Caring about the carers: ISSR identifies strategies to support early childhood education and care workforce

13 May 2020

"Pre-primary schooling is our children’s educational foundation – every stage of education that follows relies on its success.”

Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director

Prior to the COVID19 crisis, key international agencies were advocating fiercely for improved access to early childhood education and care (ECEC). The UNICEF State of the World’s Children Report 2019 identified access to ECEC as a key distinguishing factor in education and lifetime outcomes for children internationally. The OECD series of reports entitled Starting Strong (2001, 2006, 2012, 2017) underscored the importance of access to high quality ECEC not only for children and families but for the wealth of their member nations. In Australia, the recent COVID19 pandemic has defined ECEC as an essential service with free provision of childcare as a central component of the emergency response. Advocates, such as former South Australian Premier Jay Weatherall (now CEO of Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive by Five initiative), are calling for national action to provide access to ECEC and resources to ensure high quality education post COVID19. Central to ECEC access and quality is the availability of a well-trained workforce. Yet internationally, and in Australia, there is a shortage of well-trained educators and high levels of staff disaffection and turnover. 

Through a range of research studies in partnership with key partners (e.g. Queensland Government, Goodstart Early Learning, C&K, Social Ventures Australia) ISSR is working to identify ways to support, sustain and grow the ECEC workforce. Key findings from an ARC Linkage study have provided the largest study of the Australian ECEC workforce to date. This month Professor Karen Thorpe will publish the findings of this study (in press in the Journal of Educational Change). Based on a national survey of educators as well as intense studies in regional remote and urban services. The results show average annual turnover rates of 35% with rates at almost 50% in remote areas. Two key concerns were identified:

  1. The most qualified move up or move out – highly qualified and experienced educators sought better pay and conditions in the school sector or in administrative roles taking them away from contact with children
  2. Those positively motivated at entry to ECEC were most likely to leave - while disillusionment may explain this finding – the highly feminised nature of the workforce, low pay and flat career structure  meant family economics often directed women to take up more domestic care duties .

Two key lessons to support the workforce were highlighted:

  1. Long-term- Work conditions and  pay are critical for sustainability of high quality ECEC – unless there is  parity with the school sector, degree qualified educators will leave ECEC, Diploma and certificate trained educators will ‘shop around’ looking for better conditions disrupting relationships with children and families
  2. Short-term -Workplace ethos and supports are critical - the morale of the service and emotional well-being of educators is critical to high quality ECEC. Disaffected or stressed educators cannot be optimally responsive to young children. Everyday actions of parents and service leadership make a difference to the wellbeing of educators. Another recently published study finds that services not meeting the national quality standard are those with low morale.

A preliminary version of this work has been cited in the OECD report (Good practice for good jobs in early childhood education and care. OECD, Paris, France) focussing on the importance of leadership and morale in sustaining educators.

This OECD report (2019) also recommends actions to engage men in the ECEC workforce as a means to reduce labour shortfall and redress gender balance.

The ISSR team already has a large program of work focussed on ways to engage and sustain men working as educators in the ECEC workforce. As part of this work we have participated in an international study of men in ECEC that is a collaboration between academics in 13 countries. This will be published as a book by Routledge in 2020.