Education staff level concerns raised

News last week that elite Adelaide education facility Scotch College plans to open a childcare facility in Mount Gambier has caused concern about future staffing levels in existing local centres.

In addition to the Scotch College facility, proposed for a new housing estate at Suttontown, Mount Gambier City Council has received four applications for new centres in the last two years.

Mount Gambier Childcare Centre director Fiona Paltridge said an additional centre in Mount Gambier would be a welcome relief to so many families that are struggling to access childcare at the moment.

However, she tempered her comments with a caution the region already faced difficulty in accessing the required number of educators.

“Every day we receive enquiries for care and every day I have to face the grim task of informing those families that we have nothing available and the likelihood of something becoming available in the near future is slim to none because our average wait list times are between eight to 12 months at the moment,” she said.

“The challenges faced by our community’s lack of childcare spaces impacts not only women’s ability to access the workforce but also their child’s right to be given the opportunity to attend an early childhood service before entering kindergarten or school.

“We are most definitely experiencing a shortage of educators in all qualifications at the moment but in particular in the Diploma and Bachelor qualified early childhood educators. In Mount Gambier especially, we are being affected by these shortages on a daily basis.”

Mrs Paltridge said she believed the shortage had occurred due to a multitude of factors, but particularly the recent decrease in the number of students undertaking early childhood study locally.

“As far as I’m aware, the Diploma of early childhood education and care is not currently offered in Mount Gambier, where as in the past it has been offered by at least two RTOs in the region,” she said.

“We are hopeful that it will be available locally later in the year. The only qualification offered locally at present, is the introductory qualification of the Certificate III.

“The importance of offering these qualifications locally has been realised more recently as the shortages begin to impact heavily on centres because we have realised that.

“Having the opportunity to work alongside Diploma students as they implement what they are learning is a common recruitment strategy for us and gives us the opportunity to potentially employ these students on a regular basis.

“Once someone is enrolled and working towards their qualification they can be classified as a ‘Diploma educator’. This legislative action available in South Australia enables centres to meet their Diploma staffing requirements without having to continuously apply for waivers to be able to operate within the law.”

Mrs Paltridge said another factor contributing to staffing shortages was qualified educators “leaving the sector in droves”, seeking other areas of employment, whether it be at other childcare centres or in schools or more often than not in an industry completely different to childcare.

“The last couple of years have been very overwhelming for many community service sectors,” she said.

“We often hear about aged care, disability care, teaching and nursing suffering from staffing shortages due to burn out and fatigue from long hours.

“Unfortunately, childcare is experiencing the same impacts. Pay and conditions have always been on the table for discussion in the child care industry, but now more-so than ever, I do believe that something needs to change to enable the industry to attract quality educators.”

Mrs Paltridge said depending on the time frames predicted for the new centre the facility could bring other challenges with it.

“Opening a new childcare centre while we are still trying to manage the current staffing shortages in the region, although bringing much needed relief to families, could also bring with it an unexpected layer of complications to the community,” she said.

“The reality is that we could be faced with the real threat of losing staff to these new centres that are planned to open, which would leave significant staffing gaps in our current centres and ultimately affect their ability to provide adequate spaces to the families who already utilise them.

“With staffing shortages the way they are at the moment, it has the potential to create more issues for families and the childcare community.”

Mrs Paltridge said at present most centres were managing to keep their fees from increasing to the point where childcare would be out of reach for families.

“The full impacts of the potentially high cost of childcare are yet to come,” she said.

“As centres experience educators resigning at alarming rates all over Australia, they are having to revert to paying well above award rates just to retain the staff they have left.

“Some centres have even had to revert to increasing educators’ hours up to 10 hours a day just to be able to maintain their ratios for their prescribed operating hours and this of course results in costly overtime rates, which ultimately adds to the cost of childcare for families.

“So while additional childcare places in our area will be greatly welcomed, we need more educators to be available so that we can ensure the existing centres are fully staffed before these new centres open.”

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