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The Exploitation of Teachers In Our Early Childhood Sector: The Problem and Solution

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Exploitation is a Real Issue for Government to Address.
By Dr Sarah Alexander.
August 27, 2019.

Teacher exploitation is a problem that we must fix. Teachers who work in the majority of early childhood education services are taken advantage of.  They are paid lower wages than other teachers and in general treated as slave labour. This keeps the cost of early education down for the government and provides money for services for other purposes.  While such exploitation of our teachers is taking place the status of early childhood education in our education system remains low and the quality of teaching and early childhood education for our children is at risk.  Teachers should not be made to sacrifice their personal earning and their wellbeing for the financial benefit of others. 

What’s the problem? 

Exploitation: “the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work”

Teachers who work in the majority of early childhood education services are treated like slave labour, being paid considerably less than what they would get if working in any other part of our education system.

But it is not the job of teachers to sacrifice their earning and wellbeing for others to make money or to keep the cost of early childhood education down for parents and the government.  

Both Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and Education Minister Chris Hipkins have young children themselves. This seems to have made no difference to the government continuing to think its okay that ECE teachers are taken advantage of. This is financial exploitation. Teachers need to live too and many teachers also have their own children and other family members to support.

The political argument given is that all early childhood education services are private, and therefore the government and the Ministry of Education can have no influence when it comes to what wages staff are paid. But the sector is managed by the Ministry of Education and funded by the government so a free market approach to wages cannot and does not apply. 

Pay parity for teachers who work in kindergartens (that are not state-owned) with primary is funded by the government.  And, the Ministry of Education has a major influence on what employers of teachers in other centres pay their teachers through the salary attestation process for services to receive higher funding. 

The care teachers have for children and the fact that they love their job is actively used against them and it is used to suppress wages growth. 

Low pay has negative implications for teacher recruitment and retention, the quality of teaching and children’s learning and emotional security. 

The early foundations of learning for children are vitally important to get right. Quality teaching is a key lever for improving outcomes for diverse children (Ministry of Education Best Evidence Synthesis, Sarah Alexander, 2003). 

Low wages and poor work conditions present greater risk of attracting and retaining only less competent or lower skilled staff (because better staff can go elsewhere to earn better wages). Quality teaching comes from having quality teachers.  Quality teachers can be lost from the profession, and the profession can fail to attract the best people as teachers, when pay and conditions do not reflect the demands and importance of the job.

Children’s relationships and trust in the adult are central to quality. As Dr Mary Moloney from Ireland said in an interview here in NZ on ECE teacher pay:  “No child should arrive in the morning at their service to find their key teacher or primary caregiver gone due to low pay and/or bad work conditions.”

One-third (33%) of people working in ECE experience bullying in the workplace and nearly half (46%) experience physical injury or mental health problems, e.g.

“Eight people have resigned in the last year from excessive bullying and have been threatened with legal action if we talk or report.”

“Manager often puts down staff members. Owner believes we are ‘conspiring’ against her and demands we work even with stomach bugs etc. – even though it’s against policy.”

“Anxiety, depression and I have had tetanus shots because of bites and scratches drawing blood. I am standing down as Head Teacher for a term to not be responsible for everybody”.

“ACC has put me on desk work.  But because I am the only qualified registered teacher in the under-twos children’s area, I have to be on the floor remaining quite active.”

“Cartilage damage in my wrist and torn ligaments after a fall due to needing to rush work needing completion.”

Teachers in a large part of the ECE sector are very underpaid compared with teachers employed in kindergartens and schools 

In non-kindergarten teacher-led centres there are around 26,300 teachers. In home-based ECE there are around 800 visiting teachers/ coordinators who are required to hold a practising certificate. These teachers must meet the same qualification and professional certification requirements as the approximately 4,100 teachers who work at kindergartens owned by Free Kindergarten Associations (kindergartens are not state-owned).

Only kindergartens are funded by the government for teacher pay parity. Pay parity applies to all teachers in kindergartens whether or not they are members of the NZEI union (only around 65% of teachers in kindergartens are believed to be paid NZEI members.)  All other teachers working in ECE are not paid according to unified pay scale for teachers at the rates the government has determined a teacher is worth.

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OKAY we know the problem is, but how are we going to solve it?

The value of ECE needs to be recognised – starting with teacher wages.

An increase in government funding may not, on its own, result in better pay and conditions for teachers. (See the national ECE Sector survey on ECE Teacher Pay)

Stronger accountability for how funding is spent is absolutely necessary to ensure that funding increases are passed to teachers in the form of better wages and conditions.  

There is a high level of agreement among both employers and staff that the ministry should lift its specified rates for salary attestation more substantially than it has done (see a national ECE sector survey on this question). There are service providers, including small-owner operated services, that say they are already paying above the attestation rates and it would help to reduce the ability of other services to under-cut them on parent fees if other services were  required to pay wages above the current minimum levels. 

A cost analysis shows that in general, services in a high-income, fee-paying location have much more flexibility in the amount that they can pay their staff.  The cost analysis indicates that there is justification for arguing for more funding for services particularly ones in low-income areas or serving low family income children, to enable services to pay teaching staff at least at a rate that corresponds with current living costs and reflects the importance of the work that they do. 

Three strategies to address the problem of teacher exploitation in regard to pay are outlined below. The third strategy is implementable now (given that government could find money to meet primary and secondary and kindergarten demands).  Or the third strategy should be implemented at the latest as a result of funding allocation for ECE in the Government’s May 2020 Budget.  The fourth strategy listed here, is the one that would ultimately secure the best outcomes for teachers, our ECE services and the sector. 

Strategy 1: Leave it to NZEI who represents very few ECE teachers to seek pay equity through the courts on the basis of what ECE teachers would be paid in another occupation/s dominated by men. But this strategy would only perpetuate the low status of early childhood education and not bring parity.

Strategy 2:  The Government instructs the MoE to end its discriminatory behaviour and change salary attestation to reflect the salary levels and steps in the Kindergarten Teachers’ Collective Agreement and match with funding (before or provided as part of the Government’s Budget in May next year, 2020) 

Strategy 3: The Government changes the funding system for ECE. Teacher wages are paid through a central payroll system. The Government invites ECE services to apply to become state-integrated while those that who don’t want a higher level of state support can operate in a similar way as private schools do.  

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Strategy 3 would result in all ECE teachers in centres and home-based visiting teachers being paid on par with teachers in kindergartens and state and state-integrated primary and secondary schools – resulting in a true ‘unified’ salary scale for teachers in all teacher-led services.  It would make it possible for teachers working within parent-led ECE service to also progress toward pay parity. 

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