What do the low numbers of men in ECEC really mean?

Once a year or so, another report, research document or news article appears that highlights the low numbers of male teachers working in early childhood and primary schools. Another was released in the past month, and tells familiar stories of isolation and suspicion.

The problem is tricky to solve, and has been for decades. It’s tricky because the problem isn’t really “the problem”. It’s a symptom of a number of inter-connected and entrenched issues, which are particularly thorny in early childhood.

Continue reading “What do the low numbers of men in ECEC really mean?”

What does this Government think the childcare sector is for?

Disappointingly, the Government continues to use the Productivity Commission to paper over its complete lack of a childcare policy. Beyond pointing out the issues and declaring war on “the dead hand of government regulation”, the childcare sector and the community in general have no idea what the Abbott Government think should happen in this area.

This week, the Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley may have given us a brief and tantalising spoiler. Responding to questions on what policies the Productivity Commission may propose, Ms Ley was quoted in The Australian:

“Ms Ley said “something is wrong with this picture” when asked about working parents unable to find places because they were taken by the children of parents who were not working.”

A simple statement that jibes well with the Government’s overall economic message of “lifters and leaners”, but in the context of childcare it is worth digging a little deeper on what Ms Ley may be telling us.

What does this Government think the childcare sector is for? Let’s look at the candidates.

1. The economy

The strong contender. Freeing up parents to contribute to the workforce has obvious benefits to the economy at large. This imperative has been a significant part of most countries creation of their own childcare policies and frameworks, and Australia is no different.

Australia’s economy is performing exceptionally by international standards, but workforce participation is a huge driver of growth and wealth.

2. Families

When we say families, we have to be upfront and say “mothers”. In Australia it is still women that face the greatest challenge in returning to the workforce after having children.

The benefits to families are not just about returning to work. Quality early learning programs help prepare children for formal schooling, and have the potential to remediate the effects of family instability or vulnerability. International research has demonstrated that early learning has the potential to change the destinies of families.

The childcare sector is also designed to facilitate empowerment of women to maintain their careers alongside their families – but the catch in Australia has always been that childcare services need to be affordable, accessible and of high quality. Since the deregulation of the sector in the 1990s, Australia was struggled with all three of those indicators.

3. Children

And the last on our list of candidates: children. The fundamental irony of the sector is that is directed to provide education and care to over 1 million Australian children, but the rights and needs of children are usually far down on the list of priorities.

The National Quality Framework was a strong attempt to provide a foundational expectation of quality in the outcomes for children attending childcare services. More structural reforms were needed to address the issues created by deregulation however, which were best exemplified in the spectacular collapse of ABC Learning in 2008.

Returning to Ms Ley’s statement, we can see that while the economy and workforce participation are high on the list of goals for childcare, children are not getting a look-in. She is indicating the Government would prefer that only children of working parents have the right to access childcare. This is a significant statement.

Advocates for early childhood education, including myself, view access to quality childcare as not just an economic issue, but a matter of human rights. Children have the human right to attend a quality early learning program, regardless of their socio-economic background or the current circumstances of their parents.

Australia does not currently have strong record on the upholding of children’s rights. We are currently turning ourselves into outcasts in the international community with our illegal and inhumane treatment of child asylum seekers; each day of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reveals new horrors from Australia’s dark past of systemic failures to protect children; and child protection agencies around the country struggle to successfully keep children safe in the face of budget cuts and under-resourcing.

Approaching the sector only from the perspective of improving the economy leaves the system open to fail children – as it shockingly has in Ireland and the United States.

The importance of early childhood education, including strong childcare policies and structures, is now internationally recognised. As with the issues of asylum seekers, climate change and a host of others, Australia will fall behind the rest of the world by failing to properly invest in childcare.

But placing the rights of children at the centre of a restructuring of our approach to childcare has the primary benefit of being the right thing do by our society’s children, but the added benefits of meeting the outcomes for the economy as well.

A childcare sector that is properly funded and supported doesn’t have to pick and choose between the three outcomes listed above – it can actually choose Option 4: all of the above.

Terms of reference should be sounding alarm bells

On Sunday November 17, the Federal Government formally launched and announced the terms of reference for the Productivity Commission’s  “Inquiry into Child Care and Early Childhood Learning”.

Throughout the Labor Government’s six-year term in office, the Coalition opposition regularly attacked their changes to the early childhood education and care (childcare) sector

Labor convinced all states and territories to sign up, through COAG, to the National Quality Framework (NQF) for early childhood education and care (ECEC). This was a significant achievement, and was an attempt to unify disparate and complicated state-based regulation and oversight.

The principle objectives of the NQF were a concern for the heavyweight players in the ECEC sector, the for-profit private operators. Lower staff-to-child ratios and higher qualification requirements for early childhood educators would directly eat in to their potential profits.

The Coalition gladly took up the banner for the private operators, running ridiculous lines on “the burden of red tape” and “the dead hand of Government regulation”.

For those who take early childhood education seriously, and not as an excuse to make a quick buck, the NQF has drastically streamlined and reduced regulation and paperwork.

This is clearly evident to those of us who managed services in the wildly divergent and complicated system of the National Childcare Accreditation Council, pre-2012.

As promised in the lead up to the 2013 Election, the newly elected Coalition Government will be tasking the Productivity Commission to look into the state of ECEC in Australia. It will report back in October 2014.

Despite assurances from the Government that they support the objectives of the NQF in regards to children’s learning, the Government’s stated intentions in the terms of reference should be ringing major alarm bells for families, educators and early childhood education advocates.

The terms of reference and scope of the inquiry clearly demonstrate that the Government is only viewing the ECEC sector through the very narrow and damaging prism of workforce participation and economic imperatives.

They state it clearly themselves: “We want to ensure that Australia has a system that provides a safe, nurturing environment for children, but which also meets the working needs of families.”

The current Government longs for the days when “daycare” was provided by “nice old ladies” for the love of it.

With the greatest of respect to nice old ladies, those days are over.

Early childhood education and care is about more than a “safe, nurturing environment”. It is a place where children can learn and play socially and safely, developing the skills that will set them up for success in future learning.

Where early childhood education and early learning are mentioned at all in the Government’s announcement, it is far down the list on priorities.

To take a brief look at the section ‘the current and future need for childcare’, “hours parents work” ranks No. 1 on the list.

The “needs of vulnerable or at-risk children”? No. 11.

Could there be a clearer indication of this Government’s priorities?

The Government has also tasked the Productivity Commission to only offer recommendations “within current funding parameters”, effectively ruling out any increase in funding to the sector.

With a sector beset by wages and conditions that should be a national scandal, working with children at the most important stage of their development, this is unacceptable.

The Government’s repeated mantra on “red tape” is also a huge concern. Clear regulation and oversight is essential to the safety and wellbeing of children.

You need only look at systems in the United States and Ireland to see where a desire to not have “unnecessary bureaucracy” has directly endangered the safety, or even the lives, of children.

The inquiry will also be examining the ability of the ECEC sector to meet the “needs of today’s families and today’s economy”.

I am always interested in how it is the community who has to be more “flexible” to business interests.

I’m not sure where the Government’s entreaties to the business community to be more “flexible” to the needs of families are.

Yes, the growing amount of shift and casual work is undoubtedly causing issues for some families (although, as is always the case with this argument, no-one actually has any data to prove it).

But why do we automatically leap to the assumption that the community systems around that issue must change and adapt? Why is there not a national discussion on the business community’s role in supporting families?

The Government’s determination to work within the current market-based system is disappointing, but unsurprising. This was a key “win” for the Howard Government, turning over the education and wellbeing of Australia’s children to profiteering private operators.

The deference to market-based solutions to community and social issues is so stupid as to be hardly worth rebutting.

All that needs to be said is that if the market was capable of providing this “service” to the community in an adequate and cost-effective way, why on earth are there two generous and expensive subsidies available to families (the Child Care Benefit and the Child Care Rebate)?

The inquiry does have the potential to identify systemic issues with the sector, which advocates have been identifying for decades.

Any reasonable examination of the current structure of ECEC can only discover that it is fundamentally flawed. This could be extremely positive for the sector, as the Government can hardly ignore the report it asked for.

The Coalition (and even the Labor Government, who lacked the imagination to fundamentally shake-up the system) have always viewed turning the sector over to the private providers as positive.

It is entirely likely that the Productivity Commission will actually report that it was a huge error that has fundamentally disadvantaged children, families and the community for years.

There will already be a million eyes rolling as they read this, but the fundamental question needs to be asked. Do we want to live in an economy? Or do we want to live in a society?

So ECEC can increase workforce participation. Great. To what end?

This may come as a shock, but I don’t carry out my work as a teacher with children to incrementally increase Australia’s GDP output.

I can think of a number of reasons why ECEC is vital to our community: setting children up to succeed in school and life; lifting children and families out of generational vulnerability; closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Preparing children to be good little contributors to the economy is not high up on my list.

Sunday’s announcement needs to be a clarion call to arms for early childhood education advocates. The lines have been drawn.

What does the Coalition’s ECEC policy mean for the sector?

On the second-to-last day of the 2013 Election campaign, the Coalition announced their early childhood education and care policy: The Coalition’s Policy for Better Child Care and Early Learning.

Rather surprisingly, given Sussan Ley’s statements in The Australian, the Coalition will seek to pause many of the most important reforms of the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care.

With regards to staffing ratios:

The Coalition will work with State and Territory governments to review the implementation
of staff to child ratios to assess whether their implementation can be slowed to give the
sector enough time to absorb the changes and ensure continuity of service.

The Coalition are also targeting the new qualification requirements:

Given the concerns of the child care sector, the Coalition supports a review of child care
qualifications. We will seek the cooperation of the States and Territories to pause the
requirement that all staff should be qualified until the Australian Children’s Education
Quality and Care Authority has undertaken a full review of early childhood qualifications.
Given the shortage of ECTs, the Coalition believes that it makes sense to put on hold the
requirement for centres with more than 25 children to employ an ECT. We will delay this
requirement until a full review has been undertaken, and in the meantime look at possible
ways to encourage more people, particularly in rural and regional areas where shortages
are most noticeable, to study early childhood teaching.

The reforms to educator-to-child ratios and qualification requirements are rightly held up as key improvements to the sector. Research and practical experience from around the world has shown that these are crucial to quality outcomes for children.

It is important to remember that as the NQF is a product of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), any changes to the Framework will require the support of the States and Territories (which is acknowledged in the policy document).

I will be honest – I am conflicted about this policy announcement. Anyone expecting instant disapproval and blind support for the Labor Government’s implementation of the NQF reforms had probably better stop reading now.

I am completely supportive of the reforms – I have argued publicly that they do not actually go far enough.

I also completely dismiss the talk of “administrative” problems and the burden of red tape that the Coalition speak of – strict, clear and enforceable regulations are absolutely essential to ensure children’s health and safety. To put it bluntly, any ECEC organisation that cannot handle the “regulatory burden” shouldn’t be in business.

But…

I am forced to conclude that as things currently stand, the Coalition is not wrong to suggest that aspects of the NQF are put on hold.

This is not to say that Tony Abbott’s approach to ECEC is correct. The Coalition have no plan to address the structural issues they have identified, and will palm everything off to a Productivity Commission enquiry.

But this was inevitable, and it is entirely the fault of the Labor Government – specifically Ministers Kate Ellis and Peter Garrett.

As I have written before, the ECEC sector as a whole was never going to be ready to implement even the beginning of the qualification requirements by 2014.

The Government has entirely failed to ensure that the NQF would be embedded and immune from this inevitable announcement by the Coalition.

The NQF should have been accompanied with significant funding and support to the sector, and a long-term campaign to gain public support for the benefits of early childhood education.

Instead, we got a “Early Childhood Workforce Strategy” – an insulting 22-page pamphlet (I refuse to call it a document) that would have been laughed out of any sector or industry that the Government actually took seriously.

Families received the odd brochure or postcard, buried under an avalanche of Government advertising detailing how much money they were spending on rebates.

A bizarre and divisive fund for professional wages was delivered at the last-minute, which has only served to deepen the divisions and frustrations of the sector.

The Government’s implementation approach to the NQF seemed to be tossing it to the sector, and then wandering off with a quick “let us know how you get on”. Even with two years to meet the initial qualification requirements in 2014, huge swathes of the sector were never going to get there.

The best analogy I can think of is like asking a straight-jacketed person to do the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – it was never going to go well.

Structural and foundational work needed to be done before these reforms could really flourish – the low wages and professional standing of the educators in the sector; the incompatibility of ECEC with for-profit providers; lack of targeted funding to support children and families with vulnerabilities, and the educators who work with them – just to name a few.

The straight-jacket holding the sector wasn’t removed – the Government didn’t even seem to notice that there were issues.

From that point of view, it is simple to argue that the reforms should be put on hold.

The Government has gifted the Coalition a major goal on ECEC. Their failure to invest the necessary funding and support into the sector has allowed the Coalition to persuasively argue that the reforms are not really that great and are actually making things worse.

As an advocate for the human right of each child in Australia to a quality education, and the potential power of our sector to raise children out of inequality and vulnerability, I am furious with the Government.

The National Quality Framework should have been the turning point the sector so badly needs. Many people reading this will cast me as now advocating against the reforms – to be clear, this is completely not the case.

Do I want to see the reforms to be slowed, or wound back? Absolutely not.

But there is little point in pushing ahead with the 2014 requirements that are simply impossible for the sector to meet. What is the point in having the requirements if half the sector is on waivers?

The mismanagement of the NQF implementation may hamper our fight for recognition and structural reform for years. What a legacy.

Universal ECEC is not “Boys Vs. Girls”

An interesting article from Lucy Powell in The Guardian UK on the failure of the UK Government to invest in their childcare sector. It makes some good points, particularly the evidence that the huge investment required to truly have universal access for all children would be of long-term benefit to the country.

It’s time for government to stop tinkering and take childcare seriously. We see business case after business case for boys’ toys like planes and trains – high-speed rail and airport expansion. Government should develop the case for childcare as a key economic driver to get women – and it is still mainly women – back into work and earning their full potential to benefit not only families but also the country.

The case for free universal childcare should be seriously explored. The IPPR has shown that universal childcare – 25 hours of free childcare for children from one to four – would pay a return to the Exchequer of £20,050 over four years in terms of tax revenue minus the cost of childcare for every woman who returns to work full time after a year of maternity leave. Childcare investment would not only get our economy moving, it would also help the development of young children and begin to level the playing field between poorer children and their peers when they start school.

Powell does unfortunately couch the article primarily in terms of economic outcomes – the needs of children are only lightly touched on. I also question the reducing of traditional infrastructure investment as “boy’s toys” – quality infrastructure is also vital in lifting families out of vulnerable circumstances.

It serves no-one to reduce the argument to “Boys Vs. Girls”, or infrastructure vs. childcare. Investment is needed in both, and universal access to early education and care would significantly redress the gender imbalances in families that Powell rightly points out still exists.

The terrifying reality of American “daycare”

Trusting your child with someone else is one of the hardest things that a parent has to do—and in the United States, it’s harder still, because American day care is a mess. About 8.2 million kids—about 40 percent of children under five—spend at least part of their week in the care of somebody other than a parent. Most of them are in centers, although a sizable minority attend home day cares. In other countries, such services are subsidized and well-regulated. In the United States, despite the fact that work and family life has changed profoundly in recent decades, we lack anything resembling an actual child care system. Excellent day cares are available, of course, if you have the money to pay for them and the luck to secure a spot. But the overall quality is wildly uneven and barely monitored, and at the lower end, it’s Dickensian.

Jonathan Cohn, New Republic (15/4/2013)

Equal parts fascinating and horrifying, this lengthy and in-depth article on the shocking inadequacies of the American system of early childhood care and education is recommended reading for anyone working in the ECEC field. This article serves as the counter-balance to any push for less regulation and lower standards in Australia.

Well worth putting aside half an hour and reading.

Welcoming men into ECEC

The most recent figures from the Australian Productivity Commission put the percentage of male educators working in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector at 3 per cent.

This is obviously an incredibly small amount, and is similar to other countries around the world. Why do so few men choose to work in early education?

There is no one simple answer to this question. Working with young children has traditionally been seen in society as a women’s role. The “traditional” roles of men and women were as “breadwinners” and “nurturers” respectively.

As child care and early education developed in Australia, there was a common societal understanding that the work would be performed primarily by women.

But as gender attitudes and preconceptions change, this is increasingly seen as the wrong way to look at the roles of men and women in early education.

Women have, and still are, fighting the battle to be seen as equally able to have a successful career and take powerful leadership roles in the business community.

This means that expectations around fathers have also slowly changed. Men can now expect to share the work of raising children, where once it was solely the women’s domain.

This cultural shift does not seem to have extended to early education though. The low percentage of male educators is evidence that the profession is still regarded in society as women’s work.

This, when combined with a national shortage of qualified educators and high rates of turnover, constitutes a serious problem for the ECEC sector.

Low wages and lack of professional recognition are a problem for all educators, male and female. The low wage is often given as a significant reason for the inability to recruit male educators. While this is certainly a factor, it is surely not the only reason.

The underlying problem lies in the perception of the work. When it is seen primarily as women’s work, men who choose to begin a career in ECEC can be viewed with suspicion by families and even by fellow educators.

Paul Sargent, a US-based education researcher, has collected many stories of male educators suffering prejudice and suspicion. He notes that even if they manage to avoid the worst of this, they are often expected to perform their roles in particularly “masculine” ways – for instance, focusing on outdoor play and physical development activities.

This can be problematic for men who work with children in different ways, such as being nurturing and caring. Men who act outside “the way men should act” are likely to be viewed as “different”, if not viewed with outright suspicion.

Anecdotally however, there are many examples of services wishing for more male educators. They are often described as a bringing a different perspective to the work environment, particularly among teams that have always been completely staffed by women.

Research has also shown that positive male role models in the early years can deliver benefits to children and families in disadvantage.

Yet this has not translated into higher numbers of men entering the ECEC sector as educators and teachers.

With the staffing crisis currently in evidence around the country, it is clear that breaking down the barriers to men choosing a career in the sector can only be of positive benefit to ECEC centres.

If the percentage could be raised even slightly, to 10 or 15 per cent, this would constitute a large number of new educators and teachers working with children.

So what can ECEC organisations, managers and directors do to encourage more men to apply for one of the vacancies in their centres?

A good place to start is in the centre itself. How are male role models portrayed in your learning environments? Is there evidence of fathers and male teachers and educators positively engaging in the lives of children? Do men feel welcomed into your space?

Make a decision to include a positive male image in all centre marketing and published materials. This works to reinforce in the minds of potential applicants that they have a place in your organisation. It also actively counteracts negative and damaging prejudices in society about men working with young children.

A great example of this is with the NSW-based organisation Big Fat Smile, which clearly sets out in its marketing that men are encouraged to work in their ECEC centres. This is a very inclusive approach to marketing a career in the sector.

Get involved with local schools, colleges and careers fairs and talk to young men about the rewarding career opportunities that come from working in ECEC.

Include positive stories from men already working in your organisation in newsletters and updates to families and the wider community.

Retaining men in the sector is just as important as recruitment, so it is important that men (as with all educators) are supported during induction and probation periods.

Issues that may arise with families (usually in the Infants rooms) need to be sensitively and respectfully managed. Leaders in the ECEC organisation need to take a proactive role in working with families to challenge bias and prejudice, and not simply move a male educator out of an Infants room.

It is also important that organisations, leaders and educators reflect on diverse ways of working with children, and ensure that men feel comfortable teaching and educating children in a way that works for them.

This is also important to share with children. The Early Years Learning Framework encourages us to work with children on challenging gender bias and assumptions. We need to remind children that boys can play with dolls, and girls can engage in construction activities (to use two simple examples).

Breaking down gender stereotypes with young children can give them a positive attitude to their own potential and those of their peers, and work to change the broader views of society.

Just as we are still working to embed the idea in society that girls can grow up to be and do anything they choose, in ECEC settings we need to see organisations demonstrating and advocating that teaching and educating is not “women’s work”, but a rewarding profession for all.

This article was originally published April 16 2013 on the website careforkids.com.au.

ECEC wage funding only a small part of much-needed wage reform

The childcare sector is 98% composed of female staff. Increasing pay equity in this profession symbolises the ALP strategy to combat decreasing productivity growth by tackling the complexities of our labour market.

But it also speaks to the necessity of attracting women into the workforce more generally.

This is a problem conservatives do not appear to have analysed sufficiently. Tony Abbott leaves himself open to criticism that he is propping up antiquated traditions about the family (code for a male head-of- household) so he can cling to economically unsustainable views about the labour market (that women are supplementary to the “real” earners).

Chris Peers, The Conversation (22/3/2013)

The wages of early childhood educators are clearly a product of the gendering of the sector, as acknowledged by the Government’s commitment to support a pay equity case through Fair Work Australia.

Until the work of the social and community sector is properly valued, and that means wages, this debate will continue. The Government can be applauded for taking the first minor step, but Chris Peers is right in that it does not come close to addressing the complexities of the issue.

Retail more financially rewarding than educating children

[Tanya Holmes], a traineeship diploma educator at South Penrith’s Bollygum Childcare Centre, will complete her diploma of children’s services this year.

Ms Holmes said she was forced to take a second job, in retail, to make ends meet.

And she was considering leaving the industry because it was too tough to provide for her family.

Alexis Carey, TheTelegraph.com.au (7/3/2013)

Great to see more of the individual stories of struggling educators out there, particularly on International Women’s Day.

Attention on the lack of men in ECEC, but what are the causes?

[Early childhood educator] Mr Wagland, 48, happily spends most of his days interacting with children outside, passing on his love of the environment, focussed “on ground level”.

“You don’t notice that your workplace is full of women because you are actually working with children all day,” he said.

Martina Simos, Adelaide Now (4/3/2013)

To be blunt, this article is an incredibly lightweight look at a complex issue. Childcare SA President Sam Mahony (who recently threatened to use ECEC children and families in a political campaign against Minister Kate Ellis) claims that men are wary of entering a female-dominated industry, which may be true, but he does not (in this article at least) raise the issues of professional wages, professional respect and potential suspicion of men who choose to work with young children.

Mr Wagland’s comments also unfortunately reinforce existing stereotypes on men who work with children. Happily spending his days outside with the children is great, but tends to reflect a preconception that male educators and teachers focus on physical development and games with children. This ignores the male educators and teachers who work with children in other areas across the range of holistic early childhood learning. This then creates further challenges for men who do not fit the existing stereotype to join the sector.

As for the comment “You don’t notice that your workplace is full of women”, this is sadly entirely missing the rather obvious point that ECEC workplaces are full of women. This is tied into cultural norms that place women in the role of caregiver, and then into low-paying and lowly-respected roles as essentially “babysitters”.

I would suggest to Mr Wagland that he perhaps takes a another look around his centre and advocate for community recognition of his work and the work of his colleagues he appears not to have noticed.