Melbourne educator Bronwen Jefferson reflects on the successful push by union members across Australia for more one-on-one time with the children we educate, and what we can learn from it to win our campaign for professional pay.
"I have been working in early childhood education for a very long time now and besides feeling undervalued for the important work we do, poor ratios here in Victoria also really bothered me.
I began working in my centre about 15 years ago. And every time I visited the Babies Room and I would feel enormous sympathy for the educators working there. I could clearly see two women who could not cope with being responsible for 10 babies, in some cases all aged under 10 months.
When I returned to work after having my second child, to cover RDOs a couple of days a week, guess where I was sent? You guessed it, the Babies Room! Oh my goodness, it was like an aerobics class! I was so busy. There was no time to sit, unless you were feeding a baby lunch! I was exhausted!
We had two kids of our own and my youngest was 10 months old. So when I got home at night, I would tell my husband he needed to sort the kids out because I was too tired.
When this happened I had already been active in my union for a number of years. So I asked my organiser to come visit our centre and sit in and watch, just to show her exactly what we do. She did not have a background in early childhood and was pretty surprised with what she saw.
Educators are trained professionals but we are not super-human. We do not have multiple arms. And because we educate and care for very young children we need to get it right every time. We can’t leave them to cry until we can get to them, like at the supermarket deli on a Saturday morning. When they are upset they need our immediate attention – but so do the other children.
It was incredibly stressful working under those conditions. I often felt I could not provide a caring and nurturing environment. If a child was absent we loved our day. We could have more one-on-one time with the babies and engage with them properly.
I told my union organiser on many occasions that we need to address the ratios issue. Ratios were better in other states - so why did Victorian children deserve any less? Many people were leaving the sector because of this pressure, along with our chronic low pay. One educator told me that at her previous centre they sat all the babies in rockers all day. Babies were fed in them and they slept there. I thought: I will not treat babies that way. I needed to make my voice be heard and stand up for change. We sat down and came up with a new union campaign. It was called Every Child Counts. So get childcare ratios right! That was back in 2007.
To make our voices heard we went and visited Members of Parliament. And we also held protests outside parliament. We spoke out in the media. And we spoke to our fellow educators, asking them to join our union and help make our voice stronger and louder.
Lots of people told us to stop wasting our time. Nothing would change, they said. But we didn’t listen to them and we never gave up.
It did take a couple of years before we could declare victory. But I was so wrapped when ratio changes were agreed to by state and federal governments in 2009. And gradually these changes came into force. Thank goodness these changes started with the babies! We didn’t get everything we asked for. But moving to 1:4 in the Babies Room is heavenly compared to what they were before!
And finally here we are in 2016 and the over-threes rooms have 22 with 2 staff. It is one of my proudest achievements as a union member. I use this as an example of what we can achieve when we stand together.
Today, I am just as passionate about our Big Steps campaign to be valued for the important work we do. We deserve professional pay. It is way overdue – does anyone think if our sector was 95 per cent male we would have waited this long?
Some people are again saying it’ll never happen. But I know we can do it. And I know how. Together in our union, standing up and speaking out – because that’s the way we make change happen in our sector. So if you’re not a member, it’s time to join! "
Bronwen Jefferson on the steps of Parliament in Melbourne,
after the launch showing the juggling act educators
do on a daily basis 18 April 2007.