Legislative Council: Wednesday, November 15, 2023


Early Childhood Education

The Hon. M. EL DANNAWI (15:43): Last Friday marked a very special day for early childhood educators in South Australia and across the country. For the first time, educators were joined by federal government representatives to begin the formal process of multi-employer bargaining. Early childhood educators are the first in the country to use the new multi-employer bargaining laws to engage in bargaining for their sector. While the process of bargaining is sometimes long and exhausting, I am excited to watch the journey unfold, as I know educators will fight hard to achieve good outcomes for educators.

Multi-employer bargaining was introduced by the Labor government last year and is becoming the norm worldwide. Giving workers more bargaining power is one of the best ways we can combat wage stagnation, poor working conditions and low investment in the skills and training of the workforce. Through this process they hope to lift their basic wage and set new standards in early education.

As members in this place would know, I have worked as an educator in the early childhood sector for over 15 years. This is one of the most vital sectors for the functioning of our society. Unfortunately, it is often underpaid and undervalued, and it should not be surprising that 90 per cent of the workforce are women.

Early childhood educators are not babysitters. Children's learning is dynamic and complex, and it requires an exceptionally passionate, skilled and professional workforce. Their professional judgement is central to facilitating children's learning and helping them to develop a sense of belonging and a disposition for learning.

The first five years of life are fundamental for children's learning, health and positive development, as more than 90 per cent of their brain development occurs during this time. Educators observe, develop and implement a curriculum that aims to promote each child's wellbeing and the development of a range of skills and processes such as problem-solving, inquiry, experimentation and investigation.

These are all essential learning skills and early childhood educators provide the scaffolding needed for each child to meet their developmental outcomes. Therefore, it is vital that educators are engaged as highly trained and skilled professionals, which means paying them in line with their significant contribution to the wellbeing of our children.

Children's early learning experiences set the foundation for their later success. High-quality childhood education and care is also an essential part of ensuring parents can return to the workforce, whether they are returning by choice or by necessity. Access to high-quality early childhood education benefits all young children but particularly those from disadvantaged groups or with developmental delay, who are at higher risk of poor educational achievement.

According to data from the 2021 Australian Early Development Census, one in five Australian children start school developmentally vulnerable. This rises to two in five for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Research from the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University has shown that over a third of children in Australia live in childcare deserts—that is, areas where there are more than three children for every place in an ECEC centre.

The sector is underpaid and as a consequence understaffed. The most straightforward way to ensure that all children are given the support they need in the early years is to improve the working conditions of those who are providing that support. All children deserve access to high-quality early education, and improved conditions can provide greater opportunities for educators to reach those children and families who need support.

I want to congratulate all my former colleagues who have embarked on the bargaining process. We need a well-paid, well-resourced system and practices that put early learning in reach of all children and families. I hope this will be the first step towards making that a reality.