Keeping Bright Minds In Childcare

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Ash Keating leaves her home in North Parramatta around 6am for her 7:30am shift at Moore Park Gardens Child Care Centre in East Redfern. The centre, located in a residential/commercial complex, provides long day care for children age 0-5 years.

There are eight educators, one cook and a director working at the centre on this particular Monday. Keating is team leader of under threes and works four 10-hour shifts each week. She has the responsibility to ensure the safety and welfare of all the children in the under threes room, which includes documenting behaviour, watching out for child protection issues, administering medication and CPR if required and supporting parents and families with parenting issues. She also educates parents about early childhood development and trains the five educators who are new to the sector.

The day I join her, Keating starts off with the preschoolers until their teacher arrives. "Who is choosing the book today?", Keating asks the ten kids seated on the floor. "Me! Me!", they chorus. After a democratic process, we end up with The Bear and the Rabbit. "What does the illustrator do?", Keating asks. "He puts the words in", ventures one little boy. "No, that’s the orfa", says another.

When the teacher arrives, I follow Keating into the "under threes" room, divided by a little gate between the infants (0-18 months) and the toddlers (18 months-three years). The lighting is soft, the walls are painted bright colours, and there is a distinct aroma of nappies.

I chat briefly with Sharn, one of the co-owners of the centre. She has 20 years of experience in the industry and talks with genuine passion about the educational philosophy of the centre, the critical importance of education in the first three years to a child’s future development, as well as the challenges the sector faces.

She explains that the children undertake a mix of structured activities and free play, with a total of 10 educator-initiated activities per day based on every child’s individual developmental goals. Each experience and activity has planning, preparation, observation and discussion behind it, with the educators focused on how the child can be assessed against the Early Years Learning Framework.

Sharn highlights three issues that are of key concern to her centre, and to the industry as a whole. First, Sharn and co-owner Alice are working to prepare the centre for an imminent inspection under the new National Quality Framework for Early Education and Care.

Second, the issue of pay and professional status for "educators", a term preferred to childcare workers. "People don’t look at childcare work as a profession," says Sharn. "Educators are not babysitters and we need to educate children to go into schools confidently." Third, the tension between the need to increase pay to meet higher standards and reward staff and that of limiting fee increases for parents.

According to the Productivity Commission, the early childhood education and care sector provides services to 1.5 million children and has a workforce of 140,000 (70,000 in long day care), 97 per cent of whom are female.

An ABS report found that the proportion of children in formal care, which includes long day care, increased from 17 per cent to 22 per cent between 1999-2008. The same report found that there was an unmet need for childcare for 89,000 children age 0-12 and that parents of 17,000 children who had applied for a childcare place were unable to find one. The report also stated that the average net weekly cost of 19 hours of long day care in 2008 was $73.

But, according to George Megalogenis, childcare fees have risen at 8.2 per cent per year, three times the rate of inflation, since 2009. Eva Cox cites data from the government’s MyChild website showing fees ranging between $70 and $140 per day, with the childcare benefit and childcare rebate together covering a maximum of $70.

There have been several significant changes in the early education and care under the Rudd-Gillard government. These include lifting the non-means tested childcare rebate from 30 per cent-50 per cent of fees with a $7,500 cap; committing to 15 hours of free preschool per week for all children in the year before school by 2013; building 260 new childcare centres (38 were built) and developing the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education aimed at improving training; developing a national curriculum framework for early learning; improving educator-child ratios; and improving quality and regulation across the sector.

The Productivity Commission report argues that these changes and new policy goals will require an additional 15,000 workers and that wages will need to rise to attract new entrants to the industry and be competitive with those offered in primary school teaching.

United Voice, the main union covering workers in the sector, has launched its Big Steps in Early Childhood education campaign with the aim of boosting the professional status and wages of early education workers. The union reports that the recent Fair Work Australia decision to increase the minimum wage by 2.9 per cent will see wages for permanent workers in the industry rise for Certificate III qualified educators to $18.58 per hour, Diploma qualified educators to $22.21 and Diploma/Degree qualified Directors (up to 39 children) to $27.05. This compares with wages for primary school teachers wages of around $30-$35 per hour.

There is the central challenge of trying to improve wages and conditions within the industry while limiting the fee burden on parents. According to some commentators, the current funding model, based on providing around $4 billion a year directly to parents, makes meeting this challenge especially difficult as increased rebates can be swallowed up in fee rises.

United Voice is pushing for additional $1.4 billion a year for early education while others, such as academics Elizabeth Hill and Barbara Pocock and commentator Eva Cox, are advocating direct government funding of centres to break the rebate-fee rise cycle and improve the quality and distribution of early education services.

The big reform agenda concerns everyone involved in the sector, from educators and directors, to politicians and bureaucrats, and parents and their children. But Keating’s immediate priority on Monday at 11:30am is to make sure all the toddlers eat their lunch before naptime.

Keating grew up in Kiama, south of Sydney, where her mum worked as a counselor for DOCS and her Dad was a project manager for a recycling firm. She tells me she always wanted to work with kids and was a permanent babysitter for her cousins while growing up. After school she worked as assistant childcare worker for two years before completing her Certificate III qualification and then a one-year Diploma in Children’s Services. She wants to do more study and to one day own her own centre.

It’s not difficult to see why Alice and Sharn have offered her more responsibility. Keating is 22 but has the calm, mature presence of someone ten years older. She is a member of the union and strongly supports the Big Steps campaign. She has worked with infants, toddlers and preschoolers but tells me "toddlers are my thing. They rely on you. You shape who they are going to become. I like seeing that change. In preschool they’ve already got such a personality."

After lunch, Keating joins Sharn in the office to do some programming. Every month the centre produces a journal, there are new group and individual activities planned each week, and a daily slideshow for parents with notes and pictures for each child. Activities include "Singing Bangladeshi songs to children in small group time" (one educator is Bangladeshi), "dinosaur playdough" and teaching good behaviour and hygeine.

Trim, well-dressed parents start arriving around 4:30pm and continue trickling in until the centre closes at 6pm. When I leave, Keating is still outside cleaning up the toy storeroom, prolonging her ten-and-a-half hour day.

There are big changes underway in early childhood education that raise important issues regarding the professional status and remuneration of those working in the sector and the sustainability of current funding models. The way these issues are resolved will have a big impact on our society and economy and may determine whether passionate, committed people like Ash Keating remain in the industry or take their talents and energy elsewhere.

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