Why would anyone mind low pay and hours of unpaid work when stepping into the shoes of an early childhood teacher?
People choose the career not for the money but because they love children and like the work.
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Employers and the government count on the love early childhood teachers have of young children, and their kindness, to limit pressure on wages due to higher qualification requirements and professional status.
However, nothing betrays that love faster than learning that others who hold an identical qualification and meet exactly the same professional requirements are getting paid more for doing the same job.
This is the situation in the early childhood sector. Those who work in kindergartens have pay parity with primary and secondary teachers. But, all other teachers in publicly-funded early childhood education (ECE) do not.
There are around 17,000 qualified primary and early childhood trained teachers in non-kindergarten ECE services. They are responsible for educating around 153,000 children during the most important years for shaping learning and future outcomes.
How did this situation come about?
From the late 1940s the government acted as the employer of teachers in Free Kindergartens.
Lower pay for kindergarten teachers compared with teachers who taught older children was justified by lower levels of staff training and the perceived degree of skill needed according to the age-group being taught.
Childcare services such as day nurseries and creches sat outside the education system and were regarded only as child-minding.
But in 1986 responsibility for the administration of childcare services was shifted out of the Department of Social Welfare and into the Department of Education. Childcare therefore became "education", as kindergarten was.
Three-year Teachers' College training for teaching in Free Kindergartens and childcare was introduced from 1988 which uplifted the status of childcare workers or nursery staff to that of being "teachers".
Trevor Mallard formed a ministerial working group in 2001 to plan the introduction of pay parity for kindergarten teachers with primary. This was achieved in 2002.
Pay parity for kindergarten teachers persists but teachers in all other publicly-funded ECE services are excluded simply because of a quirk in the sector's historical development.
There is nothing distinguishing about "Free Kindergartens" any more. Kindergartens no longer have to provide a free education and can charge fees.
Kindergartens today are regarded by the Ministry of Education as non-state-owned centres and are therefore no different from any other community-based early childhood centres. Kindergartens must comply with exactly the same regulations and staffing requirements as all early childhood centres must do.
NZEI supports the quirk in the sector's development to remain. The union has no reason not to. While the majority of kindergarten teachers are NZEI members, the vast majority of teachers who work in other publicly-funded ECE are not (in part because low wages make membership dues unaffordable).
Despite making a lot of noise in the media about the low pay of ECE teachers, NZEI is not going for the achievement of pay parity on basis of a qualified teacher being a teacher no matter what part of the sector they work in. Instead, it is pursuing pay equity for qualified teachers who work in non-kindergarten ECE on the basis of gender and "fair" pay only.
However, the campaign for pay parity backed by ChildForum is not letting the matter rest.
At the end of last year, a petition started by an ECE teacher and signed by more than 15,000 people requested that Parliament urge the Ministry of Education to ensure pay parity with primary teachers for all ECE teachers working in any licensed publicly funded provider.
One concern expressed by government in the past is that any increase in funding to non-kindergarten services for pay parity might not be passed on.
But, services around the country are now following the lead of NZ's largest publicly funded provider, BestStart, to show they support pay parity.
BestStart has signed an agreement with ChildForum which will be provided to the Ministry of Education promising that it would pass on public funding for pay parity to its qualified teachers.
The time has come for the government to make a choice – either provide funding for the purpose of delivering pay parity, or drop qualification and professional requirements for those working in ECE.
The second choice would be the equivalent of removing new earthquake strengthening requirements from buildings after discovering how important such strengthening is.
We know the value of quality ECE for young children – and for society – and highly skilled and qualified teachers are central to the provision of that quality.
• Dr Sarah Alexander is chief executive of ChildForum, a national body and research organisation which encompasses all early childhood services.