The sector simply won’t keep up – AEU sounds alarm over ongoing workforce shortages
Demand for early childhood teachers (ECTs) is expected to grow so strongly in the coming years that, should current rates of recruitment continue, the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector will simply be unable to keep up, the Australian Education Union (AEU) has said.
Employers, particularly those in rural and remote areas, are already experiencing challenges in attracting and retaining ECTs, and Australia’s regulatory body for ECEC, the Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA), has spoken on the “significant and increasingly urgent workforce challenges,” which plague the sector in a 2019 workforce study.
An estimated 39,000 extra educators and 9,000 more ECTs will be needed within three years, representing a 20 per cent increase, according to ACECQA.
AEU federal executive early childhood representative Martel Menz says the shortage is due, in part, to failed planning.
Preschool enrolments have climbed rapidly since the national policy to provide universal access to early childhood education was introduced in 2008, at a time when just 12 per cent of children attended preschool for 600 hours a year.
Today, enrolments reach 95 per cent or more across the country, according to an independent review of the policy commissioned by the Council of Australian Governments’ Education Council.
This dramatic enrolment growth has led to a significant increase in teaching vacancies, which has escalated with the new requirement this year that a second qualified early childhood teacher be available when 60 or more children attend a preschool or long daycare centre.
It is that obligation, Ms Menz argued, which is at the crux of the issue. The obligation to have additional ECTs was announced in 2012 as part of the National Quality Framework, giving the government and the sector eight years to plan before the requirement became live, but the last national workforce strategy expired in 2016 and has not been replaced.
“There’s been ample time to deal with this but too many people – and certainly the federal government – have sat on their hands expecting the issue would be sorted out by itself; that the market would provide attractive salaries and conditions, enticing enough people interested in an early childhood career. That was never going to happen,” she added.
A review by the Education Council, conducted by independent management consultants the Nous Group found that providing Universal Access at “appropriate levels of quality” was at “particular risk” because of the upcoming teacher shortage.
Other issues affecting recruitment to the sector include concerns over wages and conditions and lack of opportunities for networking and professional development.
A persistent undercurrent of funding uncertainty has caused additional stress, as has the “continued refusal” of the Federal Government to extend preschool funding to cover three year old kindergarten at a national level, despite what the Union termed “overwhelming evidence and strong international trends that show the benefits to both children and the economy.”
AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe says the annual “drip-feeding” of funding, despite a recommendation by the Education Council review that funding should be guaranteed for at least five years, followed by a more permanent arrangement, prevents preschools from planning for the future and retaining and attracting staff.
ACECQA is working on a national workforce strategy and action plan, which is expected to be delivered to the education ministers by mid-2021.
For more information about workforce shortages in the early childhood sector, please see here.