Are we happy to put those who study and train to educate the young children of Australia in the same basket as dance therapists, DJs and tennis coaches?

In a submission to the government, Guardian Childcare Alliance said diploma-qualified childcare workers should be added to the list of professions that qualify for 457 visas. “If hairdressers, stockbrokers, glass blowers, dance therapists, disc jockeys (and) tennis coaches can all qualify for a 457 visa, why not diploma-trained childcare staff?”

“Visa plan for childcare workers”, Patricia Karvelas (The Australian, paywalled)


What’s sexism got to do with it?

Well, we can at least find some small reason to thank Alan Jones.

The most recent episode of Q&A featured the Minister for Early Childhood Education Kate Ellis treated with derision and disrespect by her three male fellow panelists –and arguably also by the host, Tony Jones, who allowed the Minister to have her answers regularly interrupted and denigrated.

Without the uproar of Alan Jones’ recent comments regarding Julia Gillard, and a climate where this casual sexism is now being increasingly highlighted, this may have been just another episode where a female guests’ opinion was treated as less important than those of the men on the panel. Same old, same old. Another brick in the wall.

Thankfully, the shameful antics of Piers Ackerman, Christopher Pyne and Lindsay Tanner have been rightfully highlighted by a general public who have been forced to confront the serious undercurrent of misogyny still in place in Australian discourse.

So Alan Jones can at least take a bow for causing so much uproar that we are now actively seeing the treatment of women in the public sphere for what it is – a serious problem.

I am not here to defend Kate Ellis. She is accomplished, intelligent and perfectly capable of dealing with the schoolyard antics of three bully boys.

am here to defend the member of the audience, and those she eloquently represented, who asked Minister Ellis a question about the staffing crisis in Early Childhood Education and Care (childcare).

ECEC is facing a dramatic staff shortage at a time when new regulations have been put in place to improve the quality of care and education offered to Australia’s children. This is a critical and serious issue.

A key factor (yes Christopher Pyne, not the only factor but a significant one) is the shockingly low wages of those who train to educate young children in ECEC settings. As I have discussed before, this is due in no small measure to the perception of the role as “women’s work”.

As Fair Work Australia ruled earlier this year, there is still a large inequity in pay rates between men and women, particularly in the community sector – a sector that is still seen as “women’s work”.

Although ECEC wasn’t a part of this ruling, it is a extreme example of the inequity – women make up 97% of the workforce and are hugely undervalued in the community for the work that Early Childhood educators undertake.

But when this issue was raised on Q&A, rather than allow Minister Ellis to respond and engage with the Early Childhood teacher who had raised it, she was smugly and cheerfully talked over by Ackerman and Pyne.

Now, this will of course by shrugged off as the “rough and tumble” of politics, and no doubt Minister Ellis has (and unfortunately will) endured worse. But for the person who asked the question, and those like myself who support her, it is yet another casual example of the lack of interest and respect for the work we do.

Educating and caring for young children would still be a challenging and difficult job even if we were paid like Government MPs. Despite what one elected representative would have us believe, it is not enough to just “do it for the love of it”.

If the panelists were serious about challenging notions of sexism and misogyny in the community, and within education specifically, they would have had an actual debate about the issues.

There could have been a lively debate about the Coalition’s plans for ECEC (beyond simply rolling back the regulations). We could have discussed the Government’s increase in funding to the sector, but the lack of impact that has had in reducing staff turnover.

The idea of having that debate was exciting to those of us who tuned in to Q&A on Monday night. Our voices don’t often get heard, and the debates are usually only about fees and waiting lists. This could have been a wonderful opportunity to actually engage with the substantive issues facing the sector.

Instead, because childcare is “women’s work”, and also because the Minister with responsibility for the sector is a woman, it quickly degenerated into farce. Early Childhood Education and Care has always been the victim of this casual sexism, and it will take a concerted effort on the part of our leaders to change that.

So a big round of applause for Lindsay Tanner, Christopher Pyne and Piers Ackerman. I hope you felt your cheap, political point-scoring was worth ignoring and undermining the serious issues that face the Early Childhood Education and Care sector.

The passionate Early Childhood teacher who asked the question deserved a lot better than that.


Early childhood education and care: no boys allowed?

According to the latest statistics from the Productivity Commission, the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector collectively employs around 140,000 people, of which only 3 per cent are male.

That’s just 4,200 men across the whole country. Practically an endangered species.

I’ve worked in the ECEC sector in Canberra for over 10 years, as a trainee, a room leader and a director. It’s challenging, frustrating and exhausting, but ultimately rewarding, fulfilling and a privilege.

Throughout that time, children, families, colleagues and friends have often asked the same question: “Why aren’t there more men?”

It’s an interesting question, with lots of connotations. The ECEC sector is 97 per cent female and beset by poor wages, poor conditions and a lack of professional respect in the wider community. Despite some basic reforms, the role is still primarily seen as ‘women’s work’.

After 10 years experience, I still don’t really know how to answer that question—I’m not even sure if there is a single answer. All I can do is tell my own personal and professional story and try to deconstruct some of the ‘myths’ that have shaped my own journey, and shed some light on the experience of men in the sector.

MYTH 1: Children need men in ECEC

This is the most common comment I get about men in ECEC environments: ‘It’s so great to have you here! The children, particularly the boys, just need that male influence.’ Without wanting to sound ungrateful, I find that sentence (and the variations on it) unsettling.

It’s problematic for a couple of reasons. Although it’s always intended as a compliment, it actually has the opposite meaning. I’m being complimented not on my knowledge, or my skills, or my positive engagement with children, but purely on my gender.

The implication is that the simple fact of my biology is enough to make me a wonderful Early Childhood educator.

My years of study and my on-going professional development are secondary to my gender. It positions men as tokens, leading to intense scrutiny and constant evaluation.

It also implicitly brings down the rest of the team that were not ‘blessed’ with my gender, and had to instead work hard to become skilled and knowledgeable in early childhood education. By raising me up for simply being male and showing up for work in the morning, it disparages the talented, passionate and skilled women who also work in that team.

I would also challenge anyone to provide evidence to me showing outcomes for children are improved purely on the basis a male is employed at a service.

Outcomes for children in early childhood spaces are surely driven from qualified, committed and reflective educators, regardless of their gender.

There are certainly men out there positively influencing children’s education and wellbeing, but is it purely because of their gender, or because they have studied, grown professionally and work within a supportive and innovative team?

MYTH 2: Families are happier with a female educator, particularly for infants

A colleague of mine tells the story of a young male educator she employed to work in an infants’ environment within her centre. Several families at the centre expressed concern about this educator changing their child’s nappy.

My colleague, the director, told me: ‘This was difficult for the educator and for me.

We did not want him to feel as though he shouldn’t be doing the job he wants to do, and leave for somewhere that he would be accepted.’

Luckily for this educator, the director stood her ground and worked to educate families about the policies of the centre organisation and the need to support all educators in the service. The educator remained with the infants and thrived.

I had a similar experience in my first year in the sector, and I imagine a lot of the ‘three per cent’ could tell the same story. It is demoralising and deeply denigrating to the individual, and a perfect example of the challenges still to be overcome by men choosing to educate and care for young children.

As ECEC professionals, we expect ourselves to work collaboratively with families and to respect and understand their needs. I know that directors may choose to put practices in place that meet families’ wishes on these kinds of issues, but I believe such perspectives need to be respectfully challenged.

The best way to challenge preconceptions is to embody change in practice. The ‘fear’ of male educators working with young children may come from a lack of images and experiences in our society that showcase men positively engaging with children.

Directors or managers can perpetuate that cycle when they choose the path of least resistance and either move a male educator into a different, more ‘suitable’, room or suggest that other (female) educators provide direct support to certain children.

This leads to fewer males working directly with young children, which means fewer families seeing it as part of normal practice in the sector, and more families are troubled when it does occur.

MYTH 3: Men don’t want to work in ECEC—it’s still seen as ‘women’s work’

Occasionally, I’ve had people ask if my friends joke or tease me for working in ECEC. I can categorically state that this has never been the case. When I first began working in the sector at 18 years of age, my mates didn’t seem to care that much. But I do know that it certainly is a wider issue for many of the men in our ECEC centres.

The ‘women’s work’ myth is deeply embedded. The label implies that it is something only women have done, or are equipped to do, or should do.

For the men who choose to work in the profession, it creates a powerful incentive to self-regulate your behaviour and your engagement with children.

It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t faced being part of a tiny minority, but the single most challenging aspect of my work in the sector has been knowing that I am under constant scrutiny. It is less pleasantly described in some of the research literature as suspicion. As a society, we are flooded with images of women as nurturing and loving with children. Men are more often viewed as a danger to children, especially men who display nurturing or loving relationships with children outside the norm of the ‘masculinity’ stereotype.

I have often been asked to discuss my experience working as a male ECEC educator, and I usually refuse or deflect the questions. This is because it is incredibly hard for me to discuss the often unspoken, perhaps even unconscious, scrutiny that accompanies every aspect of my work with young children. I am constantly aware that suspicion can fall on a male educator incredibly easily.

Paul Sargent’s research into men into ECEC settings highlights powerful individual stories from men about “performing” gendered roles. When the dominant discourse demands that only women are nurturing and loving, that kind of behaviour when practiced by men can be seen as confusing at best, and dangerous at worst. This creates a deeply embedded and, after a certain amount of time, even automatic, selfregulation of behaviour to ensure that suspicions are not aroused.

Raising the percentage

So why aren’t there more men in ECEC? There isn’t one simple answer.

I’m professionally and personally committed to the sector, and love the work that I do. I think for those with a love of teaching, it’s one of the most challenging and rewarding teaching roles you can have.

For men like myself who have overcome the initial challenges of starting out in the sector, it becomes easier. The challenges never disappear, but they can be positively managed through developing skills, knowledge and experience. But we are still faced with the issue of encouraging men to face those challenges in the first place.

I think the answer still lies in how the work is viewed by society and, more importantly, how men who work in the sector are viewed. Changing those views is a long and complex task, but I believe a key place to start is in leadership within the ECEC sector. The dominant perception of women as mothering and nurturing creates problems for men who attempt to reflect that perception in their behaviour, or enact their work with children in a ‘different’ way.

Leaders in the sector need to challenge those dominant perceptions.

Individual services need to reflect on their learning community and whether it embodies multiple ways of engagement with children. When issues with families arise, they need to be sensitively and respectfully challenged.

There are obviously issues of career pathways, wages and family dynamics that could not be discussed in this short article. But I firmly believe that a good place to start answering the question, ‘Why aren’t there more men in ECEC?’ is to ask ourselves, as a sector, ‘Are we welcoming them?’

This article was first published in the Spring 2012 issue of Rattler Magazine.


24/7 ECEC: Would you like an education with that?

Recent media reports have talked up the possibility of early learning centres remaining open late at night and on weekends to accommodate the needs of families, particularly those with shift-working parents.

As an educator, I instinctually find the idea of expanding operating hours problematic. We have fought long and hard to begin to be recognised as professional educators, not babysitters. That battle isn’t even over yet.

The Federal Government has been instrumental in changing viewpoints on the professionalism of the sector. We are referred to as “educators” in the new regulatory documents and learning frameworks. Spokespeople for the Government even remember to call us that rather than “workers” or “carers”. Most of the time.

To expand the sector to operate until late at night, and 7 days a week, would be a step back for that recognition.

It would entrench the view in society that we are purely a service for working families, with no educational role to play for children. Just like McDonalds is there to service your need for a Big Mac at 3am, early learning centres will become a service industry with a focus of care, not education.

Of course I am not in the position of working shifts, and nor is my wife, so we do not face the issues that those families face. Options for shift-worker families need to be explored, but I am convinced that simply expanding the ECEC sector is a bad idea.

Why don’t we expand school hours for shift-workers? Because as a society we have accepted limitations on what is offered. If the Government is serious about seeing ECEC as an educational environment for young children, and advocating that with Australian families, they also need to accept those limits.

A lot questions about an expansion would need to be answered, and hopefully they will be worked through in any future trials. My first few questions are:

  1. How will extra hours be regulated? Will centres still be under the NQF and the EYLF from 6pm – midnight, when children are asleep? Will there need to be an Early Childhood Teacher there? Or will the sector be split between regular hours (7.30am-6.00pm) and outside hours?
  2. Is this in best interests of children? How do children fit into any expansion of the sector? Is it beneficial to children to be in an ECEC centre at 11.00 at night?
  3. How will educators be paid? Will educators receive penalty rates for work after 6pm, or before 7pm? On weekends? If yes, how is this equitable with educators who work during the day?

There are undoubtedly many more. What are your questions?

This article was originally published on the Big Steps website.


In defence of red tape

In July, Sussan Ley, the opposition spokesperson for Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, spoke out against the national quality reforms, calling it ‘over-regulation’ and pledging to reduce ‘red tape’ if the Coalition won government.

I was lucky to have a personal meeting with Ms Ley a few weeks ago, where she took the opportunity to deny that the Coalition were planning on rolling back any of the reforms. But it was also clear from that meeting that Ms Ley and the Opposition are focused purely on addressing knee-jerk reactions from the sector on regulations, rather than actually engaging with any of the deeper issues. Ms Ley also seemed to have a dismissive or uninterested attitude to the Early Years Learning Framework.

The issue brings up a broader point about regulation of the ECEC sector. I have absolutely no doubt that Ms Ley could find any number of people who complain about over-regulation. I’ve certainly done enough of it myself.

In my two years as a Centre Director there were large amounts of paperwork, vast quantities of forms to sign and large volumes of strict regulation to strictly adhere to. It was easily the least favourite part of my job, and I took many and varied opportunities (as my wife, colleagues and people popping into the centre to ask for directions will attest) to rail against them.

But here’s the thing. They are absolutely essential.

In ECEC centres, as well as being responsible for their ongoing education and learning, we are legally responsible for the care and wellbeing. In the centre I directed, that was 53 children a day. Most centres being opened these days are upwards of 100. That’s 100 children, per day.

Somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter. Being entrusted into the legal protection of someone else.

Regulation is not there to make people’s lives a living hell (although I may disagree after a couple of hours wading through them). They are there to ensure a standard, and ensure that that standard is met.

ECEC centres, like everything else in this society, are human enterprises. Just like every other sector and profession, some centres will be great, some will not be so great. When you’re dealing with young children, we cannot allow the not-so-great centres to remain that way.

I can handle a bakery producing some low-quality muffins due to a lack of regulation. I can’t handle the centre my daughter attends providing children low-quality education and care and possibly endangering their safety.

It is easy, too easy, to simply claim that red tape and bureaucracy hold enterprising and innovative people back. Regulation in ECEC is a safety net for children and families that ensures centres have to meet a certain standard.

The idea of ‘rolling back’ regulations is not only misguided but frightening. With a low-paid and overworked sector receiving little professional recognition and leaving their work in droves, less regulation will encourage more incidents with children’s health and safety.

To put it bluntly, any ECEC service or director that cannot handle the regulatory burden shouldn’t be in business.

I would suggest to Ms Ley that she focus more on the ‘Early Childhood Learning’ part of her title instead of pandering to anyone’s complaining about over-regulation. The lowering of ratios and raising of qualification standards that are part of the National Quality Framework are integral to lasting quality in the sector.

For everyone else, do what I did – learn to love the red tape: it’s there to support what we do, not drown us.

And for those days when it gets on top of you, I recommend a large glass of red wine.

This article was originally published on the Big Steps website.


In the News: Karen Hardy: “Big childcare choices need to be made”

Great article up today from Karen Hardy in the Opinion pages of the Canberra Times.

As a parent, one of my biggest bugbears was the turnover of staff, 180 a week, as alluded to by the Big Steps website. Your child would just have become attached to a particular carer, you would have developed a relationship with them yourself, and then they’d leave. I totally understood why, but, in those years when I was in the heart of it, could barely sympathise.

Read more:


No comment! Who is telling our stories?

As educators, directors and teachers in the sector, are we well-placed to affect the political and media debate around Early Childhood Education and Care?

As ECEC is one of my driving passions, I try to keep up on media coverage on the sector. My interests also lie in politics more generally, so that makes for a nice crossover.

I write, I tweet and I comment. I think it’s important to add my voice to the debate, but I also enjoy it on a personal level.

ECEC is certainly not short of representation in the media and political spheres. It’s not the brightest, shiniest issue out there, but you can generally expect an article or essay to pop up every couple of days.

What I have noticed is that our voice isn’t out there. By “our” I mean Early Childhood educators, directors and teachers. The sector representation is coming from families (cranky about waiting lists and fees), private operators (negative about reforms and wages) and government (always ready to talk about what they have done, not what they could or should).

Occasionally a great story breaks through (check out this fantastic one from Catherine Deveny), but the vast majority of the time we are having our story told for us, or not told at all. There are undoubtedly a myriad of reasons why this is true, but from my “infovore” perspective, I wonder if it’s because as a group we aren’t terribly good at putting our views forward?

I’d love to hear from any readers of this blog (there have to be one or two, right?), how do you engage with and access the wide world of the media in relation to ECEC? I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to this, but I don’t think it’s too hard – and I think it’s something that anyone can and should do.

I know as much as anyone how much the ECEC sector asks of us in terms of time and energy, so I can’t imagine suggesting that we all take more of an interest in how ECEC is portrayed in society is going to be too popular! What I thought I might do however, is just list a few simple ways to get started.

  1. Read – Simple, but effective! We all spend a lot of time reading the latest Early Childhood publications (AJEC, Rattler), but I think it’s important that we get perspectives from outside our own professional community.

    A really simple way of gathering news on a topic is to create a Google News Alert. Google then does the work for you, searching the Internet each day to find any articles relating to a search item and then emailing you the links in a single handy email. Unfortunately, the best keyword to use is still “childcare”, but you’d be surprised what can turn up in your inbox.

  2. Network – Get social networking! For some reason, I always get a lot of resistance from a lot of colleagues and friends about joining and utilising social networks. I may be biased, but they are the absolute simplest way of meeting, networking and crucially sharing with ECEC colleagues from around Australia.

    So if you’re not on, get on! No matter your IT skills, Facebook and Twitter are designed to be simple to use so that they get more people signed up. You might be surprised who you can connect with in the ECEC online world!

  3. Share – At a wonderful local centre here in Canberra, the Senior Teacher utilises a “Media Wall”. Whenever she finds an article on ECEC locally or nationally, she clips it out and adds it to the wall for comment and debate by educators, families and children. I really loved this concept, and it’s a great and easy way to engage with media and political issues as an ECEC centre community.

So there are my three easy tips to become ECEC media-literate! There are many, many reasons to have that engagement as part of our work, but crucially for me if we’re not collectively engaged, aware and active, others will tell our stories for us.

If you’re taking the plunge and getting into social networking, look me up on Twitter and join the ECEC discussion!


The dichotomy of the ECEC sector

Once again, we find early childhood education and care (ECEC) back on the front pages.

Fees have risen. Families are outraged. Private services demand reforms are scaled down, or thrown away altogether.

As someone who has worked in the early childhood sector (we don’t call it childcare anymore) for over 10 years, all this news isn’t exactly news.

ECEC in Australia has always sat somewhat uncomfortably in society. Its primary purpose was to increase workforce productivity by allowing new mothers to return to work, and indeed until recent history ECEC sat under an industry or productivity portfolio in government.

For a long time, it was viewed and often managed as essentially day-long babysitting. The workforce were “carers”, and although outcomes for learning and development were observed, these were mostly of the checklist and school-readiness variety.

The sector, with varying degrees of government funding, continued in much this fashion for some time. The Howard government created major structural changes for the sector by directing funds to families, rather than centres.

The Childcare Rebate and Childcare Benefit, aimed at increasing productivity (and also possibly winning a vote or two in a close election), caused numbers of children accessing an ECEC service to sharply jump.

This significant increase in the number of Australia’s young children accessing a centre also coincided with growing bodies of research highlighting that the greatest growth, change and learning in a child’s brain occurs in the first five years of their life – before they start institutional education.

The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children also highlighted that negative impacts across a variety of indications such as social, emotional and physical could have exponentially detrimental impacts later on in life.

Conversely, focusing on positive learning strategies and building social and emotional skills in the first five years had a hugely positive impact down the track.

This confluence created higher expectations for ECEC services to provide a greater focus on education and learning. This culminated in the announcement of the National Quality Agenda for Early Childhood Education and Care, a reform agenda to raise quality standards and bring together a national approach to disparate state and territory regulations.

The National Quality Agenda is now in place, and requires higher standards of qualifications and lower educator-child ratios for children. It has been met with both support and criticism from a sector divided between community not-for-profit services, and private operators represented by the Australian Childcare Alliance.

No-one can argue that higher quality programs and lower ratios are a bad idea for Australia’s children. But, as with most things in life, it all comes down to the money.

Despite the Child Care Rebate and Benefit, families are reportedly feeling the effect of asharp increase in fees over the last year. The Gillard Government is investigating the issue while promoting the large increase in spending on the sector compared to the Howard government.

So, the wheel turns, and despite all the reforms we’re still stuck in the same arguments about fees and waiting lists. Quality outcomes for children are usually put second to the workforce issues in any media report, and ECEC services are once again left to manage relationships with families and children.

I’m supportive of the Government’s reforms to the sector. As a person who loves and believes in my work, I think we should be challenged to provide the best quality education and care to children we can. But the issue that is fundamentally ignored in these debates is the workforce issue – not the national workforce, but the ECEC workforce.

One of the fundamental and mind-boggling dichotomies of the ECEC sector is that it was primarily set up to give women choice and enable them to continue their careers while having a family – a choice that men never had to make.

And yet, according to the Productivity Commission Report into the Early Childhood Workforce, the sector is 97 per cent female and beset by incredibly poor wages, poor conditions and a lack of professional recognition.

The incredible situation is that as a society we created opportunities for women to overcome institutionalised sexism and maintain a career with a family,  but to do it we created a workforce “underclass” of women to continue it. It was, and arguably still is, seen as “women’s work”.

Ask any early childhood educator – the job is tough. It isn’t babysitting, and it isn’t sitting around playing with blocks. It’s lots of paperwork, it’s lots of reading in your spare time, and it’s emotionally and physically demanding. $18/hour is not much of an incentive to join the sector.

United Voice, the ECEC union, have stated that 180 educators are leaving the sector every week. Plainly, the status quo can’t continue. Both as an educator and as a father with a daughter accessing a wonderful ECEC service, it is no longer acceptable.

As roundtable talks loom in the distance, it’s time to reframe the debate. It shouldn’t just be about productivity and fees. We need to give the ECEC workforce the same opportunities that they give to the rest of Australia. We need to focus on the best quality outcomes for children.

I strongly urge the Prime Minister to support the Big Steps in early childhood education and care campaign and address the issue of wages and conditions for early childhood educators in any further reforms to the sector.

This article was originally published on the ABC’S The Drum opinion website.