The subject of education is generally key to every political party’s manifesto and yet, more often than not, there is a failure by politicians to acknowledge its cultural or democratic nature. Instead, there is seemingly an unwillingness to recognise and respect differences in the early childhood field, with the focus being on standardisation. This raises potential concerns about the assumptions, practices and possible effects on young children.
Rather than being attentive to differing pedagogical worlds, their culture, ethics and democracy, the Department of Education targets child outcomes (academic attainability and employability) and development through the use of monitoring tools. This focus on technicalities; be it through observational assessment, inspections, checklists or rating scales, fails to be sensitive or responsive to the needs of the capable child and instead, is limited to measuring narrow cognitive domains.
One example of our nation seeking to align its education system, to create uniformity and normalise practice, is its participation in the proposed cross national assessment of early years outcomes of 5 year olds (The International Early Learning Study) put forward by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The rationale being to “help countries improve the performance of their systems, to provide better outcomes for citizens and better value for money”.
Arguably, the OECD’s rationale points to ‘quality’ as being key to our children’s experience of early years education. However, Gunilla Dahlberg and Peter Moss in their book “Ethics and Politics in Early Childhood Education” claim quality to be simply “an empty concept supposed to make the reader or observer feel well disposed towards a product”, with ‘quality’ capable of being defined by a set of criteria, measuring the conformity of a product to the norm. In essence, education ends up being defined as a service, a service to be provided as efficiently as possible, with little emphasis on the fulfilment for the child. Helen Penn (Professor of Early Childhood in the Cass School of Education, University of East London) argues that by focusing on technicalities, these measurable outcomes create the illusion of improvement, distracting attention from the power relations that create poverty and inequality in the first place.
So if it is not quality or outcomes which are central to defining a child’s experience of early years education, what other discourses should we focus on? Finnish educator and scholar, Pasi Sahlberg believes we should exercise caution when borrowing education ideas from other countries. “What has made an education system work well in one country won’t necessarily work in another. Policymakers should also beware of the myths about these systems and what has made them successful.” (The Guardian, April 2015)
By referring to the success of systems in other countries, Pasi acknowledges the importance of looking at “the big picture for the educational landscape of their nation. The road to a better education for all our children is not to return to the past but to build schools where curiosity, engagement and talent can be discovered and nurtured. That calls for integrating research-informed international lessons into local needs and capacities.”
The first step is to adapt our view of education, the concept of ‘schooling’; its purpose and its aims. Education is not a commodity to be traded between policy makers, nor is it something to be ‘invested in’ by parents and educators. Children should be allowed to research, to experiment and to explore freely without being measured against a normalising benchmark in search of ‘quality’.
Only once we acknowledge the competency and capability of children; their right to be nurtured and to discover, can we begin to take inspiration from other countries; borrow and adapt their ideas. However, in doing so, we must be mindful of the comments made by Pasi Sahlberg who has alluded to the naivety of English policy makers who seek to extract and implement these ideas unaltered; without thought or respect for the culture, the politics, the ethics and the democracy of our own nation. As educators, we have an obligation to celebrate who we are, rather than teach our children who they can become.