Reports of the ECEC workforce crisis, educator burnout, insufficient pay, and a lack of professional respect have recently been prevalent in the media. These reports are backed up by studies such as CELA’s Early Childhood Education and Care Workforce Survey Pulse Check, which showed that demand for places, alongside staff absences due to illnesses, professional fatigue and caring for sick family members, are impacting services’ capacity to operate.

The University of Sydney is currently conducting a study called the Early Learning Work Matters Project (ELWM). The study aims to provide more information about educator workload and how it relates to quality education and care. This week we share results from the study’s initial phase and how you can share your experiences relating to workload through their survey." />

By University of Sydney on 23 Sep, 2022

Written by Erin Harper, Susan McGrath-Champ, and Rachel Wilson

There has historically been limited research on ECEC work in the Australian context, although it has grown in recent times. More specifically, measures and understanding of workload are needed.  

  • Just how big is educator workload?  

  • What does it look like?  

  • How does it relate to quality care? 

The Early Learning Work Matters Project (ELWM) aims to answer these questions. ELWM was designed by a multi-disciplinary team of investigators at the University of Sydney, combining expertise in work, employment, child development, early childhood education and care, and research methods. The core intention of ELWM was to give voice to Australian early childhood teachers and educators, to hear about their work directly from them. 

The ELWM project consists of three investigative phases: 

  1. International systematic review 

  1. A small sample of interviews 

  1. Large-scale questionnaire (forthcoming) 

This article presents findings from the interview phase, where nine early childhood teachers from centre-based services across NSW were interviewed. Interviews lasted between 30 and 90 minutes, where teachers discussed a range of participant-identified issues relating to the nature and quantity of their workload. Many insightful and valuable perspectives were gathered. This concise article presents some crucial findings. 

Complex and varied work plus pervasive administration 

While the work of ECEC educators is complex and varied, interviews revealed a heavy focus on administration and documentation. Seven out of nine interviewed teachers reported that heavy administrative workloads are pulling teachers away from quality interactions with children, both physically as well as mentally and emotionally, by preventing teachers from being ‘in the moment’.  

One teacher explained: 

“You get caught up doing all the little daily tasks that you have to get done instead of sitting down and just interacting.”  

Paradoxically, the digital technology often marketed to “assist” educators in simplifying and managing administrative workload and documentation comes with its own challenges. One teacher describes the challenges this creates for interactions:  

“Taking your iPad around; you’re taking photos galore; you’re not interacting with the children.”  

Another shares her sadness at this situation: 

“You’re taking photos, you’re documenting everything on that iPad, you don’t look up. It’s really quite sad.” 

Many of the teachers interviewed expressed concern, frustration, and disappointment, at the minimal amount of time they actually spend engaging in quality teaching.  

“I probably don’t do much face-to-face teaching at all these days, which I miss, but there’s no real time for that.”

Another went further, saying: 

“I don’t think my role is a teacher’s role.”  

This highlights the problem with career progression in ECEC, which frequently sees quality teachers moving up the ladder towards administrative and management roles and away from children; this makes us wonder, where are teachers best deployed to maximise quality care? 

Heavy workload with insufficient time 

Seven out of nine teachers interviewed pointed towards a fundamental challenge, being “so much to do, and so little time”.  

For example, one teacher tells of how there are “only so many hours in a week”, but the work still needs to be done; another has accepted this reality, telling us, “You must always spend time out of hours… or you just don’t get the programming done.” Yet another articulated frustration that some weeks she is “just trying to stay above water.” 

The value of a supportive workplace 

Two teachers expressed great satisfaction with their workload, describing the mediating effects of a highly supportive workplace, with “an approved provider that really listens to your needs and really knows what it requires to look after children,” where “workload is pretty much evenly distributed… it’s nice. It means that there’s no one falling behind in paperwork.”  

Interestingly, these teachers express seemingly excessive levels of gratitude and appreciation for their situation, with one saying, “I know I’m lucky to be where I’m at”. This comment highlights the rarity of such positive work environments but raises the prospect: what if every service was like this? 

Challenges with Assessment and Rating 

Teachers expressed frustration with the current Assessment and Rating system, with one commenting, “everything is elaborated, complicated, you do more,” while another highlighted the emphasis on paperwork, “Nine times out of ten you get that date [rating deadline], and you go into collating anything and everything you possibly can to make sure it’s all up to date and everything’s there.”  

Considering this issue in the context of quality care, one teacher tells us, “Paperwork doesn’t ensure quality… quality is happening on the ground; it’s happening with interactions with the kids.” 

Where to next? 

It is evident from this small sample of interviews that our sector needs high-quality research to gain a broader understanding of educator workload and to inform future policy. While a larger-sized study is needed to allow definitive conclusions about work in ECEC, the suggestion from this initial study that some aspects of teacher workload may negatively affect quality care is alarming.  

In a sector where child-centred practices are paramount, the value of any competing workload must be carefully measured and weighed in the context of quality care. The forthcoming questionnaire phase of the ELWM project will canvas these issues further with a nationwide sample of ECEC educators. 

Contribute your experience around workload to the final stage of the project via this survey:  

Complete the survey

Further reading 

CELA runs a periodical workforce pulse check. Read the findings from our most recent pulse check survey: Amplify! What needs to be implemented now to help solve our workforce issues 

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