The welfare of early childhood educators is important, given the sector is in crisis with turnover rates of at least 30%. In a survey of 4000 educators, 73% said they planned to leave in the next three years. Of those who plan to stay, 46% say they think about going ‘all of the time’ or ‘most of the time’.
Educator welfare is also vital because it affects the quality of their interactions with young children. The quality of interactions is key to the quality of education and care the children receive in these crucial years. Each child is unique, and so is their family, community and early childhood service, meaning educators need to be skillful in adjusting to their needs.
A transnational study into the professional lives of educators in Australia, Canada, and Denmark explores the effects of managerial systems such as educator morale, unpaid hours and the reduction of quality during accreditation, and burnout.
The Australian data was collected from 51 early childhood educators with different positions and qualifications, working in various types of services and locations in Australia. The data revealed 70% felt overtired at work three or more times a week. Over 60% said they felt overwhelmed more than three times a week.
Figure 1: Overtiredness in early childhood educators
Figure 2: Early childhood educators’ feelings of being overwhelmed
Educators’ fatigue and feelings of being overwhelmed directly links to the demanding nature of educators’ work. Educators are typically attracted to the profession because they want to work with children. However, on joining the workforce, they find themselves collecting vast amounts of data for the government to prove they are doing their job rather than focusing on teaching. One commented that:
‘The reporting requirements are onerous, so perhaps an adjustment (is needed) here to allow for more time and emphasis to be placed on interactions and relationships’.
Often the amount of data required by government agencies is overwhelming, and needs to be done in their own time, such as lunch breaks and at home, despite being the 13th lowest paid workers in Australia. At other times, they are expected to collect the data when they are trying to teach young children, which is overwhelming.
One educator said:
‘I can see why requirements are there – but at times it all feels overwhelming; somehow we need to be freed up to do what we do best.’
The need for all this managerial data to prove that educators are doing their job is questionable because it does not produce quality. The Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) is responsible for the curricula, framework, and standards in early childhood education. They delegate state and territory authorities to check standards through accreditation (Assessment and Rating).
Managerial systems situate workers as unable to do their job and they are not trusted to create quality, so huge documents are designed to micromanage them. Workers have to prove they follow these documents daily, taking up extraordinary amounts of time, especially during accreditation. They are often unable to decipher the meaning of the requirements, nor reason behind them. An educator said:
‘The accreditation process also seems quite random with different assessors having different views on acceptable practice’.
Satisfaction and frustration
These managerial systems lead to dissatisfaction in the workforce. For example, the study found that over 25% felt satisfied at work less than three times a week. Conversely, over 68% felt frustrated at work three or more times a week.
Figure 3: The frustration levels of educators
Feeding their frustration levels, educators reported on their ability to extend and support children’s interests, with 23% saying they could only do this a few times or less a week. Alarmingly, 21% said they were doing what they were trained to do only a few times a week or less. One educator said the government should ‘limit the amount of documentation required so educators can spend more quality time with children instead of trying to checkboxes and meet documentation guidelines’ and another said ‘some paperwork makes no sense’.
Educators ideas for a better system
Despite the negative findings, the educators themselves were able to identify many ways for government agencies to improve the system. These included:
- the government would be welcome if they had a local contact who knows the service and provides advice. The only contact we have at the moment is a policing service.
- allow flexibility in delivery. Not all children learn the same way, and not all educators deliver a great program in the same way.
- increase ratios, decrease required documentation.
Figure 4: Wordle created from the complete list of educators’ ideas
Pandemic pressures and real reform
While educators work has been made much harder by the Covid-19 pandemic, the flaws in the system were already there. The pandemic has increased the pressure, with many services struggling to find enough staff. One educator summarised this by saying
‘we are burnt out and leaving the industry in droves because rather than having quality educators, we are getting pushed for quantity. Children are being seen as a commodity, and it needs to stop’.
The NSW Premier, Domonic Perrottet has called for radical changes in the sector, including funding and usability. Unless we have real reform, our children’s critical early childhood education and care is at risk.