Reflections on ‘What are we educating for in Early Years Education’

Paul Ashwin and Charles Clarke

Society for Research into Higher Education, 4th May 2023

Panellists: Dame Margaret Hodge, MP, Naomi Eisenstadt, and Professor Jo Warin.

Sun setting over the sea with sunrays seen through clouds.

Photograph: Image by Timo Volz on Unsplash

NB: These notes are based on Paul and Charles’s reflections on this seminar and should not be taken as stating the views of the panellists or those who attended the seminar. Rather they are a particular interpretation of the engaging discussions that took place during the seminar.

In this seminar, we examined the question of what we are educating for in early years education.

Margaret Hodge highlighted the selective way in which policy makers tend to use evidence to inform policies. Whilst she wanted academic research to play a bigger role, she highlighted the challenges of the different time frames and attitudes of policy makers and researchers, with policy makers working to shorter timeframes in a more pragmatic way than researchers. She felt it was important to address these challenges, otherwise evidence from Think Tanks, rather than academic research, ends up dominating debates. Margaret was proud of what New Labour achieved in the early years through Sure Start. She felt that they had established a new frontier of the welfare state but had been mistaken in thinking it could not be dismantled by future governments. She reflected that they may have found this harder to do had there been a greater focus on disadvantaged areas. This wasn’t done because of the importance of gaining middle-class buy-in to Sure Start given the very large amounts of money that were involved. Margaret highlighted the ways in which New Labour’s work on the early years had focused around the needs of the child and involved professionals from different areas working together in a multi-agency approach. Sure Start was carefully evaluated and benefits were shown in many areas including cognitive development, increases in library use and breast-feeding as well as a reduction in parents smoking. Margaret highlighted how the development of policy involved difficult choices – should the focus be on helping parents to care at home or getting parents into work? Should the benefits offered be in the form of tax credits or the covering of child-care costs? For Sure Start the policy was developed through the convening of groups of stakeholders who worked together to develop policy and a shared agenda in a constructive way. There were difficulties in getting all government departments to work to address the same priorities. Looking forward, the current economic situation is very different from that facing the incoming New Labour government in 1997. The economy is in a much more difficult state and taxation is already high, so it will be more difficult to find money to support early years education.

Naomi Eisenstadt highlighted a blog she had written on how researchers can work to influence government. Naomi emphasised the tension between early years education being supported for its ability to educate young children and being supported because it will support economic prosperity by allowing greater participation by women in the economy. For example, for children’s education early years education works best in the morning and early afternoon whereas if the priority is participation in the economy, sessions would be needed throughout the day and evening. This highlights the tension between supporting the future workforce and supporting the current workforce. She was very concerned by the reduction in qualified staff working in the early years, which seemed to be a problem of how we value the education of young children and the education of early educators. It is too often seen as a route for young women who do not perform well academically. Naomi argued that early years education was for social and emotional development, to support young children in becoming ready school and to reduce the gap in school readiness between children from rich and poor backgrounds. She highlighted how popular Sure Start had been with those who were offered the support. Whilst originally offered in poor areas only, Sure Start was expanded to all areas. It was popular with the middle-class and, although this was important for buy-in, it made it vulnerable to the inaccurate criticism that it was mainly used by those who were privileged. Naomi would address this challenge by focusing it back on the poorest areas. Like Margaret, she highlighted the challenge of balancing the provision of income to parents and the provision of childcare. For example, the coalition government kept parenting programmes whilst reducing parents’ income, which made the programmes much less effective. To get early years education right requires a focus on children’s enjoyment of education and the joys of working with young children rather than simply a focus on how these children will become taxpayers.

Jo Warin highlighted the way in which Department for Education Guidance on the early years were very focused on the individual learner as a separate self-contained unit. She felt it was problematic to consider children as competitive units in a very narrow sense of education rather than seeing education in its broader sense of general wellbeing, the ability to interact with the environment, and to live a good life. Jo emphasised the interdependence between the flourishing of individuals and societies and argued for an ethic of care in which mutual care is seen as the end point of education. To do so, Jo argued we needed to move from ego-centric to eco-centric education, in which play, fun and enjoyment were seen as necessary for educative experiences. She emphasised the importance of collaboration between educators and parents in the early years and between researchers and early-years educators. She felt that early years educators tended to reify research rather than seeing it as connected to their practices. In shaping early years education it was important to listen to children and to ask them what they think education is for. Whilst this can be challenging, it is possible to do in a meaningful way. Jo also felt that early years educators need to be respected for their professional role and should have a say in shaping early years education in a dialogue with others in which a team is built around the needs of the child.

In the discussion, there was a sense that qualifications for early years educators were important as well as educators’ skills in working with young children. The de-professionalisation of early educators led to greater specification of tasks, which made it less expensive but gave educators far less freedom to offer an educationally rich environment. How assessment was used became a focus on the discussion, where it is used to inform improvement then it was suggested that it can be useful but it is much more problematic when high-stakes testing simply tries to compare children’s performance. The low levels of pay offered to early years educators, which does not recognise their qualifications, was seen as a major problem. It was argued that there should be greater recognition and valuing of practitioner research rather than only focusing on large quantitative studies. There was concern expressed about group care for babies under 9 months. For such young children, it was argued that one-to-one care was needed and so it was more effective to support parental leave rather than childcare. In conclusion, it was suggested that whoever wins the next election is likely to have the under-fives as a major policy priority and there was a real opportunity for researchers and practitioners to offer ideas about how to do this in an effective manner that takes into account of the economic challenges facing the UK.

We gratefully acknowledge the funding from the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, FASS Research Fund and Lancaster University for this seminar series. We also acknowledge the support of the British Educational Research Association and the hosting of the series by the Society for Research into Higher Education.