A survey by Teachers Advocacy Group of 100 teachers in October 2020 revealed that the main reasons that teachers leave early childhood education are ‘overload’ and ‘unrealistic expectations’, plus poor management and bullying.

Until 2014, this type of information was collected by the Ministry of Education – and then suddenly it ceased. No explanation why.

A quality early childhood experience. Everyone wants it. Measuring it is tricky but we know that poor experiences for children arise from unstable relationships and that the movement of teachers in and out of children’s lives weakens children’s sense of belonging in that space – and there is a cascade of challenges that can result.

So teacher retention matters. It is basic to measuring quality experiences for children as well as indicating the wellbeing of early childhood teachers.

There will always be some turnover of teaching staff – people change. Their circumstances change, their lives, personal health, and ambitions change. But a high rate of teacher turnover spells trouble in the workplace, and when there is trouble in the workplace, there is trouble for the affected children. Working conditions are a key here.

Most providers of training for ECE teachers have experienced a downturn in applicants in recent years. This reflects the growing awareness of poor working conditions and low pay, plus the realisation that high aspirations for themselves and children are often unmet.

In addition, teacher education itself does not prepare graduates for harsh realities and the fact that early childhood teachers need to be their own best advocates – to know employment law and how best to protect themselves from unscrupulous employers. They need to know when regulations and minimum standards are not meet and how to draw this to the attention of the relevant authorities.

However, until relatively recently, the Ministry of Education’s complaints procedure for teachers required them to first alert their manager and to have the issues dealt with internally. Because many complaints relate to management, this process has resulted in many complaints being swept under carpets, teachers suffering from backlash and as a result, no reporting of regulation breaches to the appropriate authorities.

This affects children. The staff can leave, the children cannot, and many ECE teachers continue in terrible conditions for years, ‘for the children’. Currently there is a system of ‘anonymous reporting’ but research has shown that too few teachers are reporting poor conditions.

For this reason, data reflecting retention in individual centres will tell only part of the story and more bullying could be exercised to ensure staff remain, but overall, centres which experience high levels of staff turnover are an indication that all is not well. There is currently no measure of this. Only anecdotal evidence exists.

Teachers Advocacy Group (TAG) regularly receives reports of whole teams of teachers leaving a centre within months, weeks or even days. There are reports that in some centres, on average, teachers only stay for a matter of months.

Using social media, TAG ran a ‘spot’ survey of 100 teachers on 1 October 2020. It revealed that the main reasons that teachers leave early childhood education are ‘overload’ and ‘unrealistic expectations’; plus poor management and bullying.

25% of those responding have left one centre, 45% have left two or three centres, 27% have left between 4 and 8 or more centres.

This result is consistent with an earlier survey of 700 early childhood teachers in 2017-18.

Why is teacher retention important?

Teacher retention is an indicator of quality in a centre and a sector.

Continuity of care for children, collegial relationships ensures protection from stress, bullying and a highly emotionally and physically demanding job.

When employment conditions become untenable and there is no safe complaint mechanism, teachers leave the centre. When they find no improvement, they leave the sector.

With smaller cohorts of new early childhood teachers entering the workforce, and with borders closed to new teachers coming from overseas, it becomes even more important – to all those concerned with quality early childhood education – to improve working conditions so that teachers can both continue in their employment and look after their own wellbeing.

Government has several responsibilities here.

First, the quality of ECE must be high for children to benefit. That quality is largely determined by the Quality of those caring for and educating young children. Teacher qualifications, environment, nutrition, space – these are all elements relating to the needs of young children and are regulated.

Secondly, employment law must ensure that working conditions for the Workforce are sufficient to ensure teachers workplaces meet minimum of health and safety standards, including protection from bullying and intimidation. With ECE services largely in commercial ownership, the only watchdogs are the teachers themselves reporting breaches, including funding fraud, to the relevant Authority.

Thirdly, the relevant authority must have the means to investigate and correct breaches, rescind licenses, prevent terrible employers entering the sector.

To stop collecting data on teacher retention for six years, to refuse to engage with the topic with no explanation and to clearly have no strategy for workforce management and planning is negligent.

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