A new survey of almost 4,000 current and former early educators paints a dire picture for the future of early childhood education and care in Australia. The report by the United Workers Union, Exhausted, undervalued and leaving: the crisis in early education, indicates almost three-quarters (73%) of nearly 4000 educators surveyed plan to leave the sector within the next three years due to excessive workload and low pay.
Three-quarters of the workforce. Within three years.
Over a quarter of current educators reported they plan to leave the sector within the next twelve months, and of those educators who do plan to stay, 46% think about leaving ‘all of the time’ or ‘most of the time’.
“The message from early educators across the country is clear: they are at breaking point,” UWU’s Early Education Director Helen Gibbons says. “There is no early childhood sector without early educators, and they simply can’t afford to stay and hold it together anymore.”
This is a crisis with ramifications that spread well beyond educators, providers, parents and children. It’s not hyperbole to say how we address this crisis has the potential to make – or break – Australia’s future.
There is an assumption in Australia that formal education somehow only begins, or matters, when a child turns 5 and starts school. The assumption isn’t just arbitrary, it’s misguided and misinformed. The years between 0-5 are more richly formative for the development and education of children than any other period in their lives. Children having access to learning opportunities from birth onwards is critical for their healthy development.
Children having access to high quality early learning and care is life-changing. Literally. It improves health, educational, social and economic outcomes over the course of a child’s life. For children with any disadvantage the benefits increase exponentially.
Children who attend high quality early education and care in the year before school are considerably less likely to arrive at school developmentally vulnerable. At the moment one in five children in Australia arrive at school developmentally vulnerable and they rarely – if ever – catch up.
The evidence that universal access to high quality early childhood education and care sets children up for success is incontrovertible. It is, undoubtedly, a silver bullet in terms of lifting national productivity and ensuring Australia’s prosperity.
Which is why a crisis among the early education workforce of the magnitude UWU’s report illustrates is a national crisis that Australia cannot afford. It is a crisis that cannot be ignored.
No early educators means no early childhood education services. No sensible nation can abide a mass exodus of the essential professionals who fulfil the invaluable role of educating, supporting and caring for children. Particularly not when projections show the sector needs 40,000 additional staff by 2023 to meet growing demand for early learning services. (It is also bordering close to immoral to consider this truly essential cohort of workers, who have been relied upon heavily to work the frontline of a pandemic to ensure other essential workers are able to do the jobs our communities depend on, are underpaid and overworked.)
While there is no doubt the pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated the problem, early educators have been underpaid and undervalued for too long. Job vacancies are now close to doubling compared to pre-COVID levels. Few in the sector describe this as anything other than unprecedented.
“High workload because of increased understaffing is pushing more and more educators out of the sector,” Gibbons says. “Services are already reporting having to cap new enrolments. Without urgent action, this crisis will spiral out of control and children and families will miss out, losing access to crucial early learning services.”
The good news is there is consensus about the solution.
“Across the sector, educators, families and service providers are in agreement: the only way to fix this crisis is to fix educators wages and conditions,” Gibbons says. “The Federal Government is currently considering a workforce strategy for early education. This is the opportunity for the Government to provide a real solution for the sector: by delivering a workforce strategy that provides targeted funding to improve wages.”
It is time for the Federal government to commit to urgent action to ensure early educators are appropriately valued, supported and paid.
- An Alarming Snapshot
- 70% of educators surveyed said they ‘always’ or ‘often’ worry about their financial situation.
- 81% of centre directors say they have had difficulties in attracting and recruiting staff.
- 92% of educators told us ‘under-the-roof’ ratios compromise the safety and wellbeing of children.
- 65% of educators report that their services are already understaffed, and providers are reporting having to cap new enrolments because they can’t find enough staff.
- 82% of current educators say that in the past month they ‘always’ or ‘often’ felt rushed when performing key caring and/or educational tasks.
- Over 75% of educators strongly agree that turnover negatively impacts how children learn and develop as well as their emotional wellbeing more broadly.
- Almost half of educators surveyed would not recommend ECEC as a career.
Early childhood education and care needs urgent reform. This new UWU survey of educators proves it. The Covid crisis and ongoing lockdowns prove it.
Providers and educators affected by the long lockdown in Greater Sydney right now deserve the same support that parents and educators in Melbourne received last year. Services and educators in lockdown don’t deserve to be left with the burden of figuring out how to keep their centres afloat or the impact on workers’ family budgets when income support is not adequate.
Unsurprisingly the UWU report found educators have been subjected to a more stressful and anxious working environment since the start of the pandemic. In addition, nearly half (49%) of educators said they have needed more time to manage children’s anxiety and over half (53%) said they have needed more time to manage parent anxiety.
Close, ongoing relationships between children and their educators is vital for young children’s learning and their emotional development. The Federal government needs to be doing everything it can to ease the pressure of inadequate support for educators and high turnover now.