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Opinion: sector must preach the value of early childhood educators

This week, the federal Department of Education is conducting a nationwide “Workforce Census” of early childhood education and care (ECEC) services. This census will provide important information on the qualifications, retention rates and other factors that provide a snapshot of the early childhood educator role in Australia.

This is a good opportunity to take a step back and look holistically at how early childhood educators are viewed and supported, both within the ECEC sector and in the community. The National Quality Framework (NQF) was introduced in 2012, and one of its key pillars was the acknowledgement that quality learning could be provided by qualified and valued educators.

Four years on, how close are we to realising that vision?

One clear victory has concerned qualification levels. Ensuring minimum qualification standards for all educator roles, and transitioning to 50 per cent of roles being diploma-qualified, has been well implemented. I’m shocked that it took until 2012 for Australia to decide that a minimum qualification was required to work with young children.

I can vividly recall heated discussions here in my hometown of Canberra in the lead-up to 2012. Hearing people angrily insist that these “ridiculous regulations” unfairly discriminated against “workers” who had decades of experience. We owe young children more than that. The research is clear that the first five years are critical for a child’s life, yet while we insisted that a bricklayer laying the foundations for a house had to have a minimum qualification, those people entrusted with laying the foundations for a child’s life needed no such training.

While qualification levels have improved, I am uncertain whether the value placed on educators has done the same – whether in the community or within the ECEC sector.

Professional identity is so important in our work. Educators who don’t value themselves and the work of early childhood education cannot facilitate high-quality learning for children. Yet the words and images that dominate the  sector’s public facade do not uphold the professional standard of the NQF.

A quick check of recruitment advertisements on job website Seek bears this out. “Childcare educators.” “Childcare Worker.” “Diploma team member.” This is on all the first page, and repeated multiple times. I see a lot of CVs in my role, and the candidates who refer to themselves as “childcare workers” outnumber those who say “early childhood educators” by about five to one.

Educators are fighting a long-term battle for professional recognition and the appropriate wages that go along with that. United Voice’s Big Steps campaign continues to advocate for, and share stories from, the sector, and a wage equity case is before Fair Work Australia. But we are burying our heads in the sand if we think some outside force is going to swoop in and magically change the way educators are viewed. It has to come from the sector; specifically, it has to come from those in leadership positions.

In a policy context, supports available to educators are being systematically stripped away. The Early Years Workforce Strategy is due to finish this year, with no prospect of being replaced. Federal funding for professional support co-ordinators ends in June, leaving educators and organisations with no guaranteed access to quality-assured professional development.

It’s easy for those of us who no longer work directly with children every day in educator and teacher roles to forget how challenging, consuming and draining those roles are, but also how important and rewarding they are.

We should remember the foundation for quality early childhood education is quality early childhood educators. Let’s make sure we’re setting the standard for how those educators are viewed.

Liam McNicholas is a Canberra-based early childhood teacher, freelance writer and advocate. Go to: liammcnicholas.com Twitter: @liammcnicholas

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