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Crisis: Early childhood teachers hard to find

Lunchtime for Ohua learning centre pupils Carter, 2, Aishleen, 4, Anita [teacher], Tori, 4, Kingston, 4, Dee Cruse [teacher], Taylor, 4, and Matthew, 3. PHOTO/TOM TAYLOR

A shortage of early childhood teachers is putting a massive strain on the sector’s staff. TOM TAYLOR reports.

Wairarapa’s teachers and centre managers say that pay parity with kindergarten and school teachers will help to ease the pressure, but it is only part of a broader solution.

After many years working as a qualified teacher, lecturer, and education adviser with Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, Diana [Dee] Cruse bought an early learning centre in Masterton in December last year.

She gave the Speckled Frog Child Care Centre on Harley St a new name: Ohua.

“It’s all very new for me, and it’s been such a learning journey, but staffing is definitely one of my biggest concerns,” Cruse said.

She was friends with many other centre managers in the region and said they were all struggling to find enough registered teachers.

Cruse was also trying to set up another centre across the road from Ohua that would be more focused on the first few months of a child’s life.

“I have no idea where those teachers are going to come from,” she said.

Cruse worked long hours at Ohua to ensure the centre kept on top of its child-teacher ratios, meaning her managerial duties were often relegated to evenings, early mornings, and some weekends.

“I tried to put an advert into the paper, but I’ve just been so busy – I’m on the floor every day at the moment – I didn’t even have the time to get the advert finished.”

The recruitment process became even more complicated when Cruse considered the centre’s focus on Te Ao Maori and the need for any teachers she hired to understand kaupapa Maori.

On top of this, Ohua had to maintain its target of having 100 per cent qualified and registered teachers on the floor at all times if it wanted to access new government funding.

The Labour Government’s Budget 2021 had provided $170 million over four years to improve the pay of certificated teachers working in education and care services.

The first of two funding stages came into effect on Thursday, with the Ministry of Education increasing the subsidy rates it paid to education and care services.

The funding would be available for centres that agreed to pay certified teachers at least $51,358 per year, up from $49,862.

The MOE estimated that about 1250 full-time equivalent positions would receive a pay increase.

The funding sought to address the inequality in pay between early childhood educators and similarly qualified kindergarten and school teachers.

However, the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa said the pay increase for ECE teachers would not be enough to stem the crisis in the sector.

Teacher vacancies had ballooned from 500 to more than 600 last month – more than all the vacancies in primary and secondary schooling combined.

“While it’s great that the government has lifted the funding to maintain parity with schools and kindergartens at that entry level, ECE rates simply don’t keep up across our teachers’ careers – and that needs to change,” ECE representative on the NZEI national executive Virginia Oakly said.

NZEI estimated that over a 10-year period, ECE teachers starting now could be paid on average $100,000 less than their colleagues in kindergarten who had the same responsibilities, qualifications, and experience.

“This shows that while parity at the minimum rate is an important step towards the pay parity the Minister has promised, much more needs to be done,” Oakly said.

Early childhood council chief executive Peter Reynolds said the disparity in pay between early childhood teachers and kindergarten teachers had come about due to a funding cut to the sector amid the global economic crisis in 2011.

The then National government had removed a funding incentive for early childhood centres to maintain a staff of 100 per cent qualified, registered teachers.

Reynolds said the average centre had lost from $70,000 to $100,000 in funding.

“That represented at least one teacher’s salary, so centres responded by freezing all recruitment activity,” he said.

It was about this time that Cruse had started her career in early childhood.

“Jobs were quite hard to come by when I was a new graduate because suddenly all these centres were no longer striving for the 100 per cent [qualified teacher target],” Cruse said.

Faced with this situation, training providers started to restructure, and the number of students studying ECE started to decline.

Reynolds said demand for teachers had grown in recent years – but supply had not kept up.

“It’s a strange situation because you can’t just throw money at it. You can’t just snap your fingers and say, ‘Let there be teachers’ when there aren’t any.”

Cruse said Ohua strove to have 100 per cent qualified teachers, not only for the increased subsidy it would receive.

“You have a really quality centre when you have 100 per cent qualified staff,” Cruse said.

But with the undersupply of qualified teachers, Cruse had her work cut out for her.

“To reach that 100 per cent, I have to be on the floor every day … coming into winter, I’m aware that it’s not going to take much and we’re suddenly going to be out of ratio.”

  • Next week, the Times-Age looks at the solutions proposed by teachers, unions, and tertiary providers.

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