ECV2020-147

EC what? Exploring the positioning of early childhood educators in pandemic policy responses in Australia and Canada

Brooke Richardson, Brock University, Canada (brichardson@brocku.ca)
Kay Cook, Swinburne University, Australia (kcook@swin.edu.ca)
Rhonda Breitkreuz, University of Alberta, Canada (rhondab@ualberta.ca)
Bin Wu, Swinburne University, Australia (binwu@swin.edu.au)

Background:   Despite widespread recognition of the foundational role of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) for the well-being of citizens and functioning of society, childcare policy in liberal welfare states continues to lag in comparison to other wealthy nations. While there are notable differences in governance structures, funding mechanism and overall sociohistorical and political context, ECEC services in Canada and Australia fundamentally function according to the same market principle: fiscal bottom lines drive provision, rather than responsive, meaningful, pedagogically inspired programs. In both countries, most formal childcare is delivered by private organisations/companies (some for-profit and some non-profit), at fees unaffordable for many middle-class families. Similarly, the quality of ECEC programs is undermined by chronic undervaluing gendered early childhood educators (ECE) professionals through chronically low remuneration levels and notoriously poor working conditions.

Aim: This paper reflects on the childcare policy response of Australia and Canada, with a particular focus on the gendered childcare workforce in Victoria and Ontario. While gender and care emerged in dominant media and political discourse throughout the pandemic – mainly in relation to mothers struggling to be both workers and caregivers – we explore how childcare professionals factored into the policy conversation (or not). 

Method: This presentation embraces a critical, feminist ethics of care lens to examine how emergency pandemic measures positioned ECEs in the short and long-term.

Results: Governments in Australia and Canada, at the national and sub-national level, responded with a variety of policy actions. Some of these included the mandatory closure of many (in some regions all) regulated childcare programs, the establishment of emergency childcare programs for essential workers, temporary wage subsidies for ECEs, reduced staff/child ratios, and enhanced cleaning and screening procedures. The priority articulated by national and sub-national governments was getting parents back to work rather than ensuring children had access to high quality care experiences. The gendered childcare workforce was not a policy priority in addressing the childcare issue in either region.

Conclusions: Results reveal that, in both regions, COVID-19 childcare policy responses not only ignored the experiences/realities of early childhood educators, but overtly attacked the highly gendered workforce.

Implications for children: High quality care and learning experiences for children throughout the pandemic (and beyond) remain evasive with a workforce that continues to systematically occluded at a public policy level. 

Implications for families: Families are left in an increasingly precarious position as the educators on whom they rely face compounding barriers to the structural conditions necessary to carrying out sustainable, responsive, professional practice.

Implications for practitioners: The implications for childcare professionals is that their voices are needed now more than ever in the policy arena.

Key words: childcare discourse, gender, policy analysis, COVID-19, workforce issues, qualitative methods, ethics of care

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