In a market-based model, the need for a Code of Ethics to underpin the work of early childhood educators is critically important. Alongside the National Quality Framework, it provides a framework for ensuring that children’s rights are prioritised, and that educators themselves can advocate for the importance of their own roles and the experiences of children.
The accepted Code of Ethics that is most commonly used in Australia’s early education sector is the one developed by Early Childhood Australia. It’s a great document, developed by excellent thinkers in the early education space, and is peer-reviewed. It’s important to remember it’s not really “official” in any sense, but it is the strongest document of its kind in the sector (and is referenced by ACECQA in the Guide to the NQF, so it’s as close to official as it’s ever been!).
Expecting educators to uphold ethical standards in the work they do is incredibly important. But I’ve spent a lot of the last couple of years reflecting on the positions of educators in our system – most particularly in blog posts here and here.
I’m asking myself different questions now than I would have a few years ago. In Australia, we ask a hell of a lot of educators. They’re paid disgracefully, work in shifts, meet complex (but necessary) legislative and regulatory requirements every day, receive no funding support for professional development, and do all of this for a community who views them as little more than babysitters.
Expecting educators to do all this while upholding a rigorous and reflective ethical framework for their work is more challenging to me now. Ethics are a fraught, complex and difficult subject even for experts – and I am nowhere near an expert.
I do have some questions though.
Ethics in context
For me, ethics at the must fundamental level are about ensuring that we hold ourselves to account for the work we do. We understand that our actions, and how we undertake those actions, should be about doing good, rather than harm.
At a deeper level, ethics are also about context. Ethics means that what we do isn’t just about the good or bad of an individual moment, or a specific decision, but are part of a wider system of decisions, policies and systems that affect hundreds of thousands of children, educators and families.
The Code of Ethics calls this out in a few ways, but most particularly in these two points:
In relation to community and society, I will:
- work to promote increased appreciation of the importance of childhood including how children learn and develop, in order to inform programs and systems of assessment that benefit children
- advocate for the development and implementation of laws and policies that promote the rights and best interests of children and families
Is the current ethical framework fair to educators?
When we think about context, we have to then think about power. Power is a context that cannot, and should not, be removed from ethical considerations. In Australia we value egalitarian and democratic principles, but we are also realistic enough to know that in all parts of our society there are people with more power to affect change and make decisions than others.
How much power do educators, working in the challenging workplace conditions we know exist, have to affect change? If the answer is “less than others”, we then have to ask – is the current framework for ethical standards fair to early childhood educators?
I don’t mean that the Code of Ethics is unfair. I think it’s vital to practice. Working with young children without an ethical framework is an appalling idea – we have special and unique responsibilities in working with people who have such little authority, autonomy and voice in our community.
What I mean is – why is there only a semi-formal Code of Ethics for educators?
What standards should non-educators be held to?
Let’s go back to that point about context. We know that in Australia, the sector isn’t just educators. Educators (alongside Centre Directors and Nominated Supervisors) are the most important element of the sector, but we also know there are many other people in many other roles that have power over, and input into, the early education sector.
Area Managers. Administrators. Consultants. Quality managers. Professional development managers. CEOs. I don’t have a perfect term for these people, but for the sake of clarity let’s just say non-educators.
I should know. I’m one of them.
My role is outside of centres. I don’t work directly with children anymore. My position comes from the work happening in the Early Childhood Centres I work with.
But what ethical standards am I held to? What is acceptable or non-acceptable ethical conduct in my everyday work? What should the educators working in those centres expect of me?
I like to think I take an ethical approach to my work. I think every day about the responsibility of a position like mine, and that it is a resource that could very well be spent directly in centres. I wish and hope that the educators in those centres value my work.
Then let’s go back to the point about power. As a general rule, who has more power over systems and decision-making in the sector – educators or non-educators?
According to the most recent workforce survey in 2016, a total of 194,994 staff were employed in the sector.
How many non-educators work in the sector? We have no way of knowing, but there would be quite a lot.
What ethical standards should non-educators be held to? If your role is funded by the work of educators, what obligations should you have?
We spend a lot of time in this sector talking about the important and necessary obligations that educators have.
If we think clearly about context, power and ethics – it must now be time to think about the important and necessary obligations that non-educators should have.
Fairness and equity
If we want to think about an ethical framework in terms of fairness and equity between educators and non-educators, we have a lot of great starting points.
Is it ethical that the CEO of Australia’s largest for-profit early education provider was paid $840,000 last year, while the starting wage of the educators who work for that organisation is barely $22/hour?
Is it ethical that ARENA REIT, a landlord business, made a profit of $34.7 million last year, 97% of which was from “childcare” developments, while educators struggle to afford rent or a mortgage?
Is it ethical that men are far more likely to be in senior leadership roles in sector organisations than women, despite the fact that 97% of the educator workforce is female?
I could go on for quite a while.
What could a Code of Ethics for non-educators look like?
What might obligations for non-educators be? What should be expected of non-educators?
Although non-educators have more structural power within the sector, it’s still limited. Believe me, if I could have clicked my fingers and doubled educators’ wages I would have done it a long time ago.
I think we can start with advocacy though. Non-educators can speak up and give voice to educators all the time. It’s something I think about whenever I speak publicly, or in meetings and forums. How am I representing educators? How am I advocating for them?
I’m often amazed (if not dismayed) but how often educators are poorly represented by non-educators. They’re often treated as a problem, as complainers, incompetent. Surely if we had some sort of ethical code, we could at least stop that?
Would we be able stamp out terms like “childcare” if non-educators had to abide by an ethical principle of professional language in the sector?
Would non-educators better understand the lived experiences of educators if they worked to an ethical obligation to spend a certain amount time in centres with educators?
These are just some ideas, but for me, I would love to know what educators themselves think should be in a Code of Ethics for non-educators.
They are funding and supporting these positions. My views and ideas are far less important than theirs.
So these are the questions for the sector I have today, and will probably be kicking around for a while.
Is it OK that only educators are required to meet a Code of Ethics?
If not, should we develop a Code of Ethics for non-educators?
If so, what would it require non-educators to do to ensure they act in their roles responsibly, justly, fairly and ethically?
I’d love to know what people think.