Early childhood education and care: dangers, possibilities and choices Peter Moss Thomas Coram research Unit

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Early childhood education and care: dangers, possibilities and choices

  • Peter Moss

  • Thomas Coram research Unit

  • Institute of Education University of London

  • Peter.moss@ioe.ac.uk

Critical thinking and hope

  • “My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad”(Michel Foucault)

  • The world suffers under a dictatorship of no alternatives. Although ideas all by themselves are powerless to overthrow this dictatorship we cannot overthrow it without ideas” (Roberto Unger)


  • Dangers: growth of hegemonic discourse of governing and markets (predetermined outcomes and individual choice)

  • Possibilities: exploring an other discourse (democratic experimentalism)

  • Choices: there are alternatives and there are (collective) choices to be made

Dangers Discourse of ‘governed markets’

  • National and international interest in ECEC: priority for the ‘social investment’ welfare state

  • Capture by hegemonic discourse:

  • ECEC offers high returns (predetermined outcomes) IF apply effective and prescribed technologies (quality)…‘Early intervention’ + ‘evidence-based practice’  answer to social and economic problems

  • Market delivery‘choice’, ‘efficiency’, ‘best value’

Too good to miss!

  • Childhood intellectual performance

  • Teen school achievement

  • Fewer teen births

  • Placements in regular classes

  • High school graduation

  • Adult earnings

  • Fewer crimes

  • Up to $16 return on the dollar

  • Short- and Long term Effects from 3 Studies

  • (Lawrence J Scheinhart, President, High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, to ‘Early Matters’, a European Symposium on Improving ECEC organised by DG EAC, Brussels, 14 October 2008)


  • Hegemonic discourse driven by:

  • Extreme ‘cognitive-instrumental’ rationality

  • Narrow theoretical perspective and modernistic paradigm

  • Naïve analysis of problems and belief in technical mastery

  • Positivistic research in its technical role

  • Strong neoliberal influences


  • Inscribed with certain understandings:

  • The child as reproducer, as nature, as redemptive agent … the ‘poor child’

  • The worker as technician, applying technologies for predetermined outcomes

  • The parent as consumer – calculating homo economicus, autonomous subject

  • The centre as business and factory


  • Inscribed with certain values:

  • Competition

  • (individual) Choice

  • Certainty/predictability/closure

  • Standardisation

  • Objectivity


  • Expressed in:

  • Increasing marketisation of service supply (with/without increasing privatisation)

  • Increasing techno-managerialism of practice – control, conformity to procedure and norm

  • The growth of ‘managed markets’ (“quasi-markets and the evaluative state”)

Managed markets: the case of England

  • ‘Childcare’ and ‘early education’: strategy of markets and competing providers

  • ‘Childcare’: 80% by for-profit providers; demand subsidy; law places duty on l.as to manage the market - “diverse market (is) the only game in town”

  • ‘Early education’: mostly by schools but all providers can get grant if meet conditions – aim to increase competition & choice

Managed markets the case of England

  • Centralised control:

  • Detailed 0-6 curriculum (160 pages)

  • 69 early learning goals (+5 overarching outcomes for all services)

  • National assessment regime

  • National inspection regime (Ofsted)

  • ‘Competence based’ training regime, based on nationally defined standards

Governing & Markets

  • “The increasing authoritarianism evident in neoliberal states such as the US and Britain…(is) consistent with the neoliberal agenda of elite governance, mistrust of democracy, and the maintenance of market freedoms…[But it has reshaped neoliberal practices in two fundamental respects: first, in its concern for order as an answer to the chaos of individual interests, and second, in its concern for an overweening morality as the necessary social glue to keep the body politic secure in the face of external and internal dangers” (David Harvey)

  • Alliance of neoliberalism, neoconservatism and managerial fraction of middle class (Michael Apple)

  • ‘Social investment’ welfare state: markets to supply, but management to get returns on investment


  • Growth in ECEC increases risk of:

  • Increasingly effective human technologies applied to whole child population

  • Increasingly governed and subjectified child (e.g. ‘developmentality’)

  • Increasingly atomised ‘control society’

  • Wasted opportunities for ECEC contributing to a more democratic, diverse and solidaristic education and society


  • Rethinking ECEC – an alternative discourse:

  • Other rationalities, e.g.’aesthetic-expressive’, ‘moral-practical’

  • More theoretical perspectives – border-crossing…welcome multiple perspectives, different paradigmatic positions

  • Critical and deconstructive approach

  • Cultural role of research

  • Contesting neoliberal influences and putting technical practice in its place – ‘what works?’ is not a critical question!

Technical and cultural roles for research

  • In the technical role, research is producer of means, strategies and techniques to achieve given ends…the provision of instrumental knowledge…[T]here is at least one other way in which research can inform practice. This is by providing a different way of understanding and imagining social reality…the cultural role of research” (Gerd Biesta)

Possibilities Discourse of ‘democratic experimentalism

  • Inscribed with certain understandings:

  • The rich child - “A child born with great potential that can be expressed in a hundred languages; an active learner, seeking the meaning of the world from birth, a co-creator of knowledge, identity, culture and values; a child that can live, learn, listen and communicate, but always in relation with others; an individual, whose individuality and autonomy depend on interdependence; a citizen with a place in society, a subject of rights.”(Children in Europe)


  • Inscribed with certain understandings:

  • The worker as a co-constructor of knowledge, a researcher and experimenter…democratic professionalism

  • “Based on participatory relationships and alliances…collaborative, cooperative action between professional colleagues and other stakeholders” (Pamela Oberhuemer)

  • Offers her ‘reading of the world’, but her role is to “bring out the fact that there are other readings of the world” at times in opposition to her own (Paulo Freire)

“The education of young children as a community project”

  • “[The early childhood worker needs to be] more attentive to creating possibilities than pursuing predefined goals…[to be] removed from the fallacy of certainties, [assuming instead] responsibility to choose, experiment, discuss, reflect and change, focusing on the organisation of opportunities rather than the anxiety of pursuing outcomes, and maintaining in her work the pleasure of amazement and wonder.”(Aldo Fortunati)

Possibilities Democratic experimentalism

  • Inscribed with certain understandings:

  • EC services as…public spaces - places of encounter for citizens & collaborative workshops

  • expressing community’s responsibility for children (‘local cultural project of childhood’)

  • potential for many, many purposes, projects and outcomes – some predefined, others not amazement & wonder!

Some purposes and projects of a collaborative workshop

  • Learning, e.g. collective production of knowledges, values and identities

  • Researching, e.g. children’s learning processes, gender roles, local injustices

  • Supporting, e.g. solidarity between citizens, support for individuals, families, communities; accessing services

  • Inclusion, e.g. children, marginalised and excluded groups into the community

Some (more) purposes and projects

  • Sustaining diversity, e.g. languages, cultures

  • Economic development, e.g. ‘childcare’ for employment

  • Promoting equalities & rights, e.g. gender, children’s rights

  • Democratic practice

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Possibilities Democratic experimentalism

  • Inscribed with certain values:

  • Collaboration

  • Diversity

  • Uncertainty

  • Subjectivity

  • Democracy (collective choice),

  • Experimentation


  • “To aspire towards ECEC systems that support broad learning, participation and democracy …The vision of early childhood services as a life space where educators and families work together to promote the well-being, participation and learning of young children is based on the principle of democratic participation” (OECD)

  • Democracy forms the foundation of the pre-school. For this reason, all pre-school activity should be carried out in accordance with fundamental democratic values” (Swedish pre-school curriculum)


  • Varying forms and functions; e.g. more <> less formal

  • A way of life and relating, not a subject to be taught…”Primarily a mode of associated living embedded in the culture and social relationships of everyday life”(John Dewey)

  • Enables reclaiming of ‘choice’ as a value

Reclaiming choice as a value

  • “We do not believe that the consumer and the citizen are one and the same, as the new market-driven technocracy seems to assume. Consumers act as individuals, making decisions largely on how an issue will affect themselves and their families. Citizenship implies membership of a collective where decisions are taken not just in the interest of the individual but for the collective as a whole or for a significant part of that collective” (Power Inquiry)

Democracy in the nursery Some possibilities

  • 1. Decision-making: purposes, practices, environments…including children & adults

  • “All those who are affected by social institutions must have a share in producing and managing them” (John Dewey)

  • e.g. Mosaic approach, multi-method tool for enabling children’s participation…in ‘Living Spaces’ project, young children work with architects on design of new centres

Democracy in the nursery Some possibilities

  • 2. Production : co-construction of knowledges, values, identities…democratic learning… ’pedagogy of listening’

    • “The potential of the child is stunted when the endpoint of their learning is formulated in advance” (Carlina Rinaldi)
  • 3. Evaluation: through participatory methods; deliberation on evidence and its meaning… pedagogical documentation

Pedagogical documentation

  • “Documentation represents an extraordinary tool for dialogue, for exchange, for sharing. For Malaguzzi, it means the possibility to discuss and dialogue ‘everything with everyone’ (teachers, auxiliary staff, cooks, families, administrators and citizens)…

  • [S]haring opinions by means of documentation presupposes being able to discuss real, concrete things – not just theories or words, about which it is possible to reach easy and naïve agreement” (Alfredo Hoyuelos)


  • “Experimentation is about bringing something new to life, whether that something is a thought, knowledge, a service or a tangible product. It expresses a willingness, a desire in fact, to invent, to think differently, to imagine and try out different ways of doing things, to go beyond what already exists, not to be bound by the given, the familiar, the predetermined, the norm. Like democracy, it represents a way of living and relating, that is open-ended (avoiding closure), open-minded (welcoming the unexpected) and open-hearted (valuing difference)”(Peter Moss)

Experimentation – at different levels

  • Community: Reggio Emilia…’cultural project of childhood’

  • Institution: Sheffield Children’s Centre…innovative projects…“a grassroots social movement” (Broadhead et al., 2008)

  • Group: Movement and Experimentation in Young Children’s Learning by Liselott Marriet Olsson… young children and learning are tamed, predicted, supervised, controlled and evaluated according to predetermined standards…challenge to practice and research is to find ways of regaining movement and experimentation in learning.

Democratic experimentalism

  • “The provision of public services must be an innovative collective practice, moving forward the qualitative provision of the services themselves. That can no longer happen in our current understanding of efficiency and production by the mechanical transmission of innovation from the top. It can only happen through the organisation of a collective experimental practice from below

  • Democracy is not just one more terrain for the institutional innovation that I advocate. It is the most important terrain” (Roberto Unger)


  • Hegemonic discourse is driven by strong forces – but these are resistible and weakened…don’t accept ‘capitalocentric’ thinking!

  • There are alternatives – imagined and in practice…we can think, speak and do differently!

  • There are alliances to be made…we need to travel beyond ECEC!

  • There are choices to be made about the common good

  • “Any vision of education that takes democracy seriously cannot but be at odds with educational reforms which espouse the language and values of market forces and treat education as a commodity to be purchased and consumed…’Freedom of choice’ will be a major principle in determining educational policy, [but] the notion of ‘choice’ will not simply refer to the rights of individuals to pursue their narrow self-interests in a competitive marketplace. Instead it will be recognized that, in a democracy, individuals do not only express personal preferences; they also make public and collective choices related to the common good of their society” (Wilfred Carr & Anthony Hartnett)

  • Broadhead, P., Meleady, C. and Delgado, M. (2008) Children, Families and Communities: Creating and sustaining integrated services. Maidenhead: Open University Press

  • Carr, W. and Hartnett, A. (1996) Education and the Struggle for Democracy. Buckingham: Open University Press

  • Children in Europe (2008) Young Children and their Services: Developing a European Approach. http://www.childrenineurope.org/docs/PolicyDocument_001.pdf

  • Dahlberg, G. & Moss, P. (2005) Ethics and Politics in Early Childhood Education. London: Routledge

  • Dahlberg, G., Moss, P. & Pence, A.(2007) Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care (2nd ed). London: Routledge (published in Spanish)

  • Fortunati,A. (2006) The Education of Young Children as a Community Project. Azzano San Paolo: Edizioni junior

  • Moss, P. (2007) Bringing politics into the nursery. http://www.bernardvanleer.org/news/2007/bringing_politics_into_the_nursery

  • Moss, P. (2007) Bringing politics into the nursery. http://www.bernardvanleer.org/news/2007/bringing_politics_into_the_nursery

  • Moss, P. (2008) Early Childhood Education: Markets and Democratic Experimentalism, http://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/bst/de/media/xcms_bst_dms_24015__2.pdf

  • Moss, P. and Petrie, P. (2002) From Children’s Spaces to Children’s Services, London: Routledge

  • Olsson, L.M. (forthcoming, 2009) Movement and Experimentation in Young Children’s Learning: Deleuze and Guattari in Early Childhood Education. London: Routledge

  • Rinaldi, C. (2006) In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia. London: Routledge

  • Unger, R.M. (2005) What should the Left propose? London: Verso

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