Early Childhood Time for bold steps from government on building EC workforce

The Victorian government’s ambitious agenda for early childhood education needs to be matched by an equally ambitious plan for the sector’s workforce.

Urgent action is needed to address staffing shortages across the education sector. Every Victorian has the right to high-quality, well-resourced public education – and a fully qualified education workforce is the cornerstone of this provision.

The Victorian government’s ambitious and welcome agenda for early childhood education – with the introduction of 15 hours of funded three-year-old kindergarten and the expansion of funded four-year-old provision to 30 hours per week – will require at least 11,000 additional teachers and educators over the coming decade.

Already, there are significant numbers of vacancies and not enough new teachers and educators to meet demand.

Already, there are significant numbers of vacancies and not enough new teachers and educators to meet demand, with a sharp decline in tertiary enrolments in early childhood education courses in recent years. The efforts of the state government need to be bold.

This was the focus of my address to the AEU Annual Conference on 31 July, which was attended by Premier Daniel Andrews, the new Minister for Education Natalie Hutchins, and the Greens spokesperson for education, Sam Hibbens.

There, I shared the AEU’s Ten-year plan for staffing in public education, outlining our recommendations for staff attraction and retention across TAFE, schools and kindergartens. Government must develop medium and long-term plans for early childhood that address unsustainable workloads, underemployment, low wages, and the status of the profession – much of which requires greater investment.

Up front, the AEU is calling for a retention bonus for all existing staff in kindergartens, schools and TAFE as an incentive to remain in the system, and in recognition of high levels of stress and workload caused by COVID-19 and other illnesses on top of the usual demands.

Manageable workloads and rewarding career structures will play an important role in attracting and retaining qualified staff.

Manageable workloads and rewarding career structures will play an important role in attracting and retaining qualified staff. Whilst some of these issues, including salaries, have started to be addressed in the benchmark industrial agreements, VECTEA and EEEA, there is still more work to be done. In addition, those workplaces not respondent to these agreements or other similar agreements often provide lesser salaries and conditions, creating significant disparity across the system.

A 2019 ACER workload study found only 33.5% of early childhood education professionals intended to remain in the sector until retirement, and that low salaries and high workloads were prominent reasons. Teachers reported that there was insufficient time available for non-face-to-face teaching tasks, and excessive amounts of paperwork related to monitoring, recording, reporting and accountability.

Additional staffing is needed in EC services to provide for children with additional needs, including those with complex behaviours, to ensure timely access to assessment and support. There must be specific funding for early intervention, which is critical to ensuring improved outcomes for children.

New entrants to the profession need greater levels of support in the early years of their careers. Funded days to support mentoring programs need to be expanded across the whole sector.

The AEU is pressing the need for government to create several thousand studentships, bonded to Victoria’s public system, with a focus on rural/regional and hard-to-staff settings. These would offer financial assistance to help education students meet the costs of living, provide job security for graduates, and guarantee a stream of employees for EC services and schools. This plan should include initiatives such as identifying students with a capacity and aptitude for early childhood education, including First Nations people, for practicums and job placements in their local community.

For too long, kindergarten funding in Australia has lagged behind other OECD countries. Victoria is leading the nation in an attempt to lift this ratio with free kinder for all three and four-year-olds – however, government has an obligation to plan effectively, to invest in the workforce, and to promote the value of our education professionals. Without this, quality provision for all children is at risk.

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    As we gear up for a state election, the AEU is focused on holding the Andrews government to account when it comes to fair funding for public education and a plan for addressing staff shortages that respects and values the profession. Read more in our Term 3, 2022 edition of AEU News.

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