For a new public early childhood education

by Peter Moss

Emeritus Professor, Institute of Education

England has long suffered inadequate early childhood provision, the product of prolonged under-investment and policy neglect. The result: a system split between ‘childcare’, ‘education’ and ‘welfare’, with fragmented, incoherent and divisive services, a mish-mash of nursery classes and reception classes, playgroups and nursery schools, day nurseries and childminders. To make matters worse, England has an unduly short early childhood phase, with most children entering primary school well before their fifth birthday.

The election of the New Labour government in 1997 seemed an opportunity to set things to rights. Here at last was an administration that treated early childhood as a policy priority and was committed to action. Action there was from the start, an endless flow of initiatives issuing from Whitehall; in best English tradition, central government directed operations. And even if there was a frenetic feel to policy making, some good things followed. The importance of early childhood was recognised, investment increased, the first steps were taken to integrate care and education, Children’s Centres got the green light.

But looking back, this was clearly an opportunity missed. Rather than building an early childhood system fit for purpose, based on democratic deliberation of alternatives, New Labour went hell for leather after expansion and opted for a strategy that was basically more of the same. The spread of private providers in the day nursery sector, gathering momentum since the late 1980s, continued unabated, leaving England with a vast for-profit sector. Marketisation, envisaged by the Major government with its proposal to use vouchers as the mechanism to expand nursery education, was pursued – not through vouchers but by enabling all providers to offer this education, which New Labour established as an entitlement.

But though New Labour opted for supply funding (financing services directly) for ‘early education’, it reverted to demand funding (via tax credits) for ‘childcare’. Not only did this undermine any chance of developing an integrated early childhood system; it blithely ignored the strong case against this form of funding set out in the OECD’s Starting Strong report: ‘The evidence suggests that direct public funding of services brings more effective governmental steering of early childhood services, advantages of scale, better national quality, more effective training for educators and a higher degree of equity in access compared with parent subsidy models.’

By opting for more of the same, the ‘wicked issues’ were left to fester. Provision got more fragmented, incoherent and divisive, with more private day nurseries and Children’s Centres adding to, rather than replacing, the chaos. The integration process stalled, before tackling access, funding, workforce or type of provision; the split system continued. Politicians were incapable of seeing beyond ‘childcare’, with no sustained attempt to develop a new, holistic concept for early childhood, a concept that would recognise care, education and welfare as inseparable purposes. And whilst Sure Start and preschool education were subject to large-scale research, no attempt was made to evaluate the workings or desirability of a marketised system and commodified services.

Of course, the picture is not all bleak. Committed and innovative educators and centres still manage to do good things. But this should not distract from the larger picture. After nearly 20 years of policy priority, England still has grossly inadequate early childhood provision. The earlier inadequacies are still with us, even more so in many respects. We have a split, incoherent and divisive system; a truncated system that is weak and unable to resist schoolification; a system premised on an exploited female workforce; a system that reduces parents to consumers, educators to technicians, services to businesses and children to – well, objects to be cared for and outcomes to be realised.

We also have a system that appears, at first sight, highly contradictory. On the one hand, provision that emphasises diversity of providers, competing to win the favours of parent-consumers in a marketplace. On the other hand, a highly regulated system, with a prescriptive national curriculum, a national inspection system and a national system of assessment of children. Competition and individual choice crossed with rigidly enforced national standards; diversity of providers delivering uniform outcomes.

This apparent contradiction is a consequence of living in a neoliberal regime. That regime’s belief in the virtue of markets, private provision and individual choice dictates the form of delivery. But the same regime creates an increasingly cut-throat global market; to succeed, or at least survive, requires the state assume an active role in shaping subjects fit for that market, not least flexible and compliant workers, ever responsive through lifelong learning (that starts at birth) to the every whim and demand of rootless capital. As the English government put the matter in its vacuously titled More Great Childcare, “[m]ore great childcare is vital to ensuring we can compete in the global race” (Department for Education (England), 2013, p.6)

But neoliberalism shows its hand in other ways. Suspicious of, if not downright hostile towards government, it can understand and justify public spending on early childhood services only in highly instrumental and economistic terms: as ‘social investment’ in ‘human capital’. To ensure supposedly ‘high returns’, very precise ‘human technologies’ need to be applied to ensure outcomes that must be predefined. The (female) technicians to apply these technologies need neither be well educated nor well paid, trained just enough to apply ‘evidence-based’ and ‘tightly defined’ programmes. If the school has become an exam factory, the early childhood centre is becoming a factory for early learning goals.

Last but not least, a neoliberal regime de-politicises. It acts as if there are no alternatives, just one right answer that experts can supply, as if education is a supremely technical practice for which the only question is ‘what works?’ In early childhood education this has meant no democratic deliberation about critical questions and policy alternatives; no recognition of the many diverse perspectives and debates in the field; no argument about the question ‘where to?’

My own starting point is that we need to re-think, then re-form. We have to stop thinking about early childhood as a collection of bits and pieces provided by competing mono-purpose services: ‘childcare for working parents’, ‘early education for 3s and 4s’, ‘support for parents’ and so on. Instead we need a holistic concept, such as ‘early childhood education’, in which education is understood in its broadest sense. This is a long-established concept that understands education as fostering and supporting the general well-being and development of children and adults, their ability to interact effectively with their environment and to live a good life. Education, here, is about the realisation of potential, fostering the ability to think and act for oneself and acquiring democratic capabilities. Care is inseparable because it is an ethic that should infuse all education, an ethic that requires relationships of attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness.

This integrative concept of education provides the basis for a fully integrated early childhood system, including: an entitlement to such education for all children from at least 12 months until 6 years (i.e. a later transfer age to primary school); supply-side funding, with simple and affordable charges combining a free period of attendance with an income-related fee for additional time capped by a maximum payment (perhaps £100 per month per child); a unified workforce based on a graduate-level early years teacher, accounting for at least half of all staff; and, last but not least, delivery through a common type of provision, replacing the present mish-mash.

What should that provision be? Children’s Centres, as the universal form of provision available to all children and families. These would be places of many possibilities, capable of a wide variety of projects, responsive to the needs and desires of their local communities. These would be public spaces, places of encounter for citizens both younger and older, community workshops and sites of democratic practice and experimentation. These ubiquitous services would be essential public institutions and rich social resources, whose benefits could no longer be reduced to narrow assessments of whether or not certain ‘learning goals’ had been achieved.

What about childcare? To reiterate, an ethic of care would pervade the whole system, applicable to all relationships and all children. Naturally, Children’s Centres would have opening hours that recognised that most parents were employed or studying or undertook other activities outside the family. We would stop harping on endlessly about ‘childcare’ as if it was the be all and end all of early childhood services, and talk instead about the many purposes they can serve – including, among many others, ensuring children were safe and secure whatever their parents were doing. We would put ‘childcare’ in its rightful place, as a necessary but not very interesting facet of modern education provision; then turn our attention to more interesting and challenging issues, such as enacting education-in-its-broadest-sense and moving to a new approach to employment based on the concept of dual carer families and evolving a better way of combining care, employment and other socially meaningful work over our lengthening life courses.

The early childhood service I am envisaging here is a public education and service based on values of democracy, solidarity, equality and cooperation. The Children’s Centre, as the main type of provision, is a community service that is provided for the benefit of all citizens, and is publicly accountable to them. Such a provision might be provided by democratically-elected local bodies (e.g. local authorities) and by non-profit private bodies, able to implement democratic principles and accept public accountability. I see no place for markets or business providers. This means an early childhood education in England both de-marketised and de-privatised.

If democratically-run and publicly accountable Children’s Centres, collaborating not competing, are two conditions for a public early childhood service, others are equally important. A well educated, well paid and mixed gender workforce, capable of acting as democratic professionals; active local authorities (‘educative comunes’), closely involved with services, providing some and supporting all, facilitating cooperation between Children’s Centres and between these and other services for children, and with a key role in a system of democratic accountability for services; and the academy, working closely alongside early childhood educators, Children’s Centres and educative communes. And last but not least, a national government that creates a broad policy framework, defining entitlements, funding, provision and workforce, and setting broad values, purposes and goals – sufficient to give coherence and a common sense of direction to the national system, without stifling local interpretation, content and experimentation.

Attempting to re-form early childhood education in this way, through new public institutions inscribed with values of democracy and experimentation, solidarity and inclusion will meet fierce opposition from private interests and the neoliberal hegemon. It will be difficult to accomplish. Though not impossible, as funding is gradually re-directed away from a ‘mixed market’ system towards a public early childhood education – just as the neoliberal revolution has been difficult but not impossible to bring about.

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