Widespread workforce shortages could undermine the state government’s ambitious plan to introduce an extra year of education, with thousands of new early childhood teachers required to implement the program.
The universal pre-kindergarten reforms were met with widespread praise from the early childhood sector, but experts warned more preschools were needed, and additional educators had to be recruited and retained in the system.
The state government will spend $5.8 billion over 10 years to offer five days a week of early education to every four-year-old by 2030, free of charge, with pilot programs to begin from next year. Victoria also announced it will introduce an extra year of schooling to be implemented by 2025.
NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said the services would be delivered through new preschools attached to public schools as well as through long daycare and community preschools.
Early Childhood Australia chief executive Samantha Page said it would take time to fully implement the program because of the need to build more preschools and to address a significant early childhood educator shortage.
“But I feel like we finally have both the Commonwealth and the state level of government now seeing this as serious and worth the investment,” she said.
The Australian Childcare Alliance, which represents long daycare owners and operators, said a critical workforce shortage risked undermining the ambitious reform project.
“We need our services to remain open and to comfortably cope with the anticipated increased demand that these policies are likely to create,” president Paul Mondo said.
Early childhood education advocacy group Thrive by Five, part of Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s philanthropic Minderoo Foundation, said the announcement was a massive boost to national childcare reform.
Director Jay Weatherill said the critical issue of wages and conditions for early childhood educators had to be addressed to successfully implement the program.
“We do have qualified teachers, it’s just that they don’t stay long because they look for better and other opportunities in other sectors, because the wages are so low and the professional support just isn’t there to sustain them in their role,” he said.
Weatherill said much of the sector’s infrastructure was underutilised, but new facilities would need to be built in so-called “child care deserts”.
“There are massive implementation challenges with these commitments, but they’re good problems to have because it’s just such an important reform agenda,” he said.
Mitchell said the department would soon begin scoping schools to which preschools could be added and would run trials by next year.
She acknowledged the state would need “a lot more” early childhood teachers to implement the program, with thousands more to be employed over the next decade.
Premier Dominic Perrottet said making it easier to attract foreign workers and process visas was crucial to filling the sector shortages.
“We’ve had our borders closed for two years, and we need to be looking at new ways of attracting people into the country,” he said. “I’ll be raising this with the prime minister.”
Flinders University early childhood education lecturer Rachael Hedger said the biggest roadblock to implementing the reforms would be the lack of teachers.
“We’re almost asking to double the number of places and spaces that are available at the moment,” she said. “We’re going to need twice as much space and twice as many educators really.”
Major childcare and preschool provider Goodstart Early Learning said the reforms would be a game changer in improving Australia’s educational and economic outcomes.
“It will be a complex reform that will involve major changes to the funding and operation of long daycare centres and preschools in both states, and we welcome the commitment from both premiers of extensive consultation with the sector,” chief executive Julia Davison said.
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