‘Half way down the stairs is a stair where I sit
There isn’t any other stair quite like it.
I’m not at the bottom; I’m not at the top
So this is the stair where I always stop’ (Milne, 1932, p147).
There are approximately 194 900 early learning staff currently employed across Australia, with long day care services employing over half of this workforce. The majority of the workforce is female. The median age of this workforce is 28 years for male workers and 34 years for female workers (Social Research Centre, 2017, p. vii). On 27 March 2018, there will be a nation-wide job walk off for Australia’s early childhood educators in a bid for pay equity. The myriad of service providers of early learning in Australia means this industrial action is a complicated scenario. Who will walk off the job and what type of services will they represent?
The issue here is not whether early childhood educators should be paid more, but rather who should pay for it.
While recent COAG reforms in the early learning sector have seen far-reaching positive changes to the way early learning is delivered, and the workforce that delivers it, the struggle for pay equity and the raising of the professional status of our early childhood workforce in Australia remains ongoing and complex. Why doesn’t early childhood education and care have a higher professional profile in Australia?
This is, in part, a feminist issue. Historically child care was the domain of women, who were supposedly more naturally disposed and inclined to work with young children. Essentially it has been viewed as women’s work. This relic has long tentacles and the wider public now views it that way. The provision of child care has also long been linked to women’s workforce participation, with the benefits of early learning almost being a side bar to the main goal of getting women back to work.
Early learning is now viewed through an economic lens and more increasingly a neo-liberal economic lens that values money, outcomes and regulations. This might be ironic, as I suspect that, in the provision of early learning in Australia, there is no relationship between what parents pay and the quality of the service they receive.
I do not think that anybody disagrees that we need to invest as a country in a stable and professional early learning workforce; however, I think that unless the way we view ourselves changes, nothing changes. This might be our uncomfortable truth.
A lot of children in Australia are receiving high-quality early childhood education. Every day across Australia, excellent educators are charged with the responsibility of educating and caring for our youngest citizens. It is clear though that there is still a lot of work to be done if the profession is to be taken seriously by the broader community, and it starts with a strong conviction and belief in the profession itself by the people who work in it. We need to better develop the ability to articulate what it is we do, why we do it and how we do it.
Maybe we don’t know?
While there is no denying that the early childhood workforce is among the lowest paid workers in Australia, is it possible that one of the reasons our professional standing is so low is because that is how we think of ourselves? Do we think we are a profession? Can intrinsic values and beliefs manifest themselves in public values and beliefs? Possibly.
An example of how we might actually destabilise our professional status is when educators often say, ‘I do this job because I love children’ or ‘I’m here because I really love the children’. If I were the Prime Minister of Australia I would be thinking, ‘No problem, that means they will do it for free!’ The word love might be one of the most over-used words in the English language, and I wish it were not used so much to describe the complicated, demanding and important work that early childhood educators do, and our motivations in doing it. Does the word ‘love’ used in the context of describing our professional commitment conflict with our quest for professional status?
While we might enjoy what we do everyday, using the word love as a motivator for this work might be largely unhelpful in the gains we are trying to make. Being an early childhood educator is a profession and as such requires us to be objective in the acquittal of this role. Nurses might love nursing. I doubt they love their patients.
At the 2016 Early Childhood Australia National Conference in Darwin, the keynote speaker, Carla Rinaldi, an executive consultant with Reggio Children, told us that early childhood education and care is not an advocacy issue but a political issue. We spend a lot of time in early learning spaces talking about advocacy, but not enough time being political.
It’s time to get political and it’s time to get off the stair.
Go up or go down or walk out!
What will you do on 27 March?
Milne, A.A. (2004). When We Were Very Young. London, UK: Egmont Books Limited.
Social Research Centre. (2017, September). 2016 Early Childhood Education and Care National Workforce Census. Canberra, ACT: Department of Education and Training. Retrieved from https://docs.education.gov.au/node/45126.