Over a million children are now in some kind of formal education and care, such as long day care, family day care or school-age care. But many of the organisations that provide these programs have a history of uneven and in some cases non-existent quality control. This was the case until the introduction of the Federal Government's National Quality Framework (NQF) in January 2012.
The NQF aimed to unify disparate state and territory regulation and law. It also introduced a new framework for supporting children's learning and wellbeing (the Early Years Learning Framework), increasing educator-to-child ratios and set up a new agency to assess and rate children's education and care services.
Another key change (due to be phased in from the beginning of 2014) is the requirement for every educator to have a minimum qualification of a Certificate III in Children's Services. In most cases, 50 per cent of all educators will be required to have at least a Diploma of Children's Services.
All long day care centres will also be required to employ at least one university-qualified early childhood teacher. Larger centres will need more.
The evidence is clear that improving the qualification levels of early childhood educators significantly improves educational outcomes for children. It can also improve children's likely performance in primary and secondary school.
I strongly support the requirement that anyone working towards the education of young children has a qualification. This represents a key shift in our professional work, and there is is no reasonable argument against it.
We wouldn't trust anybody without a qualification to repair our drains, but up until now it has been appropriate for unqualified people to educate our youngest children.
Those who do argue against these requirements are either concerned about their profit margins (such as the Australian Childcare Alliance), or believe that childcare is essentially babysitting and can be handled by anyone with a police check and a caring nature.
But the Government has been slow to realise that matching philosophy with practice is going to be challenging.
The education and care sector has struggled for decades to attract qualified educators, particularly at the diploma level. High expectations and workloads, shift-style employment and laughable wages have not exactly had people stampeding to their local TAFE.
To put it into perspective, the wage rise from a Certificate III to a Diploma is in most cases only around $2 an hour. A diploma-trained educator is expected to manage a room, including other staff members; plan for the individual learning of every child attending in that room; be responsible for opening and closing the centre at some times; and dozens of other key responsibilities — two years of study for $2 extra an hour.
The situation with early childhood teachers is even more dire. A teacher who chooses to work in the Long Day Care sector is literally choosing to forgo around $20,000 in salary compared to their counterparts in the preschool system. They also have less time for documentation and planning, far less annual leave and will also most likely have extra responsibilities around mentoring their colleagues.
As with many other aspects of the NQF, The federal government seems determined to wilfully ignore the practical implementation issues.
Put simply there is no chance at all that the early childhood education sector will be able to meet the NQF qualification requirements by January 2014.
Unfortunately, the Government's Early Childhood Workforce Strategy fails to provide any meaningful support for these requirements beyond limited funding for qualification scholarships and vague statements about supporting the professionalism of the sector.
Without immediate intervention in areas such as wages, professionalism and career pathways it is clear that these qualification requirements will be completely unreachable. Even that level of intervention right now would not be able to fix this issue by next year.
This will be unlikely to come from a Coalition government intent on either rolling back or halting the NQS reforms.
The Labor Government has made some small steps towards supporting educators, but as I have written before this has raised its own issues of equity. The only long-term solution to attracting, retaining and supporting early childhood educators and teachers — and through them, children — is to fundamentally change how we fund and value their work. This will require a national conversation around early education that would rival the Gonski debate, it needs to happen soon.
Ireland, which utilises a similar mix of private and not-for-profit operators, is currently reeling from media reports of serious misconduct in their education and care sector. Many have made the link between these incidents and an underpaid and undervalued workforce.
Without a fundamental review of how we support our early education sector, it is inevitable that similar issues will emerge here in Australia.
My only hope is that this is the start of the national discussion about the need for highly qualified teachers and educators to work with our youngest children, and the benefits to society as a whole that will flow from that work.