You are what you say you are

The IEUA NSW/ACT Branch has recently completed the long running Equal Remuneration Orders (ERO) Case in the Fair Work Commission and is awaiting its decision, IEUA NSW/ACT Industrial Officer Michael Wright reports.

A review of the Educational Services (Teachers) and Children’s Services Awards was also undertaken last year, which focused on the early childhood sector.

In both of these significant cases, the central focus was on the knowledge required of, the skills used and the functions undertaken by early childhood teachers (ECTs).

In the ERO case alone, the union provided evidence from 34 early childhood teachers and/or experts in the early childhood sector. Including the evidence from the employers, some 900,000 words were uttered or written in the case, mostly about what you do on a day to day basis.What became apparent in both cases was the importance of the language used to describe the work of ECTs. The case also highlighted the capacity of some of the for profit operators to try and use language to devalue the skills and role of ECTs, with a view to resisting any claims for equal (or even adequate) pay.

ECTs don’t crowd out children with their own ego, unlike other (mainly male dominated) professions (and some for profit child care operators) who can’t wait to tell you how fantastic they are.

Different lenses

The skills utilised and the roles performed by ECTs are seen through many different lenses.

While the vital contributions of the ECT are slowly bubbling up into the public discourse, your average person does not have knowledge of the skills utilised and the roles performed by ECTs. They instead rely on broad descriptions such as ‘that’s such important work’, ‘you must be an angel’, etc.

The hard graft and complexity of the role, including the intellectual endeavour and motivational skills required, are not fully appreciated. Partly, this is a function of the gendered nature of the work and its classification as ‘care’, rather than education.

In some respects, the inability of the general public to understand the skills used and the roles performed by ECTs is a function of how ECTs talk about their work.

Throughout the case, ECTs talked in short hand about their work and remained unnecessarily modest about the complexity of their roles.

This is understandable – ECTs on the whole, day in, day out, don’t crowd out children with their own ego, unlike other (mainly male dominated) professions (and some for profit child care operators) who can’t wait to tell you how fantastic they are.

Also, the true intellectual multitasking that effective ECTs utilise becomes almost second nature – and is glibly described as ‘being in the room with the children’. Whereas a business analyst, aware of the role of an ECT ‘being in the room’ would describe it as:

  • developing differentiated programs of learning (and adapting them in real time) for each child
  • assessing the real time needs of each child, taking into account their short and long term needs
  • documenting the development of each child, against statutory and self-determined benchmarks
  • liaising with the child as to their physical, mental and social wellbeing, utilising their extensive knowledge of child development and taking into account a wide differentiation in terms of cognitive and verbal development of each child
  • undertaking real time risk analysis, both in terms of the organisation and each child, whilst at the same time being cognisant of the importance of experiential learning, and
  • being required, often in a time critical context, to liaise with parents, health professionals and government officials and agencies about the needs of the child.

This list is far from exhaustive. It also leaves out the caring role that ECTs undertake, which complicates an already complex and invariably challenging role.

ECTs need to think about how they describe their profession and be able to explain more readily the complexity of their work (without self aggrandising jargon). We all know that ECTs engage in critical professional reflection – when they share it with the wider community they can blow people’s minds.

Part of exposing our professionalism to the world entails a discussion about the nomenclature of the industry. No doubt teams and teamwork are essential in a centre – but nonetheless, isn’t it time for the descriptions of the roles played by different team members to be revisited?

In the ERO case, many for profit employers went to extraordinary lengths to portray the work of ECTs as virtually identical to Cert III and diploma qualified educators and to devalue the skills and expertise of ECTs.

‘They are all educators’ was the catch-cry. In that context, perhaps it is time for the sector to have a thoughtful and respectful conversation on this issue – a conversation that ensures the labels that are applied to particular roles properly reflect the skills and responsibilities required of that role.

Extract from ERO case transcript

IEU barrister:
The skills and knowledge that you learned as part of that degree were ones I take it that you found useful when you then became firstly a primary school teacher, you used that training in that role?

Employer: To be honest with you, no. I actually got nothing out of the bachelor degree. Yes, it was the hands on skills and experience that I learnt while doing early childhood that helped.

IEU barrister: It was just a formal requirement that you had to get through?

Employer: That’s right.

IEU barrister: Your inherent ability plus on the job experience is all that you relied upon when you were teaching as a primary school teacher?

Employer: When I look back that’s all that I found useful, yes.

IEU barrister: Is that true also of your early childhood teaching, that you found the degree of no utility or added nothing to what you brought to it yourself?

Employer: That’s right.

For complete access to all submissions, hearing transcripts and procedural decisions of the Fair Work Commission, go to this link: