The rush to open as many new centres as possible ignores the issue of who will staff them

Even if a central waitlisting system could alleviate some of the frustration with finding a childcare place, at the end of the day there are just not enough inner-city spots to go around.

This is due to land availability and zoning issues, according to federal Early Childhood and Child Care Minister Kate Ellis.

A spokeswoman for Ms Ellis said the federal government has no limit on the number of childcare spots it will fund with the childcare rebate, so demand is increasing while supply isn’t keeping pace.

“We are trying to rattle the cage a little and get states and territories moving on this issue because unfortunately the ball is in their court on this. Local governments have crazy regulations in place prohibiting new centres opening up rather than encouraging it,” she said.

“The wearying wait for inner-city childcare”, Clarissa Keil (The Age)

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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.

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.