Tackling the complex issue of workforce shortage

We know little about the day-to-day work of EC teachers – differing so markedly as it does from the work of teachers in other settings.

If Australia is to reap the considerable benefits that access to quality early childhood education (ECE) promises for a diverse range of child, family and social outcomes, then the chronic shortage of qualified early childhood staff is an area requiring urgent policy attention, Dr Sandie Wong writes.

Suitably qualified and stable staff, with appropriate numbers of staff to children, is critical to the provision of quality EC. If policy is to effectively address the EC workforce shortage, it needs to be informed about the reasons why there is a shortage in the first place.

Reasons for Australia’s EC workforce shortage are complex. In part, it is due to recent legislative changes requiring all staff in Australian EC services to have an EC qualification. This has placed increased demands on the workforce and some educators have left the field rather than upgrade qualifications.

Also to blame is the public perception of the work of the EC teacher. It is difficult to attract new recruits with realistic expectations about the demands of the work when public discourse about the profession construes it as akin to babysitting or playing with children.

Similarly, it is challenging to sustain teachers through costly and on going professional development when there is little public awareness of the specific skills and professional knowledge base required for quality EC provision, and little recognition of the professional status of EC teachers.

Burnout risk

Commensurate with these images, is the long history of poor wages and conditions in the EC field relative to similar professions, a well documented cause of attrition of EC staff. Further, the stress and demands of catering to the needs of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens – children in the most formative period of their life and their families, many of whom face complex and challenging circumstances – can lead to burnout and attrition, especially when the complexity of the work goes unrecognised and unacknowledged.

Indeed, we know little about the day to day work of EC teachers – differing so markedly as it does from the work of teachers in other settings. We also still have much to learn about why EC teachers are attracted to the field, why they stay and why they leave. Current large scale data sources, such as the National Early Childhood Education and Care Workforce Census, provide some information, but lack detail and fail to capture nuanced understandings.

If the complex issue of EC workforce shortage is to be addressed, then policy initiatives will likewise need to be multifaceted. They will require attention to pay and conditions. But they will also require ongoing attention to reconfiguring public images: of young children as citizens with rights to quality educational environments; of ECE as a profession requiring specialist knowledge and skills; and of EC teachers as highly skilled professionals.

To shift these images we need detailed evidence about the work of the teacher. A key focus for future research then is the identification and articulation of the nature and complexity of early childhood pedagogies, including the skills, knowledge and dispositions of the teacher that underpin excellence in ECE, as well as the social/cultural and organisational factors that impact on this work (Press, Harrison, Wong, Gibson, & Ryan, 2015). Only when we understand the complexity of the work can effective workforce policy be developed.

Dr Sandie Wong is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Teacher Education, Charles Sturt University, and a member of the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education.