ECE teachers essential workers in all but name

Returning to work amidst the outbreak of the Delta variant, early childhood teachers must be recognised as essential workers – and remunerated as such, writes Dr Sue Cherrington.

The Prime Minister’s reopening of early childhood education (ECE) services to all Auckland families this week puts into stark relief that early childhood teachers will soon be the workforce with the greatest contact with unvaccinated New Zealanders.

Aotearoa’s vaccination programme is rolling out for all aged 12 years and over, and clinical trials are under way internationally to determine safe vaccination doses for children aged from five-11 years. It is likely this age group will be able to be vaccinated soon.

While early childhood services use robust hygiene and infection control measures, the nature of early childhood teaching and the age of children attending ECE means many of the measures our public health experts have been advocating use of, such as mandated wearing of masks indoors, would be difficult and not always appropriate to enact.

The fact that ECE services are being asked to open, despite the city still being in an Level 3 lockdown, brought to mind our editorial and several articles published recently in the New Zealand Annual Review of Education about the impact of COVID-19 within education settings.

Professor Andrew Gibbons from the Auckland University of Technology and Associate Professor Marek Tesar from the University of Auckland wrote this piece presenting analysis of the Ministry of Education’s Early Learning Bulletins from August to December 2020.

One such bulletin encouraged early childhood services to celebrate and appreciate the efforts of essential workers around the country, but didn’t acknowledge the essential role that early childhood services and teachers have played throughout the pandemic. For examples of the kind of work undertaken during this time, see the University of Waikato’s Professor Linda Mitchell’s article in the same issue.

Reopening amidst the outbreak of the Delta variant, it is clear early childhood teachers must be recognised as essential workers. In the 2020 outbreaks, infections among children were relatively uncommon. The increased transmissibility of Delta, however, means that Covid-19 is now thought to spread more easily among younger people. Recent headlines have reminded us that even very young babies can contract it.

The move to further open up ECE during Level 3 suggests the Government does see the sector as providing an essential service. Yet, despite assurances that ECE is a government priority, and policies such as He taonga te tamaiti: Every child a taonga. Early learning action plan 2019-2029 being in place, glacially slow progress is being made on essential fronts, like the actions within that policy, or indeed pay parity for ECE teachers.

In fact, a recent announcement saw the Ministry of Education roll back the implementation of the first tranche towards pay parity between teachers in education and care and their kindergarten colleagues, reducing the number of steps on the salary scale where parity would be achieved.

Ironically, it is the group of teachers with the poorest salaries and conditions—those teaching in education and care centres—who will immediately find themselves at the front line of the Government’s announcement. Meanwhile, their colleagues in schools and in much of the kindergarten sector will have the term break to plan and liaise with parents over available places in their bubbles of 10.

Well before the arrival of Covid-19 into New Zealand in early 2020, deep concerns existed regarding the health of the early childhood sector. Many of the actions within He taonga te tamaiti are intended to address concerns over its quality and sustainability.

COVID-19 has further stressed a sector already facing critical shortages of qualified teachers and with variable employment practices, and where deep funding cuts over a decade ago have left many services continuing to struggle financially.

While not alone in facing financial and workforce challenges exacerbated by COVID-19, the impact of these challenges on the children attending ECE services places the sector in a unique and critical place.

Our youngest children are going through the most important developmental period in the human lifespan—the architecture of their brains is being built and the foundations being laid for developmental and health outcomes that can affect them right throughout their lives. These foundations are built on children experiencing high quality and stable relationships with adults in their early years, both within their whānau and within their early childhood services.

As a nation, if we value our children then we must ensure that our ECE sector is of consistently high quality, through being well-resourced and having the salaries and employment conditions that attract and retain excellent teachers in the sector.

More than a year ago, my colleagues Professor Carmen Dalli, Adjunct Professor Helen May and Dr Anne Meade argued that He taonga te tamaiti was a shovel-ready project, saying “a systemic integrated policy infrastructure supporting children and families in their early years is as important as the economic infrastructure of wood, bricks and mortar”.

Fast-tracking policy and accelerating the rollout of full pay parity for early childhood teachers would show this Government truly recognises and values early childhood teachers as essential workers.

Associate Professor Sue Cherrington is Director of the Institute for Early Childhood Studies in Wellington Faculty of Education at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.