Last week a colleague and I travelled to Greece to the annual EECERA Conference. I like to attend such conferences because I believe that if we do not work to connect practitioners, policy makers and academics then we will never gain the coherence we need to ensure policies and practice are effective and actually support children and families in a way that also supports social justice.
Educational justice is more likely to occur when decisions reached within the system are based on codifying legislation which guarantees that the participants are treated in the same way not only in formal terms but also in a way that guarantees equality of opportunity
The theme of the conference was exploring democratisation and social justice of childcare in a world where the market is shaping and providing the majority of provision in many countries. The promise of a useful opportunity for a deeper debate was enticing given the central role early education plays in the current political debate.
Greece was a fitting place to initiate such a debate and in the words of the Ancient Greek Pericles ‘democracy allows men to advance because of merit instead of wealth or inherited class.’ The question therefore had to be, Could childcare and early education be the means of providing a fair start for children that would result in social justice? It was examined from a number of perspectives some more successfully than others.
Professor Wassilios Fthenakis considered whether the provision of education was fit for purpose and asked if some of the national responses such as national curricula, acceptance of the principles of diversity and inclusion, reforms of regulation and an emphasis on qualifications were the right responses. He commented on the move from child development to early education and the shift to a more social constructivist perspective of education and childhoods. He reflected on the concerns from the more traditionalists who worried that constructivists may undervalue children’s need to develop individual content knowledge.
However his conclusion was in favour of socially constructed approach which he felt gave better chance that curricula would be developmentally appropriate, framed within a relevant cultural context and better able to integrate community services with education. For him this remains the best means of achieving an education approach that will deliver a more socially just service for children.
Michelle Neuman, a devotee of the economist James Heckman who I had the pleasure to meet a few years ago described a more familiar picture to those of us trying to create a childcare model that is both fair and efficient and builds social justice.
‘Policies that provide early childhood educational resources to the most disadvantaged children produce greater social and economic equity’ Heckman 2011 pg. 32
She made the point that low cost does not have to mean low quality a view that LEYF can show is very possible. Michelle has been working in the developing world and argued that we can learn from them; a value I wholly support and is why I am a founding member of the International Early Years Network . She warned that the humility of the local can be displaced by the arrogance of the universal and challenged us to consider which tradition is observed and which is ignored and more importantly who is privileged within this tradition and who is marginalised?
Liz Washbrook shared her research which is examining inequality in child outcomes in four countries, the US, UK, Australia and Canada, (Bradbury, Corak, Waldfogel and Washbrook 2014). Her findings confirm that children born into poverty are still much more likely to grow up to be poor themselves. She also confirmed that gaps in cognitive outcomes of poorer children including poor vocabulary, higher levels of poor concentration and conduct problems, poor health and higher risks of obesity exist as early as three years and are still evident at aged 11. Inequality is shaped by family resources including human capital (time and cultural capital as described by Bourdieu), access to services and money. For example in the US there is a disproportionately higher number of poor children living in single parent families while in the UK they live in workless households. To create social justice you have to fix all of these which means high quality childcare and education alongside policies which enable people to work at a fair wage and give better access to public health services.
Are there dangers as to how things are emerging? Economists have supported the benefits of quality childcare shaped by the mixed market but the risks of commodifying children remain. Balancing cost with quality and keeping the child at the centre is no mean feat. A Government providing universal access below the cost price confuses the market. It means that universal isn’t quite universal. Some nurseries can attract those parents who can pay higher fees and so provide their children with high quality education and high social and cultural capital at home. Poor children living in poverty and receiving poorer quality childcare are at risk of double disadvantage. Every generation needs to review pedagogy theory and practice and then have the courage to change the system. We need to spend some time considering what this means if we want a system that supports social justice. The gap between the rich and poor is growing fast.
It’s time to initiate a historical change which gives education systems the chance to develop from bottom to top on the basis of refined educational foundations with new goals and practices. In that case perhaps social enterprise nurseries and schools like LEYF could shape a marketplace and prove that low cost does not have to be low quality and that it’s possible to build business that build in social justice.
‘Literacy unlocks the door to learning throughout life, is essential to development and health, and opens the way for democratic participation and active citizenship’