Challenges facing the early years workforce in the Asia Pacific Region: A focus on Australia

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Nations in the Asia Pacific region have great geopolitical diversity in terms of size and wealth; culture, language and religion; geography and degree of impact of climate change; and political structures. This diversity results in diverse provision, accessibility, affordability and attendance of early childhood education. However, one thing that does seem to be consistent across early childhood education in the region is a shortage of early childhood educators.

Across the many OMEP national committees in the region, all report early childhood educator shortages as a result of difficulty in attracting, training, retaining and sustaining educators. The reasons for these difficulties vary, but two major causes are poor recognition of early childhood educators – including pay and conditions, and educator burn-out – which was exacerbated in many countries in our region during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What is certain, however, is that without boosting the number of early childhood educators, it will be impossible for nations in our region to meet the Sustainable Development Goal (4.2) that by 2030 “all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.”

Consequently, policy makers and researchers alike across many nations in the Asia Pacific Region are trying to address this workforce shortage in multiple ways. 

In Australia, for example, early childhood education has taken a front seat in Government policy. Early childhood provision is a key part of the Australian Government’s Early Years Strategy – a document that aims to shape the Government’s vision for the future of Australia’s children and their families. Contributing to this strategy are a plethora of reviews and investigations into early childhood provision, including a recently completed Childcare Inquiry. Significantly, another current inquiry – Path to Universal Early Childhood Education and Care – which aims to provide recommendations to Government to address the barriers that affect access to early childhood education and care (ECEC) services and support better outcomes for children and families – has highlighted the critical role of early childhood educators as well as some of the challenges facing the workforce. 

To address Australia’s critical shortage of early childhood educators, a National Workforce Strategy has been developed that sets out a range of initiatives aimed at:

  • Enhancing data and evidence
  • Attracting and retaining a diverse workforce
  • Streamlining qualifications and career pathways – including for educators with overseas qualifications
  • Improving professional recognition – including educator pay and conditions
  • Building leadership and capability
  • Supporting wellbeing

The Strategy has clear objectives, a range of proposed initiatives, and considerations for how to measure success. Several of these proposed initiatives have been funded and are well underway, such as a Review of Staffing and Qualifications that aims to “identify opportunities to improve the consistency, support the quality, and reduce the complexity of the current qualifications and staffing requirements”. 

Of particular note, is a proposed action in the Strategy to “Review and streamline existing application and approval processes for overseas trained educators and teachers”. Indeed, Australia has a diverse early years workforce, with migration accounting for a significant proportion of educators. With shortages of early childhood educators across our region, however, it is neither possible nor ethical to address Australia’s early childhood educator shortage by relying on overseas qualified educators – particularly when these educators come from poor nations in our region who are spending considerable sums on developing their own early childhood workforce.

Australian researchers too are working to contribute to address educator shortage by developing the evidence on which sound early childhood education policy can be grounded. One example of research that aims to provide evidence about degree qualified early childhood teachers is the Attracting, Preparing, and Sustaining Quality Teachers in Early Education (TEE) project. The TEE Project, funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC DP240100249), and led by academics from six Australian Universities (University of Sydney, Macquarie University, Griffith University, Queensland University of Technology, Southern Cross University and University of New South Wales), aims to provide the evidence base needed to show how quality ECTs can be best prepared, retained, and sustained. It is a four year study with three components: (i) a longitudinal study of students from initial teacher education into their early years of practice; (ii) a scoping of the multiple and diverse initial early childhood teacher education programs across Australia; and (iii) a case studies of teachers working in early years settings, including the development and utilisation of an innovative tool designed to assess teacher quality. 

Already, the TEE survey is providing intriguing information about who is attracted into early childhood teaching, their motivations and reasons for staying enrolled in an early childhood teacher degree program. Students enrol in these programs for reasons very much to do with themselves as individuals: they have a passion for teaching, enjoy being with young children, and want a job where they can make a difference. When it comes to why they remain enrolled, apart from wanting to work as a teacher, external factors including future job opportunities and the flexibility of the degree program are important. Preliminary results are also indicating that students who enter an early childhood teacher degree program vary considerably in term of attributes associated with teacher quality, such as resilience, adaptability, and self-efficacy. What features of early childhood teacher degree programs best support the development of these attributes, and teacher quality, will provide an ongoing focus of the study.

Early childhood educator shortages are a significant problem with which many countries in our region are grappling. Hopefully, by working together, policy makers and researchers can provide the evidence-informed political, social and cultural conditions to tackle this complex issue.

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