In a series of posts focusing on early years practitioners in England, I look at the construction of social perceptions regarding how we see the purpose of the workforce, before examining how these perceptions impact its gendered nature and practitioners’ professional identity.
The structure of the workforce in England has been delineated by conceptual divisions in the sector, including socially constructed perceptions of early years practitioners which directly impact their identity, oppressing the nation’s image of the child and views of childhood. Historically, an institutional divide has also existed between childcare and education.
In England, there has traditionally been a physical and a conceptual separation between those who cared for children and those whose responsibility it was to educate them. McGillivray (2008) suggests that this separation was linked, not only to the nature of the role and its day-to-day tasks, but to the way in which policymakers or power structures and society viewed children and childhood. Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (1999) have however described how more recently there has been a “rethinking [of] children and childhood”, in the sense that governments are beginning to break through the web of paternalist, protectionist constructions and become alive to an image of a child who is rich in potential, powerful and competent. This is a central facet of a social constructivist theory of education, based on the concept of ‘rights’ which empower children’s status. Research in developmental neuroscience showing how children’s brains are different to those of adults (Gopnik, 2016), has also contributed to a global acknowledgement of the importance of early childhood. This recognition has, in turn, initiated an international focus on Early Childhood Education and Care in the belief that it can “provide a crucial foundation for future learning by fostering the development of the cognitive and non-cognitive skills that are important for success later in life” (OECD, 2017).
In England, services linked to care and education were originally the responsibility of different government ministries, each with their own objectives, principles and values. However, in 1998, the Labour Government unified policy and administration as part of its National Childcare Strategy so that responsibility for children, families, schools, health and social care, now rests with the Department for Education. This transfer or amalgamation of power could not however be enacted without issue, given the complex history of the care and education dichotomy. Even as the spotlight on early education intensified and was publicly financed under Labour, the provision of childcare continues to rely mainly on parental fees. Ultimately, the integration of services could not, of itself, wipe out a social perception or oppression of the workforce which is embedded culturally and sociologically.
Such naivety was arguably exacerbated by a change of Government in 2010, at which time the Conservative-Liberal Coalition renamed the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Department for Education, signalling a distinct shift away from the early years being primarily a time dedicated to securing a child’s wellbeing towards the focus being on affordability and the choice of childcare available to parents.
This change in political priorities, against a background of an economic way of thinking associated with neoliberalism, has, it is argued, in addition to a too narrow understanding of what education and learning are, had an impact on the professional autonomy of leadership practices present amongst the early years’ workforce. The dominant narrative portrays the purpose of early years settings as being framed in terms of necessity, enabling an expansion of the female labour market and providing children with a ‘safe base’ from which to explore. The early years had not therefore, until more recently, been regarded as a platform for the construction of knowledge or a place where children and adults can engage together in a potentially wide range of possibilities.
Dahlberg, G., Moss, P. and Pence, A. (1999). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care. (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.
Gopnik, A. (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. London: The Bodley Head.
McGillivray, G. (2008). Nannies, nursery nurses and early years professionals: constructions of professional identity in the early years workforce in England. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 16(2), 242-254.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2017). Education at a glance. Retrieved from the OECD website: http://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance-19991487.htm