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Ratios and staffing problems hurt

Opinion article
By Dr Sarah Alexander

 

overworked teachers and kindergarten staffing issuesStaff burnout is what happens when you don’t have enough resources to do the job at hand, and this is the path that some centres are on.

And it’s not just burnout which is the issue here, children are also missing out.

The resources I’m referring to are not digital devices, books or even crayons – it is teachers.

Parents don’t send their child to kindergarten to be taught by teachers who are not qualified.

Parents don’t send their child to kindergarten to be cared for by adults who change often and where teachers are struggling under minimum ratios and many demands on their time to provide an adequate curriculum and meet the learning needs of each child.  

When parents receive a note such as the one below saying that they have to be out the door with their child by the time they are booked in till and will be fined a late fee if they stay and chat with a teacher or play with their child, under-resourcing is clearly an issue.

parent notice about urgency of collection of children

And when a kindergarten association is no longer an employer of choice, when qualified teachers are leaving, other early childhood teachers are no longer scrambling to win vacant positions, and kindergartens are relying on relievers and unqualified people to continue operating from day to day - then you know there is indeed a serious resourcing problem. The newly appointed interim CEO of the Auckland Kindergarten Association recognises this:  

“I want educators to come to AKA because it fulfils them, I want us to be an employer of choice, I want us to be an exemplar of good practice.”

 

It’s not about funding

Government funding or lack of while important, cannot be blamed for poor human resource management.  You may be thinking that the AKA’s staffing woes could be solved by government increasing funding to ECE or blame it on government policy, but think about this some more after reading this article and the note at the end about the AKA’s financial position.

There are kindergartens and childcare centres that have low staff turn-over and high staff satisfaction – these things are about workplace relations. 

There are early childhood service providers that consider minimum ratio requirements to be the minimum and instead look at what the safe or the higher quality levels of staffing are for children. There are all-day centres with ratios of 1 adult to 8 children and even better. Staffing at bare minimum levels or better is a management choice (see also the section later in this article on raising the bar of quality). 

There are childcare centres that have 100% qualified teachers throughout the day including lunch-times which are valuable times for children’s learning and essential to have skilled supervision in place.  How do these centres do this?  A simple solution to ensuring 100% qualified teachers is to employ at least one additional qualified teacher to the minimum ratio requirement in the teaching team.  Some centres have a manager who is also a qualified teacher come onto the floor over the lunch period to provide cover.

The Northern Auckland Kindergarten Association has a commitment to staffing at 100% qualified even though it is a small association and does not have the economies of scale that the AKA does:  

An expert is "a person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area". At Northern Auckland Kindergarten Association we only employ fully qualified ECE trained teachers to educate children in our care. (NAKA website)

It only advertises for teachers and relievers who are qualified.  Providing lunch cover for teachers is a difficulty for kindergartens operating all day now instead of sessionally and closing for lunch. NAKA has found that 2 hours of work a day is not something that attracts many qualified teachers when they need more hours to retain their teacher registration/ certification. The NAKA says it reluctantly employs unqualified staff as a last resort only, to provide cover when no qualified teacher is available.

 

The Auckland Kindergarten Association’s staffing practices

The AKA’s kindergartens no longer shut for lunch and children attend 6 or 7 hour days.  Earlier this year the AKA announced a plan to change all kindergartens to 7 hour day, year-round operations and the plan has been implemented at 30 of its 107 kindergartens so far. 

Both the 6 and changed 7 hour day kindergartens are staffed at the bare minimum regulation level of 1 teacher to 10 children, and all, as far as is known, have an unqualified teacher that is counted within the minimum staffing ratio.  (Note that at some kindergartens, teacher aides are employed for around 10 hours a week to clean and prepare materials. Ministry of Education funded support workers can be present for some of the time to support specific children with learning needs).

Below is an example of a staffing schedule for an AKA kindergarten that operates a 7 hour day.

 Staffing on the floor, licensed for 40 children, hours 8.30am – 3.30pm

8.30 – 9.30

4 qualified teachers

9.30 – 9.45

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers
(1st qualified teacher taking a break)

9.45 – 10.00

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(2nd qualified teacher taking a break)

10.00 – 10.15

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers  
(3rd qualified teacher taking a break)

10.15 – 10.30

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(4th qualified teacher taking a break)

10.30 – 10.45

4 qualified teachers

10.45 – 11.30

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(1 qualified teacher taking lunch)

11.30 – 12.15

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(2nd qualified teacher taking lunch)

12.15 – 1.00

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(3rd qualified teacher taking lunch)

1.00 – 1.45

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(4th qualified teacher taking lunch)

1.45 – 2.15

4 qualified teachers                               

2.15 – 2.30

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(1st qualified teacher taking a break)

2.30 – 2.45

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(2nd qualified teacher taking a break)

2.45 – 3.00

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(3rd qualified teacher taking a break)

3.00 – 3.15

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(4th qualified teacher taking a break)

3.15 – 3.30

4 qualified teachers

For most of the time that children attend kindergarten the percentage of qualified and certificated teachers is actually 75% (i.e. one out of 4 teachers are unqualified).

The unqualified teacher is employed within the minimum staffing ratio for 5 out of the 7 hours that children attend. These kindergartens operate right on the edge of the Ministry of Education’s 80%+ funding band at a percentage of 82% with a total of certificated teacher child-contact hours of 23 with 5 unqualified hours. 

Because the staff hour count calculation is based across four months at a time, the Ministry of Education allows for particular days where the teacher percentage is below 80%.  If that occurs too often, then any kindergarten can risk falling into the lower 50-79% funding band.

Tremendous and unfair pressure is placed on qualified teachers when centres operate on the edge of the 80%+ funding band, for example to work when sick.  In the case of the AKA, teachers can be pressured to work through the day without lunch and breaks when their kindergarten is down a teacher.

“When there is not enough trained staff on the floor because of reliever shortages managers suggest ‘just work through your lunch break and go home early, leave straight after session’.”

And, it is not as if teachers have it easy in other respects, such as finding time to do documentation, when the head teacher is counted within the teaching ratio and there is skeletal staffing.

“Management knows that if they increase child contact time by an hour a day by extending the kindergarten day to 7 hours, we will work extra hours to get the documentation done – in the evenings and weekends - because we already do.”

 

Cover-up?

At the AKA have kindergarten head teachers been asked to lie about numbers when recording these?  Have they been asked to change hours so it doesn’t look like a kindergarten is under ratio, which would affect funding? 

There are concerns regarding the treatment of staff who question or do not do what they are told – this includes both permanent teachers and relief teachers reliant on getting enough hours of continuous work to maintain their full teacher certification. 

The AKA does not have a whistle-blowing policy, protections are not in place for teachers and teacher jobs and future employment can be put at risk should they say anything to the Ministry of Education or subsequently be identified. Teachers have been silenced and it is not possible to report here because of the risks to teachers.

 

What happens when a kindergarten is down a teacher?

When a teacher is sick or absent for whatever reason head teachers of kindergartens are left to find relievers using an app. 

If they can’t, then apparently it’s not unknown for the AKA head office to be dismissive of the problem, and even suggest that the remaining qualified teachers work the full day without breaks and lunch. 

When a qualified reliever for a qualified teacher cannot be found by the morning, some kindergartens have had to use their unqualified teacher or teacher aide in the qualified teacher’s position. When two qualified teachers are off - a situation that can easily occur at kindergartens during winter, some kindergartens have had to ask unqualified relievers and even parents to fill in.

“We were told if you can’t find a qualified teacher reliever by morning, ask a parent or untrained reliever to fill in.”

Teacher aides can be working at more than one kindergarten and when they are involved in covering for teachers this means that the kindergarten they should be assisting at for keeping the environment tidy, etc. is missing out.

 

Skeletal staffing can result in understaffing and staff working without breaks in different situations

Head teachers are both the most senior person at their kindergarten with daily management responsibilities and members of the full-time teaching staff. So when a head teacher needs to talk say with a visiting specialist during kindergarten hours, then his or her kindergarten can be a teacher short on the floor.

Operating at skeletal staffing levels with an untrained teacher appointed to provide cover for qualified teacher breaks can create significant problems when one person on the staff is absent or needs to leave early. Some examples that have happened at more than kindergarten include:

  • A qualified teacher becomes ill and needs to go home early, the remaining 2 qualified teachers are unable to get their lunch breaks.
  • A qualified teacher and the untrained teacher are both away. Only one reliever who was unqualified can be found to fill in.
  • The unqualified teacher needs to leave early so the qualified teachers then have no choice but to take short lunch breaks.

When there are added challenges such as the following then the minimum teaching ratios are not safe for anyone:

  • Children who are runners (children teachers need to keep a very attentive eye on).
  • Caring for children with learning needs who are in kindergarten for longer hours than they are funded for special assistance.
  • High needs children struggling to cope with the longer 7 hour day.
  • When there are acting head teachers and qualified teachers newly appointed who are not given time to be up to speed with the needs of the children, etc. before being included in the minimum staffing ratio.
  • Children are being enrolled who are too young to manage kindergarten playground equipment, etc., independently and safely.
  • More than a few children who are not toilet-trained children and a teacher finds him/ herself on nappy duty for most of the day.
  • Meeting the education requirement to assess children’s learning – teachers should not be counted within the ratio even if on the floor when they are observing and writing up assessments or Learning Stories.

The AKA had a group of kindergartens do social competency testing of children before they started school. Putting to one side questions that early childhood professionals would have about the appropriateness and ethics of formal testing and the purpose of it, it meant that a head teacher or a teacher was taken off the floor to do the testing and their kindergarten was quite likely left understaffed.

 

Rigid scheduling of teacher hours

The staffing schedules are tight and must be strictly adhered to at kindergartens because of skeletal staffing and to ensure everyone gets their break. But for teachers supporting children’s learning it can make little sense.

“At 10.45am when the unqualified come to take over from me for my allocated lunch-break, I find that this is not a good time to be taking lunch because this is when often deep learning and play is going on.  It breaks what you are achieving for the children in supporting their investigation and learning.  Good ideas get thrown out when you walk off because of the staffing schedule and when you leave the children in the hands of someone who is not trained.”

“You can’t do anything as teachers are made to have 15 minute breaks because the children are staying till 3.30pm.  It’s so disruptive of learning.  It makes it difficult if you are involved or want to support children with a project or say cooking.  One of the teachers said to me ‘you do …  now, I can’t, you have the time because you are on the second break’.”

 

Raising the bar of quality

Current conditions at the AKA are a recipe for staff burnout. Under staffing, overworking teachers, bullying and silencing teachers are not ways to build and maintain a stable, happy, and healthy workforce.

Empirical indictors of quality childcare relevant to AKA’s situation are ratios, staff training and staff stability. Understanding these and working on these would perhaps be a good place for the AKA to start if it is to better support its most important resource – teachers.

  1. By law the minimum staffing ratio for over twos is 1 adult to every 10 children where there are 6 or more children, or 1 to 5 under-twos. The minimum ratio is just that – the ‘minimum’ under perfect conditions. But conditions are rarely perfect, as for example, there will always be some children who require extra emotional support, children who need nappies changed, or perhaps a playground that is difficult to supervise without an extra teacher. Kindergartens were not built for and equipped for 2 year old play and for children to sleep and nap during the day; other early childhood centres that recognise the requirements of children in care operate at better staffing ratios than the minimum.  
  2. Adults well trained in young children’s care, development and learning are like the milk or the egg in the cake that binds the other ingredients for quality and makes it good (see the ‘not so-secret formula for early childhood education quality’ at My ECE). In schools, teachers need to be qualified to teach and this is just as important for a 4 or 5 year old in school as it is for the same child and younger children at kindergarten.
  3. A stable teaching staff is an essential base for enabling children to experience more than an orphanage style of care, where there is consistency in care and attachments are supported, children feel like they belong and want to be at the centre, children know their teachers, and teachers know children well and can affirm them as individuals.

 

A note about the Auckland Kindergarten Association

The Auckland Kindergarten Association (a community-based charitable organisation) is a financially well-off association that is focused on profit and growing its financial worth.  With charitable status it receives tax advantages. It enjoys low or no ground rental from the City Council and the Ministry of Education, and use of free buildings gifted to it by communities that have fundraised for them. It spends large on outside consultants ($846k in 2017 and $839k in 2016) and there are questions over its spending on senior manager and CEO remuneration. Parents are charged fees for hours outside of the 20 free hours. The AKA head office takes the equity funding the Ministry pays to its kindergartens and allows only a small proportion of this to be spent on the children it is meant for. Changes rolled out to 30 of its kindergartens so far have seen term breaks done away with so it can claim government funding for the children enrolled at kindergartens even when they do not attend for up to 3 weeks. It receives a higher rate of 20-hour funding and the general 30 hour subsidy per hour per child compared to what providers with centres that are not kindergarten associations receive. 

 

Rest and meal breaks in early childhood education

READ MORE: Teacher and general staff entitlements to rest and meal breaks in ECE services

 

Early childhood teacher non-contact time entitlements

READ MORE: How many hours are teachers (employees) entitled to and how much do they need? (sorry this is still in publication and will be added here on 23rd Nov 2017)

 

What is important for early childhood education quality?

READ MORE: What goes into making an early childhood service a quality one?

Also at the link you can download a printable book - the parent guide to quality early childhood education

 

The minimum licensing standards and quality standards for early childhood education services in NZ

READ MORE: ECE regulations and best practice quality standards 

 

Articles and reported issues concerning the AKA 

 

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