Staff retention crisis: 3 things that need to change

Published on Tuesday, 09 March 2021
Last updated on Wednesday, 08 December 2021

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Finding – and keeping – quality early educators has long been a challenge in Australian child care. The pandemic has only exacerbated the situation; staff are departing the industry in droves, leaving child care centres across Australia facing serious staff shortages.

“Many child care workers across Australia left when parents started pulling their children out of childcare due to the pandemic, especially casuals not eligible for JobKeeper. And when the federal government introduced its temporary free childcare package, centres struggled to get the staff back,” said Jen Jackson, Program Director at the Centre for Policy Development and Associate Professor of Education at Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, in an article she recently wrote for The Conversation.

But the situation is nothing new, she said; “In a 2016 survey of 1,200 early childhood educators and teachers in child care centres and preschools across Australia, one in five said they planned to leave their job within a year. The reasons included low pay, feeling undervalued and increasing time spent on paperwork. High staff turnover — of up to 30% — is an enduring problem in early childhood services.”

The loss of skilled early educators is a loss for children, affecting not just their learning but their wellbeing. It’s also a drain on the public purse as it means more government money being allocated to training new staff, she said. 

The Australian Government is currently working on a National Early Childhood Workforce Strategy that aims to address retention issues within our industry, due for release later in 2021.

Solving the crisis requires three key changes to policy and practice, according to a recent report from The Mitchell Institute.

  1. Value what educators do

Professional, skilled and engaged early childhood educators are crucial to social and economic productivity and can affect a child’s learning and outlook for life. To attract qualified educators, they need to receive a fair wage.

“Most early childhood educators are paid well below the Australian average gross weekly earnings,” said Jackson. “Educators with vocational certifications are the lowest paid and earn less for doing skilled work with children than a trainee working in a call centre.” Staff with vocational training make up almost 40 per cent of the early childhood workforce, making them vital to the sector’s survival.

There have been some small wins recently. In Victoria, for example, qualified preschool teachers were recently given a pay increase of up to 31 per cent. However, the boost only helps around 50,000 educators in the state – a fairly small proportion of the sector.

“More people using early childhood education and care services, and governments lifting the bar for quality, means Australia will still need to recruit 6,800 degree-qualified early childhood teachers to 2024, as well as over 30,000 more educators with vocational diplomas and certificates. This will only happen if all educators are valued and have opportunities for rewarding careers,” said Jackson.

  1. Make staff wellbeing a priority

COVID-19 has impacted early education staff in immeasurable ways, from adhering to rapidly changing policies, concern about job loss and financial insecurity, extra work around COVID-safe hygiene, funding challenges and supporting families and children whose lives have been turned upside down.

“The well-being of educators matters to children’s learning. Recent Australian research shows that educators with greater well-being can better respond to children in playful, educational ways that support their learning and development. Educators need support for their physical health and well-being, especially given the challenges of maintaining COVID-safe environments,” said Jackson.

Making staff wellbeing a priority can also encourage quality staff to stay, she said. “Meaningful career paths and supportive workplace cultures are one way to boost retention, according to research. While 80% of educators feel supported by their managers, low wages and limited access to professional development and promotion constrain educators’ careers. Expert educators need more opportunities to become mentors and leaders, to motivate them to stay in the sector and inspire new educators to learn.”

  1. Streamline the funding system

Early childhood services are paid for by a variety of different sources, which is a key barrier to getting educators’ pay and conditions right. Governments pay around half the total cost of early childhood services, supported by State Government contributions to preschool, and families pay the remainder. It’s up to centre employers to decide how much to pay staff, within various industrial agreements. “This means educators’ wages and conditions are everybody’s problem and nobody’s problem,” said Jackson. 

Nobody seems to disagree that early educators need to be paid better – they just can’t agree who should pay for it. “Former Education Minister Dan Tehan has said paying educators more is up to employers. Employers and unions argue governments need to contribute more funding to the sector before educators’ wages can increase. Families are already stretched and passing costs on to them seems unthinkable in the current economic climate,” said Jackson.

Similar issues arise when it comes to making changes to staff conditions, such as ensuring educators have enough time for professional development – something few receive at this time.

“Government funding to early childhood services needs to be high enough to support fair wages and delivered in a way that ensures it is spent well,” said Jackson. “With different funding models in each state, and thousands of employers, it won’t be easy to design a system that works for everyone. But governments have a responsibility to Australian families to ensure all educators are paid enough to stay.”

With the education and wellbeing of our children on the line, let’s hope Australia can get it right in 2021.

This story is based on an article written by Jen Jackson that appeared in The Conversation.

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