ALISON ELLIOTT. Making the preschool promise a reality

The recently announced promise of preschool education funding for 3 year olds has the potential to improve developmental and education outcomes for young children, but with chronic teacher shortages in early learning centres, delivering new preschool programs will be a major challenge.  

Labor’s commitment to give both three and four-year-olds access to 15 hours of preschool or kindergarten per week – if it wins the next federal election- is a potential winner for children and families. Evidence indicates that two years of preschool has developmental benefits for children and especially for children living in the most social and economically vulnerable homes and communities. But ensuring that there are enough qualified teachers and educators to deliver quality early childhood learning programs is another story and one that has long plagued early education.

Few people realise the size and scope of the early education and care sector. In June 2018, some 15,000 education and care services were ‘approved services’ under the auspices of the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA).

https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2018-08/NQFSnapshot_Q22018.PDF

Well over a million children under 12 attend some sort of formal care service.

www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2017/child-care-education-and-training/early-childhood-education-and-care/rogs-2017-volumeb-chapter3.pdf

Since 2012, ACEQA in conjunction with state regulatory bodies has administered a new set of regulations designed to ensure higher and more consistent quality in care and education provisions. The Education and Care Services National Law and the National Quality Framework (NQF) provide a national approach to regulating, assessing and improving early childhood services such as preschools and kindergartens, child care centres and Family Day Care.

Educators and researchers agree that quality early childhood education and care has a positive impact on children’s early development, transition to school and later learning. Evidence also shows that quality early childhood services support parenting and enable parents to work and to help grow the economy.  www.education.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/1159357/Lifting-Our-Game-Final-Report.pdf

Newer research highlights the early years as being critical to language growth including vocabulary and fluency.

The value of quality early learning experiences for young children is not in doubt. Where there is doubt is when young children receive poor quality education and care. We need the best educators to facilitate quality learning and developmental experiences.

Just as in schools, the key to positive learning outcomes is the effectiveness of teachers and other educators. And here the situation becomes somewhat complex in the early childhood context.

Early childhood education and care has long been a divided system. Understanding this divide and its foundations are important because they underpinned growth of early childhood services as well as division and tension around provision, funding, orientation and quality for the last hundred years.

The first nursery schools, creches and day care programs were established in very poor communities to improve life for impoverished children in Colonial times. These grew over years to become child care centres for mothers who ‘had to work’.   Over a similar, period wealthier families wanted education and socialisation opportunities for their young children and so kindergartens and preschools developed. The child care centres were staffed by mother craft nurses and other carers; the kindergartens were staffed by qualified kindergarten teachers.

Today, this bifurcation continues and this is reflected in program organisation, orientation, funding and in staffing.

Stand-alone kindergartens and preschools, which are few and far between in some states, operate in much the same ways as schools. They usually cater for four year old children in the year before school, and for some three year olds. In the ACT, NT and Qld kindergartens and preschools are usually aligned with the school system. They employ degree qualified teachers, usually with a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education or similar. These teachers’ working conditions and salaries are the same as those for teachers in primary schools.

Child care centres (or early learning centres) began to develop during the WWII years and have mushroomed in the last decade or so. Child care is now a massive industry.

https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2018-08/NQFSnapshot_Q22018.PDF

Child care centres and preschools cater for hundreds of thousands of children each year aged from birth to 5. The sector employs some 150,000+ people. Most child care centres are private-for-profit enterprises. All child care centres are heavily subsidised by the federal government, technically, in the form of subsidies to parents – as was highlighted in recent debate around Peter Dutton’s eligibility to sit in Parliament.

Ideally, child care centres should provide quality early learning programs for all children within safe, caring environments. Early learning and child development experts say that quality care and education cannot and should not be separated

A preschool program is an ‘intentional’ education program for older children. Essentially, it follows guidelines set by the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF). The highly regarded EYLF (and some equivalent programs) focus on promoting social, intellectual and physical growth including skills that are needed for transition to school such as confident spoken language, independence, early literacy and STEM understandings.

Preschool programs should be an integral part of early learning programs in child care. However, many centres don’t provide these strong early learning programs because they can’t or are not prepared to employ qualified early childhood teachers. Qualified teachers are much more expensive than other educators. There are mandated regulations around teacher-child ratios and ages, but as many centres can’t find a qualified early childhood teacher now it’s hard to imagine finding additional teachers to deliver preschool programs for all three year olds, even for only 15 hours per week.

The massive and fast growth of child care has exacerbated staffing problems. In short, there is a serious shortage of early childhood teachers and other educators wanting to work in child care.

The reasons for the shortage are complex but relate, in part, to the historical divide. Traditionally, only kindergartens and preschools employed qualified early childhood (kindergarten) teachers. When regulations around child care staffing tightened in 2012 there were requirements for qualified early childhood teachers (called ECTs) in child care centres that were not previously mandated in all states. Plus, all people working with children in early learning contexts were required to have a minimum of a Certificate III in Early Childhood Education and Care.

The shortage of people willing and qualified to work in child care centres is acute. To ensure centres can continue to operate, there are provisions that allow partially qualified people to be deemed qualified. So a person deemed to have a Certificate III Early Childhood Education and Care may have completed only 30% of that qualification. Late last year, the Education Council extended deeming provisions until 2020 to ‘allow for sector continuity and certainty, and support the availability of qualified educators to maintain current quality safeguards for children’s education and care.’

[https://www.acecqa.gov.au/qualifications/requirements/actively-working-towards-a-qualification]

Unfortunately, people don’t see early childhood education, and particularly child care as a desirable employment destination due mainly to low pay and poor working conditions, such as shift work, and lack of career opportunities.

Salaries for unqualified educators and qualified educators (Certificate or Diploma level) are dismally low- minimum wage standard. Salaries for early childhood teachers in the child care sector are better because of their degree level qualification, but are typically less than those paid to teachers in schools- who do the same work.

http://www.bigsteps.org.au/about

If not more concerning for qualified teachers in child care, is that their working conditions tend to be poorer and career paths more limited than those of their school-based counterparts. Plus, they feel professionally undervalued and poorly regarded by the community. Not surprisingly, as most recent graduates with early childhood education degrees are also qualified to teach in primary schools, teaching in a child care centre is not remotely on their radar.

With Labor’s plans for universal preschool for all three year old children for 15 hours per week- we will need hundreds more specialist early childhood teachers who are willing to work in child care- where many of these preschool programs will be delivered. Equally, parents need to know that their child’s learning is supported by an educator with at least a Certificate III level qualification- not just a handful of units.

Interestingly, parents are rarely aware that their children’s educators are not fully qualified. Erroneously too, they assume that most staff in child care centres are ‘teachers’.

Hopefully, Labor’s proposed 10,000 free places in vocational early childhood education courses will also be available to current students who have not yet completed their qualification. The cost of Certificate III and Diploma level qualifications can be prohibitive for poorly paid early childhood educators. No wonder they don’t finish.

I’m waiting too, for the next round of election promises to include funding and incentives to entice the best qualified and most skilled early childhood professionals to work in early childhood services. I’m also hoping to see an increase in students selecting early childhood teaching degrees- but even if we can persuade them to enrol and support them to graduation I can guarantee that most will shun the industrially unattractive child care sector- where most of the new preschool programs will operate.

Additional background reading. Elliott, A. (2016). Looking back, looking forward. Changing contexts for early childhood education. Canberra: Australian National Museum of Education.

Alison Elliott is a Professor of Education at CQUniversity, Australia with long interest and expertise in early education.

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