In April 2015 New Zealand Herald reporter Kirsty Johnston ran a week-long series of reports on the status of early childhood education in Aotearoa New Zealand. The key matter for public concern was the quality of education and care provided for children up to the age of five. A number of questions were raised about the variable quality of education and care experiences, leadership and management practices, the impact of the private, for-profit sector, teacher qualifications, group size and teacher-to-child ratios, and teachers’ working conditions. This paper addresses some of these questions and concerns and suggests that sustained public debate and policy development is required if the nation is to meet shared goals for early childhood care and education. The paper looks at a range of critical and interconnected factors, with a particular focus on teacher working conditions.
Early childhood teachers’ working conditions
Teachers’ working conditions are linked with the quality of a child’s experiences of care and education. There are persistent challenges for early childhood teachers, including high attrition and low staff retention rates, inadequate support in induction and mentoring processes, low social and career prospects, and unacceptable levels of teacher burnout. These working conditions impact on, for example, the quality of teachers’ responsive and reciprocal relationships with children, their planning and assessment, their work with wider professional support networks in education and health, and their support for vulnerable children. The latter of these aspects has been recognised in the current Children’s Workforce Survey being conducted by The Children’s Action Plan Directorate.
In a recent nationwide survey of 601 teachers, it was found that a quarter of teachers held reservations about the quality of their centres. Issues raised included:
- Lack of time to develop relationships with children
- Insufficient management support
- Poor teacher to child ratios
- Long working hours
- Risk of emotional and physical burnout
The situation is not unique to Aotearoa New Zealand, as Australia experiences similar concerns. Early childhood workers are poorly paid and their efforts undervalued, with retention of early childhood educators significantly lower than in other care-based professions. Australian researcher Jovanovic points out: ‘Legislative, structural and operational requirements constrain the ability of participants to collaborate across the board and to enhance the quality of their educative care.’ And looking globally, the OECD recognises that working conditions and the associated status of the profession are essential policy issues. Educational policymakers, researchers, and teacher education institutions have significant work to do in order to address these concerns and to develop an approach to sector-wide, support-focused agenda, engaging whānau, teachers, services and associations in productive and inclusive discussions. In other words, public policy should focus on enhancing dialogue and support rather than increasing surveillance and governance which are unlikely to impact positively on teacher working conditions.
It is of critical concern to the sector that the New Zealand Herald reports highlighted the unwillingness of early childhood teachers to reveal their identities when commenting on concerns about the quality of early childhood education and care. These early childhood teachers are qualified professionals, registered with the Education Council of Aotearoa New Zealand, and are responsible to children, parents, communities, and the nation; and yet, they are not willing to be identified. Teachers may require anonymity because of the fear of retribution, exploitation, or to protect their local centres, children and communities. Whatever the rationale is, it is clear that these early childhood teachers are aware of their predicament, and that their working conditions are not likely to improve if they are afraid, unwilling, or feel prohibited, to express a professional opinion. This reluctance has a significant impact on the professional identity of teachers in their early childhood centre community. One teacher has highlighted these tensions, identifying the significant barriers and difficulties encountered when raising concerns about early childhood centre practices.
Professional identity and wellbeing
In research conducted at the University of Auckland, newly qualified early childhood teachers expressed concerns about disconnectedness in their professional lives. They emphasised the importance of collective experience and knowledge within centre communities. In this way beginning teachers are showing a strong commitment to working publically for the care and education of young children.
The public engagement of teachers in debates on early childhood care and education quality is evidence of a healthy education system, not least when they focus on concerns about teacher knowledge. Quality teaching in early childhood education involves strong teaching teams who can work with the immense amount of knowledge on teaching practice, weaving together the academic research on curriculum and child development with the views of the community in which they work.
Concerns about teachers’ working conditions are exacerbated by the findings of another study in Australia showing that poor working conditions in early childhood compromise educators’ mental health. According to this research, early childhood teachers are not well rewarded for their work, with a considerable proportion of educators reporting moderate-to-severe psychological distress. These working conditions were found to impact on mental health outcomes, with over 40% of teachers reporting psychological distress. We can speculate that similar outcomes occur in Aotearoa New Zealand; and it would be neither responsible nor ethical to lay the blame for this situation at the feet of the teachers themselves.
Leadership and management practices
A report commissioned for the former New Zealand Teachers Council (now Education Council) identified limited policy development in the area of early childhood pedagogical leadership, and discussed concerns about how leadership is conceptualised in early childhood centres. The argument is that effective models for working together in teaching teams should come from within the profession, specific to the contexts and aspirations of teachers, and be critically attuned to the complexities of centre communities.
The graduates we have worked with in the above study talk confidently about the idea of belonging to communities of practice, believing that as they find their way into the workforce they will have opportunities for collaboration, teamwork, self-critique and further opportunities of learning and professional development.
Important to this collaboration is appropriate feedback from the wider community, including whānau, to ensure that the quality of early childhood centres is openly and critically discussed. This requires that all stakeholders, particularly teachers and parents, be encouraged to discuss, and report their aspirations and concerns with early childhood centre leadership, with the sector’s policy makers and advocacy or lobby groups, and with academics, researchers and teacher educators.
The quality of early childhood care and education is critically influenced by the quality of teacher working conditions. The issues identified in this paper require sustained and critical public debate, including everyone’s voices, and informed direction from policy makers. Encouraging and growing public debate can be productively performed in partnerships with a focus on support rather than entrenching systems of surveillance. To facilitate such communication, members of our communities, and teachers in particular, need to feel welcome to share opinions – as a step towards improving what we may consider as quality.
 Child Forum, 7 October 2015, ‘Not all teachers supported to provide quality early childhood education, survey reveals’. From http://www.childforum.com/news-early-childhood-education-latest/1324-not-all-teachers-supported-to-provide-quality-early-childhood-education-survey-reveals.html