Australia’s two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, have set themselves the goal of giving all children an extra year of school before they start school. Last Thursday’s announcement, dubbed “the biggest transformation of early education in a generation,” follows closely the new federal government’s legacy vision for childcare with an expanded childcare grant to improve access.
These steps are well justified. There is compelling evidence that such investment could increase productivity by increasing parental employment and children’s developmental gains, and improving life chances for the most disadvantaged.
However, realizing the promises of these gains depends entirely on the availability of a skilled, supported and successful workforce. Without them we cannot offer quality learning. Developing such a workforce must be an urgent priority as Victoria’s target date for the new program is 2025 and NSW’s is 2030.
Read more: A $15 billion pledge for universal preschool access: is this the game changer for Australian children?
What do we mean by high quality?
Not all early education programs deliver on the promise of encouraging children’s development and learning. “Cheap childcare” can enable parents to participate in the labor market. However, it is unlikely to deliver the long-term benefits of promoting children’s learning and closing equity gaps.
Quality matters. The first five years of life are a critical period in the development of the human brain. The quality of the experiences during these years lays the foundation for lifetime achievement and well-being.
For this reason, research seeks to identify the essential components that go beyond childcare and provide quality early childhood education and care.
More than two decades of research has shown that the interactions between educators and children are the critical element for optimal child learning. Policy-regulated characteristics such as physical resources and staff qualifications help support higher-quality learning. However, they alone are not enough to deliver on the promise of improving children’s life chances and reducing the severe inequalities among school entrants, as documented by the 2021 Australian Early Development Census.
Read more: Preschool benefits Indigenous children more than other forms of early childhood education
What is really important for early learning?
For this reason, researchers in this field are focused on identifying the qualities of teacher-child interactions that best support children’s learning and well-being. Our Australian research has examined the long-term effects of instructional, organizational and emotional qualities of interactions.
Teaching qualities focus on teaching content and language interactions. Organizational interactions focus on setting behavioral expectations and maintaining predictability. Emotional interactions focus on the child-educator relationship, including considering the child’s perspective.
Analysis of data from E4Kids, Australia’s largest study of the quality of early childhood education and care, shows that the emotional qualities of interactions are the key factor. Our study, published last week in Child Development, followed 1,128 children through three years of early childhood education to ask how changes in the educational, organizational, and emotional qualities of teacher-child interactions are related to each child’s learning rate.
We found that pedagogical and organizational aspects of the interaction did not reliably predict children’s learning. Changes in the emotional environment predicted language development.
In addition, in a study for the Queensland Government, we linked the qualities of the early learning environment at age four to later academic achievement (math, science, English, NAPLAN) of children participating in E4Kids. Again, the emotional quality of the interactions was the most important predictor of the results. We could still see the effects in secondary school.
Read more: More diversity can help solve the twin problems of early childhood staff shortages and family neglect
Everything depends on a stable and supported workforce
Emotionally positive early childhood education and care environments require a stable and supported workforce. There is a global shortage of qualified educators. Australia is no exception.
Our human resources study included a nationwide survey and detailed examination of services in major cities, regions and outlying areas. We found that one in five educators intends to leave the sector in the next year. In tracking a cohort of educators, one in three left the ministry each year. In remote areas, the turnover rate was one to two.
This means a serious loss of relationships for children and their parents. When educators leave, they take with them their in-depth knowledge of each child and family.
Our research and a 2021 United Workers Union survey found that those who stay are often stressed. They feel unable to create the optimal emotionally supportive environment.
Childcare workers are paid well below average weekly earnings. Many face financial difficulties or depend on financial support from spouses or family members to continue in their beloved careers. Those who do college often do so to move into the school sector, where pay, conditions and status are better.
The increase in staff is urgently needed
Without significant investment in the workforce, the new early education strategies will not have a solid foundation and may not deliver on the promise they offer.
A people strategy for the next decade, Shaping Our Future, was released in September 2021. It recognizes the need for better pay, working conditions and professional recognition to increase and maintain the workforce. The strategy also recognizes their well-being as important, although it emphasizes individual support for well-being, not systemic changes.
However, the stated strategy to deal with the crisis is to “explore options” by 2025 to improve pay and conditions and well-being support. Then the extra year of pre-school learning in Victoria is to begin. Our research and the timing of the announced changes indicate an urgent need to move from investigation to immediate action to stem the exodus of qualified early childhood educators and enable those who remain to thrive.
This article is part of The Conversation’s Breaking the Cycle series, which is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation.