A History Of Early Childhood Education

11th OCT 2013

'Monthly pay cheques should be received with a sense of surprise and appreciation'

Professor Deb Brennan, a researcher at the Social Policy Research Centre, University of NSW, was keynote speaker at the IEU's Early Childhood Education Conference earlier this year.

Her conference address is presented below:

My talk centres on the history and politics of the sector and the possibilities inherent in the current political context. Some of the historical events I will touch on date back to the early 20th century, but the political issues I will cover are very current.

 As early childhood teachers you are working in an occupation with an incredibly rich history - a history that shapes the practice of your work in a myriad of ways as well as influencing your wages and conditions. History does not determine what happens to us, but it has a powerful impact on how we see our options.  For those who want to shape the future, there is no better start than understanding where we have come from.

Great credit is due to the voluntary organisations that established the first kindergartens and day nurseries (KU Children's Services and SDN Children's Services). From the start, they insisted on the educational, as well as the philanthropic dimension of their work.  In the face of hostility and even ridicule, they consistently emphasised the importance of qualified staff, especially trained teachers, and rejected the patronizing suggestion that their work required only 'nice ladies who love children'.

Alongside the early services, KU and SDN set up teacher training colleges. Despite the fact that their training took as long as, or even longer than, the training of primary school teachers, early childhood graduates were paid well below the basic wage on completion of their training. According to Gladys Pendred, the Federal Officer of the Australian Pre-School Association, salaries prior to 1940 were so low that kindergarten teachers worked virtually in an honorary capacity.

 The early records of the kindergarten unions reflect a good deal of ambivalence about teachers' pay.  While acknowledging the fact that the low salaries resulted in a shortage of teachers (remember, this is almost 100 years ago), they also believed that those who chose to work with the children of the poor should be above base considerations such as money:

One dislikes very much to talk of salaries and grumble about their smallness in connection with work such as this, which really cannot be measured in gold or silver (KU of NSW 1919, 9). 

According to Ruth Harrison, Principal of Sydney Kindergarten Teachers College from the 1960s to the 1980s, the attitude which the College encouraged among the students was that their monthly pay cheque 'should be received with a sense of surprise and appreciation'. 

1960s: Improvements in pay and conditions

Things began to shift in the 1960s as training moved out of private colleges and into the public sector.  From 1966, students undertaking preschool training became eligible for commonwealth teacher training scholarships.  Within a few years, kindergarten teacher training was integrated into colleges of advanced education and, later, universities.  At the same time, the salaries of preschool teachers began to improve. 

The rapid growth in the number of preschools during the 1960s was one factor here but, especially important, was the number of preschools that opened in conjunction with public and private primary schools around Australia.  It became more difficult to pay lower salaries to preschool teachers when preschools and primary schools were co-located.

The Tasmanian Government began to provide preschool education in conjunction with primary schools in the 1960s, and all teachers were employed under the same award.  In 1970, the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association (a forerunner of the IEU) gained an award with a common wages scale for preschool and primary teachers employed in non-government schools. This was a significant achievement for the Association.

Alliances with parents

I have long felt that the early childhood sector needs to build stronger alliances with groups and organisations working in allied fields. What happened around parental leave - the parties vying with one another as to who can provide the most 'generous' scheme - is a case in point. The advocates and architects of parental leave had the ear of governments to a much greater extent than do early childhood education and care (ECEC) advocates at present.

Our sector should seize this opportunity to work with advocates of parental leave for a seamless program of services and supports. We should push for parents to be able to enjoy adequately remunerated parental leave, secure in the knowledge that a high quality ECEC place will be available for their child when they want it. 

Similarly, the ECEC sector needs to build stronger alliances with parents. Most early childhood teachers have strong and deep connections with families at the service and local community level, but these do not necessarily translate into visible, political support.

Our sector does not have an equivalent to the NSW Parents Council or the Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations of NSW.  

I believe, however, that visible, loud and public support from parents is essential.  Logic and 'facts' are unlikely to win the day for teachers in the 21st century, any more than they have done at earlier times in our history. 

Without this kind of unity, governments will continue to play parents off against teachers, presenting higher (or fairer) wages as an unsustainable 'cost' for parents, rather than as the bedrock of quality in ECEC services.

This article and others based on presentations at the Conference will appear in the next issue of Bedrock magazine, published on 5 November.

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