early childhood education

We refuse to value care – why sexism is at the core of our early childhood crisis

Introduction: The old, old problem

The introduction of an extra year of education for three and four-year olds in New South Wales (by 2030) and Victoria (by 2025) is an ambitious initiative. Articles in response argue that promises to boost provision may be difficult to deliver. Australia already has a problem filling existing positions in childcare.

Yet the commentary frequently glosses over the fundamental cause of these workforce problems. It’s sexism. Discrimination based on stereotypical understandings about gender. That old, old problem that is ever present, even in these post #metoo days, in which society has awakened to #everydaysexism.

Of course, pay, conditions and turnover affect recruitment and retention in the sector. But without naming and addressing the gender inequalities underpinning these issues, they will not be adequately addressed.

Working in a feminised profession

So what’s going on? Education in Australia (as in the UK and Canada) is a feminised profession.

This means both that women do most of the work, especially at lower pay levels, and that it is perceived as “women’s work”. The majority of teachers, at all levels of education from early years to tertiary, are women. In Australian early childhood education, women make up 96% of the workforce.

Feminist theorist Professor Madeleine Grumet has pointed out the relationship between nurturing at home and at school. Devaluing of women’s work at home (and indeed that of all those who act as carers in our society) is echoed in the devaluing of teachers’ work. In early childhood education these are closely interwoven, and it is therefore undermined as ‘child care’ or ‘glorified baby sitting’. Children themselves are also devalued and dismissed as not worthy until they become “fully formed”, idealised adults.

Caring for children, therefore, is “abjectified”. It is pushed beyond the boundaries of what is recognised and rewarded by society. Caring for children involves snot and poo, dribble, phlegm, sweat, tears, glue, mud, paint, food, vomit, crouching on the floor, carrying heavy bodies, tirelessly comforting, calming, encouraging and supporting. It is also rewarding, tender, exhilarating, creative, loving, funny and inspirational.

The gender binary’s impacts

Many feminist researchers believe that society is organised by a gender binary that privileges what is perceived as masculine over what is perceived as feminine. So the “masculine”, or what is serious, scientific, rigorous, rational, measurable, finite, cleanly defined, standardised, programmable, instrumental and technical is valued above the messy, woolly, grubby world of the so-called “feminine”.

This binary operates at countless levels, in countless ways, to keep the hierarchical status quo in place. Misogyny, the hatred of women, and mysopedy, the hatred of children, are at the heart of a larger system that refuses to value caring. This binary’s stereotypes and assumptions also discriminate against male educators working in the sector.

Early childhood teachers are discriminated against, paid low wages and employed under poor conditions because of the gendered nature of their work. This sexism feeds into the discrimination faced by all primary carers, because undermining the quality and extent of “childcare” affects participation in the workforce more generally. We argue that to change early childhood education, the sexism at its heart needs to be openly named, critiqued and challenged.

What can be done?

So… how to go about this, and ultimately, to make the profession more attractive to all, including those of all genders, colours, abilities, class backgrounds and ages? At the most basic level, researchers, the media, policymakers and politicians need to start naming sexism as the basis for the challenges faced by the early childhood sector.

The labour of workers in this sector is never gender-neutral, but always caught up in societal judgements based on its alliance with child-bearing and rearing in the home. We need to stop pretending these challenges are about early childhood education as a career being rejected simply as “boring”, low-paid or hard work.

Nothing less than a paradigm shift is necessary. If the early years are the most vital years of education, in which children develop at an astonishing rate, then we need investment that places these years at the top of any hierarchy.

Instead of valuing a medical paradigm in education, where being efficient, scientific and  “clinical” are revered, we need to value what is culturally considered to be more feminine. We might ask, “Are there kindergarten surgeons, who model their practice on the patience, kindness and empathy of early childhood teachers?” Flipping a scenario is often a handy way to expose the gender stereotypes and power asymmetries that underpin it.

Conclusion: Reinvention needs both imagination… and funding

Raising the status of early childhood teachers, paying them more, restructuring their work to acknowledge its intensity and toll, creating and rewarding career progression, making early years programs permeable with local communities, creating vibrant, accessible and well-resourced professional learning environments, enhancing early childhood teacher preparation, incentivising transfer for those in other careers, funding vitally needed research… there is no shortage of ideas for where money can be spent.

Whether there is the courage and honesty to address the real problem at the heart of early childhood education is another matter.

Dr Lucinda McKnight is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) Fellow in the REDI (Research for Educational Impact) Centre at Deakin University. She uses a range of feminist theories in her work on teacher autonomy and professionalism. She is also a mother of two children and has spent many hours caring for children at home, and providing community support in early childhood education as a parent helper. Follow her Teaching Digital Writing project blog or her twitter account @lucindamcknight8

Dr Natalie Robertson is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at Deakin University. During her time working as an early childhood teacher, she developed a strong interest in workforce issues and play-based learning. These interests have followed Natalie into her later research and work in initial teacher education.  Natalie’s focus on workforce issues has framed her professional and research interests towards the attraction and retention of teachers in early childhood education. She is currently working with the Victorian Department of Education and Training to deliver the Early Childhood Professional Practice Partnerships (ECPPP) project) and the Innovate ITE program: Accelerated Bachelor of Early Childhood Education.

It’s one thing to extend preschool. But where is the supply of the remarkable teachers we need?

Rachael Hedger on early childhood reform: implications for our children, the sector, and the economy.

This week, Victoria and New South Wales jointly announced a universal preschool year for all 4-year-old children, offering 30-hours of fully subsided ‘pre-prep’ or ‘pre-kindergarten’. Victoria plans to implement this change from 2025 whilst NSW will begin from 2030.

This announcement demonstrates a significant investment in families and young children, improving workforce participation for mothers, and therefore providing a substantial boost to the economy.

The news is music to the ears of the Early Childhood sector who have advocated for the importance of early learning for decades. The Thrive by Five Campaign, part of the Minderoo Foundation, have advocated for equal and early access to early learning to politicians and the government for some time now. Whilst parents may have concerns about putting their child into an Early Years setting for 5-days per week, at this stage, the opportunity is optional. As the people who know their child best, parents have agency here as to whether they take up the offer, considering what will work best for them within their own family dynamic.

Whilst it’s great to have Commonwealth and State level government support, this initiative is not without its complexities.

A key consideration in these early stages is whether these States have the infrastructure needed to uphold this promise. As it stands, there will be considerable issues in rural and remote areas, with 44% of regional families and 85% of remote families living in a ‘childcare desert’.

Australia’s disadvantaged children have a lot to gain from regular preschool attendance. AEDC data reveals that children in the poorest areas of Australia are three times more likely to demonstrate developmental vulnerability than children in wealthier areas. Universal access could help reduce this statistic. However, attendance alone is not enough to close the equity gap. These children need high-quality, accessible, play-based opportunities provided by knowledgeable and experienced educators.

Crucial to effective Early Childhood education is a rich, play-based program of teaching and learning. The first five years is when a child’s brain develops the most. These years are vital for setting the foundation for life-long learning and children’s ability to form meaningful relationships. It is through play that children engage and interact with the world around them developing creativity, imagination, problem solving, and social and emotional skills. To facilitate valuable play opportunities for children, they need educators who understand the theories that underpin effective play pedagogies. We need educators who are specially trained to support, guide and care for children successfully.

The most significant matter in implementing this reform will be the distinct lack of Early Childhood educators across the sector. Before the announcement on Wednesday, there were an estimated 6000 vacancies for educators in birth-5 settings, with a predicted 39,000 educators needed by 2023. The reform will be directly dependent on a strong Education and Care Workforce Strategy that recruits and retains Early Childhood educators. At present, the lower-than-average pay and conditions results in huge staff turnover as they leave the sector to look for more prosperous opportunities. This greatly impacts children’s learning as they cannot establish and build meaningful, positive relationships with a consistent caregiver.

Working with young children is a rewarding profession. To see children flourish and grow on a daily basis is a beautiful experience. Simultaneously, it is hard work. To care for young children’s needs involves feeding, cleaning and toileting, keeping them safe at all times. To educate young children involves observing, assessing and documenting their learning, preparing resources and the learning environment, and maintaining relationships with families. It involves engaging in play opportunities, extending children’s thinking through questioning and conversation, encouraging new language, and supporting children’s physical, social and emotional development. Few people understand the complexities of balancing the differing demands of this role. Childcare is often seen as only child-care, and this is perhaps why it is underrated and undervalued. An Education and Care Workforce Strategy would need to attract, retain, value and appropriately pay educators for the vital work that they do with young children.

Accompanying the announcement this week, there was mention of incentives to encourage the uptake of Early Childhood Education degrees. Some Eastern universities are looking to offer fast-tracked degrees ranging from 3-years to as little as 18-months. Many will provide up to a year of credit for Certificate III and Diploma qualified applicants, shortening their study time considerably. This approach questions the quality of the Early Childhood educators that we look to produce. If governments invest billions of dollars into the sector only to staff it with employees that have not been adequately educated, we defeat the purpose of what we’ve set out to achieve; quality education for our young children. Teaching is an art form. It takes time and commitment to understand how children learn, the theories that underpin practice, and experience in how to effectively educate Australia’s diverse children. Rushing educators through an Early Childhood education degree will not deliver quality outcomes and would be a disservice to our children.

The reform announcement this week is long overdue and should be celebrated. It is a guaranteed boost for the economy and offers more choice for working parents, but we should tread with caution from here. The biggest and best investment that we can make is in our youngest citizens. They are our future. Australia is beginning to put the economy where it belongs – in our children’s hands.

The main question now is if, or when, will the other States follow?

Rachael Hedger is a Lecturer in Early Childhood Education and Course Coordinator for the Early Childhood Initial Teacher Education degrees at Flinders University. She is undertaking a PhD (Deakin University) in which she explores on how arts-based practices can support children’s science learning. Her research interests focus on how drawing can be used as a vehicle for exploring science concepts, focussing on process and exploration. She is a supporter of learning through play pedagogies and encouraging pre-service teachers to be advocates for young children’s learning. 

Why kids under five must start learning to code


There’s a lot of pressure to learn coding in primary school to develop 21st century computational skills. But I think we should start in preschool.

Schools and governments recognise the need for teaching 21st century skills. We can see the evidence for that in the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics. But just as we teach preschool children the fundamentals of reading, we must now include computational thinking and coding.

While many early childhood services may have digital technologies, how they are presented and taught to young children, requires more focus and perhaps, upskilling of educators.

In my research we use cubettos. These are simple wooden square box robots with a smiley face that come with coding boards with colourful plastic pieces which make the robots move. We also uses bee-bots, small plastic bee-shaped robots with simple programming buttons on their backs, and blue-bots, clear cased bee-shaped robots that respond to commands sent from a computer or iPad.

I have been exploring how children learn to use them, and how educators support their use, as an extension to my PhD research. With 3-5 year olds, they realise that the pieces you put in the coding board, or the buttons you push, make the robots move in particular ways, and you can start explaining how they move and why they follow our commands.

Learning the basics of robotics at this age will set the foundation for primary school learning. It’s a great introduction to pre-maths, algorithms, counting and problem-solving: they learn this is the ‘recipe’ that moves the robots along.

While some early childhood education services have some robots to play with, what’s missing is the opportunity for richer learning that these devices offer.

Some educators will have a blue-bot or bee-bot and they might push the buttons to create a code for the children, but they’re not necessarily taking the next step to explaining the concept of coding.

The aim for my research is to think about the best way to equip educators to teach coding to pre-schoolers through play, for example whether it will be creating an instruction manual or workshop or something else.

Screens and play

Another aspect of technology is the use of screen technologies among the 3-5 year old age group, both real and replica or broken, which I call ‘imaginative’ technologies. Children want to use real technologies in play, but imaginative technologies are the next best thing. Children today live in a digital world and, given the opportunity, will readily use technology to meet their play needs.

Through my research, which has included interviewing 84 educators in the New England region alongside my colleague Dr Marg Rogers, I have found some educators are reluctant to incorporate real technologies into their classrooms for use by very young children.

Some educators and parents believe early use of technology will reduce their child’s creativity and imagination. Others encourage it. I have found with people holding such strong views, discussions on the subject can be a minefield.

Many services don’t provide real technology for children. They might use an iPad or camera, but it’s very controlled and directed, and the children are not given enough time with the technologies to develop skills and to learn.

The anxiety around using screens could also be further compounded and confused by current national guidelines on screen use.

National guidelines out of step

The current national guidelines recommend children under two are not exposed to any screen time. But this is really out of sync with home or modern life. So, it’s an interesting question for technology researchers like myself – do we follow the guidelines and not give technology to children? But children see technology and in their imaginative play, they want to copy what adults do.

They see people on phones, taking photos and typing on computers from an early age. How can you then have a ‘home corner’ in early childhood education centres that don’t have any of that? How many restaurants take orders on a phone or iPad? How can children re-enact what goes on in a restaurant without technology? Same with a doctor’s surgery or a supermarket. Technology is everywhere.

In a new research project, I will ask children aged 3-5 what they want in their imaginative play spaces and if they can make (out of recycled materials), what they need to in order to have an imaginative play space reflective of the real thing. For example, having iPads in a restaurant to take the orders or look up recipes. I believe real technologies also need to play a larger role in early childhood education.

And I don’t believe we can stop children accessing technologies.

I think it’s a bit disrespectful to not let children use technology in their play. How does it compute in their brains that technology is everywhere in their world, but they are not allowed to use or understand it? It must be confusing for them. I have found, educators need to support children’s technology use in positive ways. I’d like to see non screen-based coding, and iPads with select apps chosen for the learning that’s possible, including to document their own learning, in the preschool years.

Children need to learn how to use technologies and when it is appropriate to use them. Hopefully further research will help to guide the provision of technologies and guidelines for its use, support children’s ethical behaviour and reduce some of the discomfort educators and parents feel around the inclusion of working technologies in children’s lives.

Jo Bird is a senior lecturer at the University of New England, Armidale. Her PhD explored children’s use of digital technologies in imaginative play and the educators’ provision of the various devices, both working and imaginative. Her research interests include children’s play, the use of technologies by both children and educators and early childhood leadership. She loves presenting, both her research and inspiring others to use technologies in creative ways with children and to recognise their leadership worth.

The top five ways COVID places harsher burdens on educators. There’s an urgent need for change

COVID has caused commotion in the early childhood education and care sector since it arrived in 2020. It made educators  more stressed and added burdens to those already overburdened

The current level of chaos is unsustainable as shown in our research with Australian directors from long daycare centres, community preschools and family daycare services.

Six directors from rural and regional areas in NSW participated in the study. In their hour-long interview, the directors revealed stressors within the sector related to the pandemic in a number of areas. Here are the top five.

  1. Health regulations

As the COVID virus changes and governments try different methods to suppress the virus, early childhood directors and educators have tried to keep up with evolving regulations on a daily basis. To date, this has meant continually searching government websites to find the rules, watching media reports, reading government emails, attending webinars and reading text messages, adding to their daily workload and already onerous administrative requirements. 

As the health crisis unfolded, text message updates from government departments regularly came through very late on a Friday afternoon and again on a Sunday afternoon. This meant directors had to spend chunks of time on their weekend trying to decipher the information and then act upon it, including sending on important updates and communications to staff and parents outside work hours.  

Directors mentioned the added burden this required of having to constantly ensure lists of phone numbers were up to date so they could immediately contact staff, cleaners and parents if their centre was locked down. This led to a state of hypervigilance for some directors. 

Additionally, one government department required educators to attend a webinar when most community service educators were on mandated leave. No compensation was offered to educators for these unpaid hours. Since educators are the 13th lowest paid workers in Australia, it is unreasonable to request they attend training sessions during their annual leave.

Educators said: 

‘We were fine to wear masks in and out of the service – greeting parents. We were greeting parents at the gate, they were handing over their children’

‘It came in that you …had to wear a mask not outside, but inside when you were working with children, unless there was a child with a hearing challenge or there was a specific need for a child to see your face moving. I said to staff, actually, that’s all children all of the time.’

2. Staffing

Staffing has been much harder during the pandemic. Directors reported the numbers of children attending changed dramatically because of lockdowns, community outbreaks, families’changing needs and government rule changes. At one time, the government waived fees for everyone in childcare, so many families who didn’t normally access care enrolled, causing more changes in attendance and more administrative burden.

While the federal government’s JobKeeper scheme helpfully supported permanent staff, some casual educators did not receive the government payments. This meant that many casual staff left the sector. Directors reported that when asked to return, some of them didn’t want to lose the government payment which was far more generous than what they normally earned as an early childhood educator.

Staff rostering has also taken longer to organise during the various phases of the pandemic. Permanent staff have had to be given time to work with the children attending, time to work online with children, and then time to engage in professional development. Some services had to close because too many educators were considered close contacts of covid cases.

Additionally, time has had to be spent training educators on how to work with different technologies and with changing hygiene requirements. Staff have needed extra support with their own anxieties about catching the virus and working in a new way with masks with young children.

Educators commented:

‘We … stood down our casual staff, but… most of them could access the COVID payment … but it’s still difficult and we’ve actually spent this week changing staff round from room to room and putting the children together in one room’.

’The first week, we hardly had any children there. But by the second week, almost like 98 per cent.’

‘We had several vulnerable staff members had family members or themselves (with) autoimmune conditions that made them more vulnerable, ….. others had elderly parents in nursing homes’.

 ‘We’ve had different rosters for cleaning.

3. Informing and supporting families

Directors and educators have needed to be able to share the constantly changing and often confusing government regulations with parents, including which professions have been incorporated in the category of ‘essential workers’. 

The guidelines have not been clear, leaving directors with  difficult decision-making. Directors have reported spending time searching government websites trying to find clear definitions and rules to have evidence that their decisions were grounded on government guidelines. They have also needed to manage parents’ reactions to these decisions.

Educators said:

‘We’ve been trying to encourage families not to bring their children in …unless they’re an essential worker, which people have been really good about’.

‘If you’re a mum at home with five kids, you’re actually an essential worker as well’.

‘We shared resources that we were using with them (the children) and we even supplied families with some of those ideas around how to talk to their children. Parents (asked)… how do I explain this?’

4. Managing change and budgets

Some directors have faced challenging financial constraints and pressure from organisational managers. This included justifying the work and training their educators who were balancing that with the viability of the service. 

Additional costs for hygiene and cleaning have had to be absorbed by services, whereas many education departments provided schools with extra cleaning staff to help them. 

Educators explained:

‘COVID’s been a little bit different, because it’s been like a little bit like a stop-start routine’.

‘We wore the cost of that (reduction in attendance) for the first term. So, no families were asked to pay any fees. Then by second term, the State Government had stepped up and brought in the free preschool’. 

‘We spoke to the department early this time and said, look, we’re getting a whole lot of different messages. What’s required? We’ve been proactive in getting in touch with the department…even they are juggling balls at the moment’.

 ‘Some staff members that wanted things cleaned twice a day’.

5. Status

On the positive side, educators revealed that families were more supportive and appreciative of educators during the pandemic. Despite this, educators were disappointed they were not recognised as essential workers in media coverage. This is even when they had continued working throughout the pandemic, staying open for children of essential workers. Being valued, respected and visible has been important to educators, as well as solidarity with other educators.

They explained:

‘I think it’s a good opportunity for the policymakers and the leaders to actually have a little bit of a voice for us as well and just show that we are out here. We’re visible. But everyone’s doing the best job they can, so my hat goes off to everyone wherever they are and to all my colleagues everywhere’.

‘We have to stand up and really shout out to the policymakers and the government that it’s fine to call on us, great, and we keep answering, but you’d better show us some respect’.

A need for change

Overall, directors talked about exhaustion of their staff and being unable to keep going with this level of work in an overloaded sector. Clearly, something needs to change. 

Recently, NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, called for radical reform of childcare, which could affect other states. The Thrive by Five campaign is petitioning the government to prioritise significant reform. As this study has shown, it is not time to renovate the sector, we need a whole childcare rebuild.

Dr Marg Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education within the School of Education.  Marg is the lead researcher for the funded Early Childhood Defence Program project (ECDP). This team, along with their Steering Committee of stakeholders has developed research-based, free, online resources for early childhood educators, parents and family/social workers to better support young children from Australian military families. She also leads an international team of researchers from Denmark, Canada and Georgia to investigate the impacts of regulated systems on about educators’ work. Twitter @MargRogers11

Associate Professor Wendy Boyd works as the Associate Dean in the Faculty of Education at Southern Cross University. Wendy is highly regarded in the early childhood field and researches in a number of areas, including educator professionalism. Wendy’s research focuses on provision of quality early childhood programs to support the optimal development of all children.

Professor Margaret Sims is a Professor in Early Childhood Education and Care and has worked in the areas of family support and disabilities for many years. She researches in the areas of professionalism in early childhood and higher education, families, disabilities, social justice and families from CaLD backgrounds. She is an Honorary Professor at Macquarie University.

Time, money, exhaustion: why early childhood educators will join the Great Resignation

As the Omicron virus leaves thousands of families without childcare, because hundreds of early childhood services have been forced to close, early childhood educators are in demand. Previously there was around 30% turnover in the sector, but a 2021 survey of 4000 educators revealed 73% planned to leave in the next three years.

A multinational study I am leading listened to 51 Australian educators who had a range of qualifications and positions in different types of services. Additional data was gathered from publicly available online forums in response to other research-based news articles I have published from the study.

The study has shed light on the hidden costs of being an educator in Australia, many of which have increased during COVID. Here are five hidden costs the educators revealed.

  1. Hidden cost of resources

Educators talked about the extra costs to buy resources for their service that were not reimbursed. An educator commented

‘Educators were pushed to provide high-quality education and care with a minimal budget, and the centre manager received a personal bonus for not spending different budgets. I spent over $4000 of my own money on resources, with not one cent reimbursed. There needs to be more control of private companies and how they treat educators’.

Publicly available forum posts from partners of educators revealed extra costs of outfits, props and craft materials some educators had to purchase themselves, then create them in their own time at home. These items were for special themed days, which help promote the services programs via posts to Facebook and apps for families. 

They reported that the children and staff posed in these costumes and props, which were popular on social media. These specified ‘days’ are often standard across private providers as they commodify education. One educator said the government should ‘Stop the privateers making their centres like Starbucks factories’

These hidden costs for educators are alarming, given the 2021 report that uncovered the $14 billion spent on the sector each year, 80% ($11.2 billion) of which is funded by taxpayers. In addition, a $292 million turnover was reported by the five biggest companies.

  1. Hidden identity and self-worth

Educators revealed that despite being essential workers, they are essentially invisible and ignored. Invisibility is a feature of female-dominated professions, such as early childhood, where 91% of the workforce are female. 

Educators are sidelined in curriculum documents written by the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). Their strengths and interests are not mentioned despite being a key feature of educators valued relationships with children and parents. 

Instead, the documents are filled with ways the educator should constantly reflect and improve themselves and their practice, highly valued practises in Western neoliberal nations. While professional reflection is important, it needs to be balanced with acknowledging the efforts, abilities and successes educators have. Instead, the documents instruct the educator to respect and work with the strengths and interests of the children, and the strengths of the parents.

The underlying message for educators is that they are never quite good enough, even when they are trying their best in a highly pressured work environment. Women are exposed to a similar mantra via the fashion and beauty industries as they sell the need to be prettier, taller, skinnier and more fashionable.

In this study, educators said governments should give educators ‘respect as professionals’ and ‘lift  the professional standing by increasing (the) pay of educators and promote the importance of early childhood education’.

Figure 1: Gender related issues in the early childhood sectoror
  1. Hidden relationship costs

The extra hours and stress educators were expected to do contributed to relationship stress at home, especially during accreditation. Educators commented that it was not sustainable and made them want to quit. They said

‘(My relationships were) strained due to fatigue.

More work at home meant less time with my partner.

It made me very stressed and overwhelmed.

I feel like at times I have no work-life balance’.

  1. Hidden unhappiness

Other educators exposed the managerial systems that dominate their daily work meant they were drowning in paperwork, checklists, documentation and regulation. This caused unhappiness because they felt micromanaged through the government’s demands that require them to collect big data every day. 

They also said they felt micromanaged by the supervisors who completed these daily tasks in a time-pressured environment. One said, ‘I ended up resigning from my position as the top-down approach of management no longer agreed with my teaching philosophy’.

The system also reduced morale, especially during accreditation (Assessment and Rating) every three years. Only 4% of educators said accreditation improved the quality of education at their service, but most revealed it made staff and children unhappy. Accreditation also took them away from interacting with children, which is the key to quality education in early childhood services.

Realising the importance of these interactions, educators actively tried to protect the children against the harmful effects of accreditation (a system that was designed to improve quality). Unfortunately, this meant more work after hours because they had to take the paperwork home in order to teach the children.

Figure 2: The impacts of managerial systems in early childhood education
  1. Hidden hours 

Despite being the 13th lowest-paid workers in Australia, regular unpaid overtime is rife within the sector. The unpaid hours are extreme during accreditation, with 50% saying they worked after hours. 

Some reported being paid for only half of the hours they worked, even asking family members to provide unpaid help, revealing the extent of this modern-day slavery. Educators talked about the effect of accreditation on their personal relationships, saying

‘Stress was felt at home by my children and husband; this is why he came and helped at the centre so that I could stop being cranky and overworked at home’.

However, this  free labour is at odds with the million-dollar salaries of some CEOS and  handsome shareholder dividends in the biggest childcare companies. Australia has one of the highest rates of privatisation of childcare in the world. The 2021 report by Bigsteps into the sector uncovered:

‘Financialisation of ECEC has seen the worst excesses of Australian corporate culture including wage theft, aggressive tax avoidance and other misconduct creep into the sector. 

Despite receiving generous COVID relief payments and availing themselves of JobKeeper, four of the six largest for-profit ECEC providers paid no tax in 2020’. 

Hidden complications that stop reform

A significant reform of the sector is needed. However, reforming the industry is enormously complex because of the mismatched mess of funding and compliance shared between federal and state governments. This tangled web means it is more challenging to reduce costs for parents and improve wages because nobody takes responsibility.

Figure 3: Funding and regulation in Australian early childhood education and care

Another complicating factor is the mix of private, community and not for profit services. Educators are likely to be paid more in community and not for profit services, with 70-80% of their revenue spent on wages. However, as little as 54% is spent by privately-owned services. 

One educator called for ‘more control of private centres’ to reveal what they are doing. Educators showed their frustrations, saying

‘My options include selling out to the greedy large corporations where the directors and educators do not know their children or families. They get exceeding ratings because outsourced marketing gurus write up a perfect marketing plan’.

‘We are burnt out and are leaving the industry in droves because rather than having quality educators, we are getting pushed for quantity. Children are being seen as a commodity, and it needs to stop’.

Despite these problems, the Thrive by Five campaign continues to be a beacon of hope as they petition the government for significant reform. Even NSW Premier Domonic Perrottet has flagged the need for substantial reform, which could have major implications for all states and territories. 

When our governments plan for a better future, they could learn from an African proverb that reminds us that the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago, but the second best time is now. The best time for major childcare reform is right now, before we lose more of its most precious resources, our educators. 

Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in the Early Childhood Education and Care program at the University of New England. Marg’s current research interests are about programming and resourcing parents and educators to build resilience and understanding in 2-5-year-olds from Australian Defence Force (ADF) families.