Early childhood educators are done waiting for pay parity with other teachers, and are meeting up this weekend, where they can, to get loud

Although Auckland is not out of the woods yet, next week’s shift to Level 3 Step 2 signals the first of a series of freedoms to trickle in.

Retail workers will be back on the job, as well as librarians and museum curators. The slow but steady relaxing of restrictions for areas of the economy that pose the least risk mean bit by bit, parents across the city will be returning to their nine to five.

And at the same time, early childhood centres will return to the forefront as a vital service in the lives of busy parents of young children.

Despite this, early childhood educators say they have been forsaken by the Government when it comes to ensuring fair treatment and pay parity with other parts of the education sector – despite similarly placed kindergarten teachers being granted these protections almost 20 years ago.

A large pay gap between ECE teachers and their kindergarten colleagues has left childhood centres struggling to fill jobs, and put pressure on the teachers responsible for caring for and educating children at some of their most formative moments.

A report published last year by the Ministry of Education shows the average hourly wage for a qualified kindergarten teacher was $35.04, while those in early learning centres earn 30 percent less at $26.91.

Now ECE teachers have had enough – and are taking this Saturday to gather both virtually and in-person to call on Minister for Education Chris Hipkins to take a serious look at their neglected corner of the education sector.

Christine Lee-Hardwick works at an early childhood centre in Auckland, so her part of the protest will be conducted on Zoom.

She said the aim of the movement, backed by ECE union NZEI Te Riu Roa, was for the Government to agree to a clear path to full pay parity for ECE teachers in the next budget.

“Passionate, experienced teachers are leaving the sector,” she said. “We want better pay and conditions – but we also want to get the message out that better pay means a lot of things, like better outcomes for our children, better resources and fixing the teacher shortage.”

Although it seemed as if some headway had been made just before Covid hit, the pandemic scuppered any plans from the Government for ECE pay parity. But teachers in this sector have been waiting longer than that – perhaps all the way back to 2002, when kindergarten teachers were granted their own pay parity.

ECE teachers will be gathering around the country on Saturday to call for full pay parity with kindergarten teachers. Photo: Supplied

Conflation with kindergarten teachers may form part of the reason ECE teachers have been left out.

“Lots of people don’t understand the difference,” said Lee-Hardwick.

Kindergartens mainly cater to children between three and five, while ECE centres have more flexibility when it comes to hours, curricula and age range.

This means ECE centres can cover needs kindergartens sometimes can’t – whether its parents working longer hours than the standard nine to five, or young toddlers in need of care.

And the sector wants their integral role in the community recognised by some legislation that mirrors those protections offered to kindergarten teachers decades ago.

“The early years are a time we can really make a difference to children’s outcomes but to achieve that we need a professional and highly skilled workforce – adequate funding for pay parity and pay equity would help to achieve that,” said Marina Bachmann, an early childhood centre owner and team leader. “There is a significant pay gap between teachers who have the same qualifications.”

Then there is the dilemma for the centres themselves over whether they should opt into pay parity. “We have done that because it has to happen,” said Bachmann. “But it is a financial risk, particularly at this uncertain time.”

Lisa Quinlan, a colleague of Lee-Hardwick, was part of the negotiation team called up to discuss the pay gap just before Covid hit. She said pay parity had been an ongoing issue, and prior to the pandemic there was some hope it would finally be addressed.

“Originally, there was a discussion about an 11 percent pay jolt,” she said. “Then Covid hit, and that offer was off the table – as employers wouldn’t be able to meet it.”

She said while the delays caused by Covid were understandable, the ECE struggle had been going on for too long.

“We always seem to fall to the bottom of the pile. Even now, we seem to be forgotten about in terms of the information about when we can expand our bubble again – they seem to be more focused on schools and kindergartens.”

Quinlan thinks the length of time it has taken for anybody to address these issues show how undervalued the sector is.

“Kindergartens are seen to be educational facilities, but there has always been a stigma of ECE being a glorified baby-sitting service,” she said.

She said this may have been more accurate in past decades, but over the years, the role of the ECE teacher had expanded and become more complicated.

“We’ve really worked hard to build up our sector and provide quality care and education,” she said. “People don’t always see the value of children learning through their play. We want to have quality teachers that can extend children in ways that link to their interests.”

ECE teachers wear many different hats – from educating very young children, just a matter of months old, to caring for tamariki with high and additional needs. But the teachers don’t think the value of the role is reflected by the pay gap, which makes it hard to bring in teachers who can rise to the challenge.

The pay gap isn’t the only thing contributing to staffing shortages within the sector. In the past, early childhood education courses at the University of Auckland have relied on international students to make sure they had the numbers to be viable.

With the pandemic keeping international borders closed, the university has suspended entry into next year’s Semester One Bachelor of Education for early childhood. While the students currently in the course will be able to continue, and an online graduate diploma in ECE is still being offered, this doesn’t bode well for the future of teacher shortages.

Lee-Hardwick wondered how this would affect the sector. “If we’re not getting qualified teachers coming in, who are we going to have as teachers for early childhood?”

Saturday’s protest is set to launch at noon in 15 locations around the country, from Whangārei to Dunedin.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that kindergartens are public and receive full funding.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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