We are here to celebrate 25 years of Early Childhood Studies degree courses and the flourishing of this education over these years. It is also a period when early childhood education came in from the cold: after decades of policy neglect, in 1997 early childhood gained sustained government attention. It became at last a policy priority: responsibility for early childhood was integrated within education; entitlements, initiatives and regulations have poured forth; funding has grown.
Are the results a cause for celebration too? In my view, sadly not. Rather it is a story of missed opportunities, of failure to transform a deeply flawed and dysfunctional system and create something new and inspirational.
The failure has been structural. The problem at the heart of England’s flawed and dysfunctional early childhood system, the split between education and care, was never fixed. Integration stalled before it tackled the ‘wicked’ issues of access, funding, workforce and provision. Instead, England clung to ‘childcare’ as a separate concept, maintaining a public discourse of ‘childcare services’, ‘childcare workers’ and ‘childcare costs’. This divisive language of ‘childcare’, with its focus on ‘working parents’, has become even shriller since 2010, for example in the titles of policy documents and the introduction of 30 hours’ free ‘childcare’ for employed parents. One consequence is a system still reliant on scandalously badly paid and almost entirely female ‘childcare’ workers.
The failure, too, has been a lack of critical thinking. Influenced unduly by the United States, a poor role model well before the current administration, successive English governments have assumed a way of thinking about early childhood that is overly instrumental and managerial, excessively technical and economistic; a way of thinking infused by positivism and neoliberalism.
The result has been:
(1) unrealistic claims for what early childhood can achieve, what I have described as ‘the story of quality and high returns’;
(2) an unexamined commitment to markets and private provision; and
(3) the adoption of what Loris Malaguzzi described as ‘prophetic pedagogy’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon testology’ - most recently witnessed in the English government’s decision to participate in the latest addition to OECD’s global web of educational measurement, the so-called International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study.
The failure, finally, has been political. To turn again to Malaguzzi, education is, in his words, “always a political discourse whether we know it or not…it clearly means working with political choices”. That means there are political questions to be asked – ‘what is your image of the child? being a classic example – and choices to be made between alternative and often conflicting answers. But instead of opening up for a democratic politics of early childhood education, in which alternatives are recognized, welcomed and debated, successive governments have acted as if there are no alternatives; as if policy can be decided by a mixture of experts offering technical solutions and an unquestioned adherence to market dogma. The impact has been more of the same, a continuance of a flawed and dysfunctional system, with an added layer of central management – and no transformation.
Children’s Centres, one of the few genuinely innovative initiatives, could have been transformational, assuming the role of a new universal provision. Instead, they ended up simply adding to the existing fragmented confusion of services - only to fall victim to a callous and destructive era of austerity. This sad history illustrates, par excellence, my theme of missed opportunities.
To conclude. The growth of early childhood degree courses is one of the brighter spots in an otherwise gloomy picture. If there is to be any hope of transformational change in early childhood, if it is not too late for that, we need younger generations being educated on such courses as critical thinkers and democratic professionals. I congratulate these courses and the network for 25 years of achievement, and wish them well for the next 25 year.
- For more on what the history of early years policy and qualifications tells us about today’s workforce, see Nursery Management's lead feature here, out now