I’m going to take a little turn this week and instead of reflecting on neoliberalism and higher education I’m going to write about neoliberalism and early childhood education.
For a decade or so now early childhood education has been positioned as the intervention necessary to prepare our children for employment.
In many nations early childhood education is seen as a necessary strategy to ensure national competitiveness in the global marketplace.
Supporting this claim is a range of research that demonstrates the impact early childhood education makes on the life course of children, and particularly children growing up in families who are disadvantaged.
Children who attend a good quality early childhood service are more likely to finish school, complete a tertiary qualification, get a better job, be healthier, live longer and be less likely to get in trouble with the law.
All of these things benefit children of course (and the families they will produce in the future), but they also benefit the nation. A healthier person is less drain on the health budget. Someone with a better paying job pays more taxes to the state and does not need welfare support. Economists have translated these benefits into money terms and the generally accepted cost:benefit ratio is 1:17. That means for every $1 spent on early education (brought into today’s value) the nation benefits by $17.
Thus over the past decade we have seen increasing government involvement in early childhood education around the world.
All the major agencies (UN, UNICEF, UNESCO, World Bank, WHO, Bernard van Leer, Plan, Care for Children to name but a few) focus on advocating for, and providing, early childhood services as one of the key strategies needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.
In neoliberal Australia this focus has resulted in a National Quality Standard (with supporting legislation in early state and territory) and an accreditation system for services aimed at ensuring services operate at a required level of quality.
However, service quality is not considered enough, and, as Peter Moss writes, the state also defines the kinds of desired outcomes these quality services are required to produce (i.e. what children are expected to know and do) through a national curriculum (called a learning framework in Australia) and another accreditation system to recognise qualifications for early childhood educators (along with strict criteria as to what knowledge is required to be gained from those studying the qualification).
Internationally there is increasing emphasis on literacy (reading, writing) as these skills are considered essential prerequisites for success at school and ultimately success in obtaining a good paying job. Some countries have even gone so far as to develop performance-related pay for teachers: pay linked to how well their students perform against national standards.
Teaching right across the entire education sector has become more and more highly regulated and teachers are becoming little more than technicians.
When this is applied to early childhood we see a significant de-valuing of teachers.
This might appear on the surface to contradict the value placed on the sector as an important contributor to national productivity, but supports the long-held view that working with young children is something mothers do and therefore not deserving of the status of a profession. Moss writes: “The (female) technicians applying technologies need be neither well educated nor well paid, but trained just enough to apply "evidence-based" and "tightly defined" programs.”
Thus early childhood continues to be the poor relation in the education sector, with teachers paid less, required to work longer hours and in generally poorer conditions than teachers in schools, despite international recognition of the importance of the work they do.
I recall a number of colleagues of my generation saying that they could not have afforded a career in early childhood if they not had a husband who supported them financially; a sad statement reflecting the low status of early childhood work.
Moss insists that there is hope; that it is possible the change the way our education system operates. He argues: “Discourses of control can be disrupted, childhoods can be less regulated, and there are alternatives and resistances.”
Let’s have fun together in 2019 practising some creative disruption and resistance.