Let's shift the policy on early education

In the words of the late great Whitney Houston, “Children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

Anyone involved in early childhood education understands that the groundwork for a successful citizen, and a successful society, is laid in the foundational years of a person’s life, when they are aged 0-5.

There are reams of research attesting to this. One of the seminal works in this field is the UK’s Effective Provision of Preschool Education (EPPE) study 1997-2003 which found preschool experience is related to better intellectual and social/behavioural development for children, so long as staff have high qualifications.

The benefits are amplified when children come from disadvantaged or low socioeconomic backgrounds. In a 2020 paper, Harvard University researchers discovered young children who experience poverty, violence or threats of violence, poor nutrition, housing instability and systemic racism are primed for chronic physical and mental health issues as adults. However, if they are exposed to high-quality early childhood education, these problems can be reduced.

As the research indicates it’s not just any early childhood education that benefits children, it’s high-quality education led by a degree qualified teacher. What’s often missed in the debate about early childhood education is the importance of the teacher. There’s a lot of emphasis on costs to parents, and rightly so, but the costs of a poor quality education are less understood.

Teachers are teachers

At the Independent Education Union (IEU) we understand that good quality early childhood education depends on good teachers. Good teachers need to be encouraged to work in early childhood education and stay in their jobs.

But the current system means that many teachers prefer to work in schools rather than early childhood centres, mainly because the pay, conditions and status of early childhood teachers lags behind that of their colleagues in schools. This is despite the fact they hold the same level of qualifications. Since 2016, early childhood teachers in NSW have been required to engage in the same professional accreditation as all other teachers.

An early childhood teacher from Albury with more than 20 years’ experience, Gabrielle Connell, described this porcess.

“It is often difficult to access NESA accredited professional development in regional settings, and I often need to do online professional development in my own time in order to complete my hours. Our centre cannot easily afford to send teachers to conferences in the cities. In my experience, services often do not pay for professional development.”

Yet the pay gap between school and early childhood teachers can be as big as $30,000 a year.

This situation is exacerbated by attitudes held by some in society that early childhood teachers are nothing more than ‘babysitters’. A highly feminised group, early childhood teachers have been advocating for children’s rights for years, but they are less vociferous when it comes to fighting for their own rights.

For many years, the IEUA NSW/ACT Branch has run the Teachers are Teachers campaign to advocate for early childhood teachers. Following a significant investment of time and resources, the IEU launched a major case before the Fair Work Commission in 2018, the Equal Remunerations Orders (ERO) case, in which it prosecuted the argument that early childhood teachers should be paid the same as school teachers. The IEU is still awaiting the court’s decision on its ERO case.

Many voices, one message

In the meantime, the IEU has partnered with a new campaign called Thrive by Five. Its CEO is Jay Weatherill, the former SA Minister for Early Childhood Development and Premier, and Nicola Forrest, the driving force behind one of Australia’s largest philanthropic organisations, Minderoo Foundation.

Forrest and Weatherill introduced Thrive by Five to the Canberra Press Club on 17 February to outline their vision: an early learning system that is universally accessible and high quality – a game changer. Thrive by Five aims to bring together disparate voices with one goal – better quality early childhood education.

The IEU urge them to include increased pay and status for early childhood teachers.

During the COVID lockdown, early childhood teachers were elevated to the status of essential workers. Now is the time to improve their status through better pay and conditions.

It’s a ‘no brainer’. Money invested in early childhood education saves tax payers’ money in the long term, by reducing ill health, social dysfunction and missed productivity. Let’s lead the way and overhaul an outdated and cumbersome system.