Reflecting on ECE professionalism post Covid-19 and Budget 2020

It’s been a good month. Even under the pressure of the Covid-19 crisis, Budget 2020 has delivered some wins for early childhood kaiako.

The announcement on 11 May that the starting salary of degree-qualified early childhood teachers in education and care centres would be the same as that of their kindergarten counterparts was one for the history books. It has re-ignited hopes of a future with pay parity.

Post-budget, on 18 May, the long-awaited news that the higher funding band for centres with 100% qualified teachers would be reinstated from January 2021 delivered on promises this government made prior to the last general elections. It will re-incentivise the drive to a fully qualified workforce in teacher-led services.

So things are looking up for the professionalisation of the early childhood workforce. We are once again on track to be leading the world in this area.

“[T]hings are looking up for the professionalisation of the early childhood workforce”

I have thought a lot about the professionalism of early childhood kaiako in the last few weeks and about the direction of the early learning sector in general.

In lockdown, I was full of admiration for the care, thoughtfulness and creativity of teachers as they found ways to keep connected with the children and families in their centres – Zooming into homes to run activities, read stories or sing with children. They worked to ensure that relationships remained strong and children experienced some continuity with their life before Covid.

Running my own classes online with our student teachers – some of whom work part-time in centres – it was also clear that their focus was not only on the children. They were equally aware that their work was supporting the parents working at home or in essential services. Some spoke of a sense of heightened respect from parents who expressed appreciation of the valuable contribution that early childhood services made to their lives.

What struck me forcefully during this time was just how critical early childhood work is to the overall functioning of society. No one could quibble with the idea that early childhood education and care is a service for whānau as much as tamariki.

In other words, early childhood services are not only valuable because they support children’s learning and wellbeing; they are crucial in supporting the wellbeing of the whole family, as well as sustaining society at large. The question of whether the early learning sector serves children or parents – sometimes debated as if each side wanted to claim the moral high ground – was indisputably a non-issue.

“What struck me forcefully during this time was just how critical early childhood work is to the overall functioning of society”

This insight has crossed national borders, even as we have shut them to keep Covid out! In Australia the government scrapped childcare fees to avoid centre closures so they could support parents working through the Covid crisis. In Copenhagen the famous Tivoli Gardens and other landmark tourist attractions with large enough spaces for social distancing were opened as temporary schools and early childhood centres. The city wanted to relieve parents of childcare while they worked and give children “a good day”, which is so essential for wellbeing.

As we look longingly and with increasing hope at the prospect of Covid-19 loosening its grip on our lives and children returning to centres under more usual conditions, I hope we can hold tight to this broader vision of the role of early childhood services in our community. They are an essential service in their own right; without them society would be the poorer.

Carmen Dalli is Professor of Early Childhood Education at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. Watch a video of Carmen discussing the importance of wellness as kaiako for ECE Voice.

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