'Diabolical. Unstable and stressful' - ECE teacher shortage affecting children, staff, survey finds

Kate Nicol-Williams
Source: 1News

A New Zealand Educational Institute survey has revealed the growing toll early childhood education teacher shortages are having on staff.

Responses from 305 early childhood education employers and employees show 80.3 per cent think shortages have affected their ability to teach and 86.6 per cent feel the situation has affected the children they teach.

A qualified teacher that is seven months pregnant shared her experience of understaffing at an Auckland centre in the survey.

"Each day I am carrying a crying child at all times, without a break for water, toilet or snack, unable to sit on any furniture to support my back.

"I can’t reduce my hours or be on light duties because of lack of staffing," she said.

"Because of Covid, our manager has changed focus on quality care and quality staff (although positions have been advertised since October last year), to a focus on bringing in more money with young babies."

She said older children are missing out every day, which is breaking her heart.

"I cannot document their authentic learning and spend quality time with them," she stated in the survey.

Three quarters of those surveyed feel it’s harder to maintain the minimum required teacher to children ratios because of teacher shortages and just under three quarters of respondents said their centre had struggled to fill a vacancy.

A Manawatū-based employer said they’re feeling burnt out and will be leaving the sector after 23 years this year.

"No one seems to hear or see that ECE is drowning.

"I have a staff member saying she is looking at working at local supermarket, less stress, more hourly rate," they wrote.

"Diabolical. Unstable and stressful environment… Children who don’t get the time and attention they deserve. A feeling of hopelessness which has led me to recently resign," a Bay of Plenty-based teacher said in the survey.

Nearly 88 per cent of those surveyed said receiving the same pay as other qualified teachers in the education sector would help solve some of these issues.

An Otago-based qualified teacher said in the survey their son gets more money as an apprentice and that they hadn’t had a pay rise in years.

"The resources are rubbish, we have to beg steal and borrow art materials - old cereal boxes etc are used for drawing paper," the teacher wrote.

"I feel like teachers are working themselves into the ground while owners get the profits."

A qualified teacher at a Wellington centre said they’re living pay cheque to pay cheque, earning only a few dollars above the minimum wage despite their university degree.

"It’s so difficult to live off that, especially when living in Wellington and it causes me and my colleagues who are in a similar position, a lot of stress," they wrote.

Another Wellington-based teacher said they struggled to employ qualified staff.

"They are just not there, or the salary just doesn't meet their expectation.

"I would like to pay my kaiako more, we just don't have what they deserve," they wrote in the survey.

The pay difference of $17000 on average between qualified kindergarten and early childhood teachers’ salaries was a major factor in kindergarten teacher Elle Whiteoak making the switch.

“I feel like I’m much happier here, not to say that I wasn’t happy in my previous role but I just think the conditions here at kindy and obviously the pay at kindy is much better than it was and I feel like the team are much happier because of those conditions.

“That does roll down into the children and out into the community as well,” she said.

Best Start deputy chief executive Fiona Hughes said a halving of early childhood education qualification enrolments in the decade to 2019 and growth in centre numbers has made staffing a “real challenge”.

“There’s also things like parental leave and annual leave that people are taking and so trying to find teaching staff for early childhood has become substantially harder than it used to be,” she said.

Hughes said qualified kindergarten teachers achieving the same pay as teachers in primary and secondary school in 2019 hasn’t had a huge impact on staffing but ECE teachers do feel “hard done” by.

“They are qualified the same, they do the same job in fact sometimes I wonder if it’s a little harder when you’re on the floor all day every day without non-contact, the advantage that kindergarten teams do have, and I don’t underrate what they do either but you know it doesn’t seem fair.

“When one of those positions comes up its very appealing for a teacher to go and move across to the kindergarten sector,” Hughes said.

Hughes is calling on the Government to put its pre-election pay parity commitment into action.

“I don’t think you’d find an early childhood provider out there who values their teachers who wouldn’t want the money to go to their teachers and who would sign up to an attestation regime if necessary,” she said.

To receive higher levels of Government funding, early childhood education providers have to pay qualified teachers a minimum salary of $49,862, known as the attestation rate, but there are no further pay requirements for a teacher’s years in the role.

Hughes said increasing staff pay without Government support would see further fee hikes for parents.

"Many parents rely on WINZ subsidies to help them afford fees so any increases we do make would not necessarily return enough to give teachers the rates they believe they should be paid," she said in a statement.

"Also, keep in mind kindergartens are on a higher funding rate than others in the sector."

Last year, the Government gave the ECE sector a $151 million salary funding boost through a 2.3 per cent increase to centre education and care rates.

But the Ministry of Education could not legally require this money be spent on teacher salaries if teachers were already receiving the new minimum salary rate.

"Whilst it was not mandatory, and not all ECE providers passed it on either in whole or in part, we did pass on the 2.3 per cent to all our qualified teachers," Hughes stated.

New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) said the early childhood sector is at crisis-point and pay parity needs to be delivered by the Government now.

“The current incentives within the system is encouraging employers to bring in cheaper, newer teachers and as a result, experienced teachers are looking for jobs elsewhere,” NZEI president Liam Rutherford said.

“We know that collective agreements do a really good job of offering secure, well-paid jobs and so we think that would be a great mechanism to ensure that pay parity cuts across the entire sector.”

Education Minister Chris Hipkins acknowledged there is “growing pressure in the ECE space.”

“We’ve always been clear that the response to that’s likely to be stepped out over several budgets and of course, how many steps we can take will be made clear when we have made those decisions,” he said.

Hipkins said the Government is also investigating declining participation in early childhood centre education post Covid-19.

“That’s something we’re also looking very closely at to understand a bit more about what’s driving that decline in participation but for some of those centres it’s putting them under quite a lot of financial pressure so we’re absolutely aware of that.”