Sustaining the early childhood workforce: Exploring some of the 'Less Tangible' aspects informing practice

Year: 2012

Author: Cumming, Tamara, Sumsion, Jennifer, Wong, Sandy

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


The retention of teachers working in prior-to-school early childhood settings continues to be a critical policy challenge internationally. Alongside debate regarding the role of qualification levels in exacerbating or ameliorating problems of workforce sustainability, there has also been a considerable amount of research and policy attention relating to the effects on recruitment, retention and attrition, of pay, status and conditions incommensurate with the responsibility and skill required of early childhood teachers (ECEs) (Bretherton, 2010; Whitebook, Austin, Ryan, Kipnis, Almaraz & Sakai, 2012). A growing body of conceptual and empirical literature is considering the impacts of discourses and subjectivities informing early childhood practice (such as professionalism, regulation and emotionality). However, the potential for these less tangible aspects of practice to inform efforts to address workforce sustainability has not received the extensive focus given to 'structural' factors.

In this paper, we report on a study in progress that seeks to redress some of the imbalance in attention to structural and less tangible elements. The paper begins by briefly outlining findings from an interpretative meta-analysis (Weed, 2005) of 38 empirical studies across 9 countries, that deal with early childhood educators' experiences of discourses and subjectivities informing early childhood practice (Cumming, Sumsion, & Wong, in review). We draw out and endeavour to explain some of the national differences we observed in our review, then, discuss 'strategies' that educators in these studies used to negotiate discourses and subjectivities. We also use concepts from Deleuze and Guattari (1987) to suggest 'territories' as a way of mapping the interrelatedness of these strategies. This discussion provides the context for the second part of the paper, in which we report on the early stages of a doctoral project investigating how a group of ECEs (currently upgrading their qualifications from diploma to degree level) in Australia, are negotiating discourses and subjectivities informing early childhood practice. This project involves initial and follow-up focus groups, individual interviews and an arts-informed component. Drawing on the interpretative meta-analysis and preliminary analysis of empirical data, in the third part of the paper we speculate about opportunities these less tangible (yet powerful) aspects of early childhood practice might provide for expanding possibilities for considering issues of workforce sustainability. We conclude by arguing that in the Australian policy context, expanding such possibilities will be essential if the potential benefits of major government investment in the early childhood sector through the National Early Childhood Education and Care Agenda are to be realised.