This afternoon, more than 1000 early childhood educators will walk off the job early.
Dozens of childcare centres around the country will close their doors at 3.20pm as their staff protest the persistently low wages afforded to early educators.
Today, on International Women’s Day, we must acknowledge the contribution child care has made in allowing more women to re-enter the work force after starting a family. The ability to access early education has played an important role in boosting female workforce participation and in reducing the gender pay gap.
But on today of all days, we also need to be thinking of the people who keep our child care system going. These people are overwhelmingly women - 97 per cent of educators are female.
In thinking about this issue, it is important to recognise the nature of our modern early education system. The role of early educators has changed substantially over the years. Australia now has a National Quality Framework for early education which requires professional qualifications and standards. Our educators are certainly not unskilled baby-sitters. Their jobs are definitely not, as Senator Leyonheljm recently described, confined to ‘wiping noses and stopping the kids from killing each other’.
There is clear evidence to show the powerful ability early education has to assist in solving social problems and in addressing inequality in our community. We know that vulnerable and disadvantaged children have the most to gain from quality care in these early years.
We also know that 90 per cent of a child’s brain development occurs in the first five years. Children who have access to quality early education go on to have better results at school, in employment and in life.
The reality is that as the quality and standards of early education in Australia have improved, the pay for its educators has not kept up. This is a real problem and it is apparent in the high turnover of staff - many educators leave child care roles to pursue other careers.
Our early educators do an incredibly important job. Child care workers show an extraordinary amount of professionalism, dedication and compassion in their jobs every day.
The positive influence early educators have in these formative years cannot be overstated. These workers are now very much responsible for laying the foundations of learning and the development of our next generation.
Something is very wrong when those with charge of our youngest minds are earning less than half the average national wage. Most educators do their job because they love it, not because it is highly paid. But love does not pay the bills.
Australian early educations are now pursuing a pay case on the grounds that the feminised nature of the sector has contributed to their stalled rates of pay. They argue that early educators are earning less than male-dominated industries that involve similar qualifications, skills and responsibilities.
It’s really important that they are successful – both for their own financial security and out of respect for the hard work they do. But it is also important for parents who want the peace of mind in knowing that when they drop their child off, they will be in the care of someone they know and trust.
This should matter to everyone who values early education and child care. Our early educators play an important role in supporting women in the workforce. They should receive our support in return.