Beware of success stories?

It is, at first sight, a remarkable success story: services for young children and their families have gained a prominent and permanent place on international policy agendas and are in the centre of the attention of national and global agents concerned with the ‘big’ issues like economic development, prosperity, social cohesion etc. The European Union now has a history of more than two decades of high-level EU policies concerned with early childhood. However, since the first Council Recommendations, published in 1992, the concept of what early childhood services should be, who they are for, and what purpose they serve, has undergone interesting transformations. In 1992, the European Union encouraged its Member States to invest in childcare as a matter of urgency (Council of the European Communities, 1992). In 2014, all relevant EU policy documents, including the 2011 Council Conclusions (Council of the European Union, 2011) and the recent ‘Quality Framework’ (Working Group on Early Childhood Education and Care, 2014), consistently talk of early childhood education and care; a development that is mirrored in many other international and national policy contexts. Surely, that the two components – education and care – are now seen as inseparable is something we should celebrate? Yes, and no, I think. While early childhood practitioners, scholars and activists (including myself) have long argued for the recognition of the educational value of any interaction between children and adults from birth, we should be concerned about the most recent developments. Let us be clear: high-level early childhood policies are rarely about children. In the case of the EU they need to be read in the context of macro-political, socio-economic strategies. The focus has shifted from the individual child (that has to be ‘cared’ for) to a ‘critical period in human life’ (Woodhead, 1996) in more general terms. Early childhood in itself has become a matter of concern, rather than the provision of childcare as a commodity for working parents. Europe, according to its current strategic framework, faces a complex scenario of structural crises (European Commission, 2010). They include unsustainable levels of inequality and poverty, threatening the social contract, and the viability of the entire project. Early childhood education and care has been identified as a key policy tool to address these existential issues because of its assumed ability to ‘close the gap’ between children from marginalised and dominant groups in society and to reduce later dropout rates. Here lies the key to the new interest in early childhood education – and we have every reason to be worried about it. The underlying concept of education appears to be increasingly utilitarian. It has become a commodity to increase a narrowly defined ‘human capital’ in a neoliberal economy, ‘no longer conceived as an integrated strategy to promote freedom, self-enrichment and human development’ (Tan, 2014, p. 492). The (renewed) emphasis on schoolification of children’s early years links to another critical issue at the very heart of early childhood practices and policies: the unresolved tension between contradicting meanings of ‘care’ in educational contexts. Instead of an acknowledgement of the importance of human beings ‘caring’ for each other, individually and collectively, care – in hyphenated early-childhood-education-and-care policies – has become synonymous with the service part of the programme. We have hardly begun to grapple with the notion of care as a public good that has to be valued (as opposed to priced) as the foundation of society. Our education system is, argues Kathleen Lynch, an organised ‘culture of carelessness’ (Lynch, 2010, p. 54).

The fallacy of ‘closing the gap’

Policies aiming at closing the gap are grounded in a logic of integration and assimilation into an assumed normality that no longer exists. They perpetuate an image of them and us: the underachieving and the marginalised as the generalised other. Unfortunately, as I have discussed in more detail elsewhere (Urban, 2012), mainstream early childhood research contributes to this notion and, together with policy, has entered a self-referential cycle of more-of-the-same questions leading to more-of-the-same solutions. But, as Rosi Braidotti (2002) reminds us, things are more complex. Fragmentation and hyper-diversity have become the new normal of society, and the ‘grounds on which periphery and centre confront each other’ (p. 14) are shifting.

Years of mainstream early childhood research has made little difference to the lives of the most marginalised children in Europe (and in the US, for that matter), as documented in recent reports (Lansley and Mack, 2015, Šikić-Mićanović et al., 2015). There is nothing inevitable about poverty, inequality and exclusion; they are the consequence of human action and political practice. Cui bono? – Who benefits from the status quo, is a key question I suggest to take as the starting point of a radical reconceptualisation of the way we conceive research in early childhood.

From early childhood education to atención integral para la primera infancia

In recent years, Latin American countries including Uruguay (Uruguay crece contigo), Colombia (de cero a siempre), Chile (Chile crece contigo) and others have put a similar emphasis on developing ambitious early childhood policy frameworks that aim at integrating policies, services and approaches to working with young children and their families. But while integration is the key term in both EU and Latin American policy documents, there is one substantial difference: countries like Uruguay, Colombia and Chile have understood that what is needed is atención integral para la primera infancia – a broad integration of all sectors in support of young children and their families: health and well-being, social inclusion and social cohesion,equality, education, and care.

Europe has long struggled to integrate early childhood education (e.g. preschool) and childcare. Many members stated still operate split systems with huge implications for access, quality of services, resourcing and affordability and, not least, qualifications and working conditions for educators. Despite a broad consensus on the importance of equitable early childhood experiences for all children, there is little evidence that the policy debate extends beyond the early-childhood-education-and-care paradigm. At EU level, policies areas (and the Directorate Generals responsible for them) that are fundamental for creating the conditions for growing up (health, nutrition and well-being, housing, labour, justice), remain disconnected from the early childhood education debate which has been driven largely by DG Education and Culture from a lifelong learning perspective. The Latin American social-political spirit of a rights-based approach to atención integral is absent from the EU context.

It is important to keep in mind that questions of what to integrate – and what not – are political choices. These choices have implications for the life experiences of young children. They should be based on democratic debate at local, regional and national level.

Politics of democratic and collective choices are at risk

The fundamental policy choice, I argue, is the choice between early childhood services seen as investment in children and human capital – or early childhood services seen as a public good and a public responsibility. The former connects to a discourse of return on inverstment, management, assessment and technocratic accountability. Promoted by World Bank, OECD, USAID and Philanthro-capitalism, it comes with a distrust of public education and opens the floodgates for private-for-profit providers. The latter is based on a discourse of rights, protection, participation, democratic accountability and participatory evaluation. This discourse is grounded in respect for diversity and oriented towards equality and social justice.

The World Bank’s current education strategy Learning for All. Investing in People’s Knowledge and Skills to Promote Development(World Bank, 2011) mentions human rights only in passing, and key terms like diversity and democracy are not mentioned once in the entire document. It is telling, however, that the term assessment features 107 times on the 117 pages of the strategy.

In the light of these developments, Europe and Latin America, global north and global south, urgently need to learn from and with each other(Urban, 2015). What Europe needs to learn from countries like Colombia, Uruguay and Chile is that early childhood in all its aspects requires integrated policies, innovative, interdepartmental structures of governance and, more generally,competent systems(Urban et al., 2012). What Latin America and Europe need to learn together is to reject education policy agendas that tell us that democracy and children’s rights are irrelevant for education. We can learn together how to value early childhood as a public good and a public responsibility that requires democratic practices, rights-based approaches and a strong focus on diversity, equality and social justice.

Mathias Urban, 2015-12-15

Mathias is Professor of Early Childhood Studies and Director of the Early Childhood Research Centre. His research interests unfold around questions of diversity and equality, social justice, evaluation and professionalism in working with young children, families and communities in diverse socio-cultural contexts.

Mathias works in international research collaborations across Europe, South- and North America, Australasia and Africa. His current projects include collaborative studies on early childhood professionalism in Colombia (Perfiles de talento humano para la atención integral a la Primera Infancia: exploración de requisitos en Colombia) and on early childhood provision for Romani children in Central and Eastern Europe: Roma Early Childhood Inclusion (RECI+).

Mathias is an International Research Fellow with the Velma E. Schmidt Critical Childhood Public Policy Research Collaborative, a member of the PILIS research group (Primera Infancia, Lenguaje e Inclusión Social), of the DECET (Diversity in Early Childhood Education and Training) network and of the AERA special interest group critical perspectives on early childhood education.


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