustrated by the administrative aspects of working in education and care, reporting that the workload is too high.
As one respondent wrote:
“The demands are excessive and not sustainable at all. It’s hard to be strong for the team when you are breaking yourself.”
The Perrottet Government has announced that it will investigate providing more administrative support to teachers in schools5. Our survey results tell us that this type of initiative would benefit our sector by alleviating admin pressure from directors.
Not surprisingly, feelings of professional fatigue have increased.
Early this year, in our Impact of Omicron survey, we asked educators, “What percentage of your team would you say is experiencing professional fatigue to the extent that it is impacting their ability to do their jobs?”
The response in January was 46% in preschools and 59% in long day care.
We asked the same question again in June, and this time, the response was an average of 73% in long day care and 67% in centre-based preschools, with an average of 70% across all respondents.
Quality training underpins a quality workforce
Several comments were made about the poor quality of graduates from TAFE and university, adding to the pressure on existing teams.
As one respondent wrote:
“Being an educator is a hard but rewarding job and just getting people through the quals isn't enough - we need more quality courses that train educators to last in this industry.”
Respecting education and care
Many commented on how low community perceptions of early childhood education and care contribute to the workforce shortage.
The comments below illustrate this:
“We already pay well above award wages thanks to an Enterprise Agreement, and even with our generous above award conditions, it is not enough to attract new staff. More needs to be done to improve the image of early childhood educators and entice them into the industry.”
“Increased recognition throughout the wider community for educators [is needed]. They were holding children, families, and each other whilst under stress and risk. Proactive government support to address workforce shortages including positive promotion of ECE as a career.”
To further inform our advocacy, a number of our members have provided detailed information about their individual workforce challenges in order to further shine a light on what needs to be done, and how that changes depending on factors such as service type and location.
Here we provide a brief summary of three of those case studies. Further details will be provided in an upcoming edition of Broadside.
READ THE CASE STUDIES
What we are advocating
Our survey highlighted that workforce shortages must urgently be addressed. Nearly a fifth (18%) of services reported having to reduce the number of children able to attend due to staff shortages. If early education and care is going to be the vehicle to drive economic recovery by boosting female workforce participation, there needs to be a high-quality workforce available to educate and care for children.
CELA CEO Michele Carnegie has raised these issues across multiple meetings in recent weeks, which have included:
- The Federal Early Childhood Education and Care Reference Group meeting which was attended by Education Minister Jason Clare and Minister for Early Education and Youth Anne Aly.
- The NSW Early Childhood Advisory Group attended by Minister Sarah Mitchell.
- A personal meeting with Shadow Minister for Early Education and Youth Angie Bell.
CELA will be taking this data to state and federal ministers over the coming weeks to call for the implementation of strategies which will improve retention, motivate qualified educators to return and attract new educators to enter the sector with suitable professional support in the early stages of their career. She will also raise the issues at upcoming meetings scheduled with Senator for NSW Jason Bragg and Minister for Early Education and Minister for Youth Anne Aly.
We are standing on the precipice of a bright new age where all children can access high-quality early education and care, and women can participate to the extent they wish to in the paid workforce. A time when families can be comfortable in the knowledge that their children are receiving a high-quality educational experience by qualified and caring educators who know them well. This will only be possible if a qualified, well-paid, and professionally supported workforce is available to meet the demand. We are confident that in NSW, the Early Years Commitment has the potential to deliver if early education workforce issues are addressed as a priority.
1 NSW Government (June 2022). Investing in our workforce.
2 CELA, ELAA and CCC (November 2021). Investing in our Future: Growing the education and care workforce (Page 20).
3 Sydney Morning Herald, (14 June 2022). Lowest paid workers to receive 5.2 % pay rise: Fair Work Commission.
4 Aged Care Insight (16 June 2022). Aged care workers to receive up to 5.2 per cent wage increase.
5 Sydney Morning Herald (19 June 2022). Performance pay, revamped school hours: Premier flags reforms.