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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


The time has come to overturn neoliberalism’s hold on early childhood education

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 4 May 2021

Peter Moss and Guy Roberts-Holmes.

Our last blog highlighted neoliberalism – what it is and where it came from. We argued that it has penetrated all aspects of everyday life, yet many people neither recognise what it is nor understand its huge influence. Education is no exception, as a Canadian course tutor vividly illustrates: ‘My students have asked: “Why should we bother studying this?”; “Why should we bother with neoliberalism when we have to learn how to teach children?”’

Compulsory and higher education have been well served by studies of neoliberalism. They have detailed how this philosophy has circulated since the 1980s via the ‘Global Education Reform Movement’. GERM’s common symptoms have included the spread of market logic, business management models and test-based accountability, and a narrowing of curricula to focus on literacy, numeracy and science.

Less attention has been paid to early childhood education. This is the subject of our newly published book, Neoliberalism and Early Childhood Education: Markets, Imaginaries and Governance. Though our scope is international, England gets top billing because in so many ways it has been at the forefront of the neoliberal project for early childhood, and all other, education, acting as what Stephen Ball has called a ‘social laboratory of experimentation and reform.’

Neoliberalism has introduced markets and private for-profit providers into early childhood services on a global scale – but this has gone furthest in England, where early childhood has become big business. In 2019, for-profit providers accounted for 82% (by value) of the nursery market. At a webinar organised last year by a company that advises on buying and selling nursery businesses, the future looked bright:

Despite being in uncertain times, we are still seeing wide ranging investor interest spanning from private equity, through to first-time buyers, trade operations, alongside global and indeed domestic financial institutions, all of whom are attracted to the [nursery] sector due to the strong underpinning demographic drivers, demand and supply factors and indeed the opportunity to consolidate in what is a very fragmented market.

Marketization and privatization have happened despite successive governments making little attempt to research how they work and with what consequences, or indeed to compare them with alternative ways of organising early childhood services. Such evidence as does exist suggests that markets in these services do not work well as markets. They also generate inequality, division and instability, lack democratic accountability, and maintain a badly paid childcare workforce.

New public management principles have also led to an ever tighter governing of children, workers and services, in particular through setting explicit and narrow standards and measuring performance with testing regimes. We show in our book how the English state has created a “delivery chain” of standards for children from birth to six. This is accompanied by a national system of performance management that strongly governs early years education and care and that is forever seeking better measurement and better control, forever pursuing improved surveillance.

This fixation has serious consequences. Loris Malaguzzi, the great Italian educationalist, described ‘Anglo-Saxon testology’ as leading to a ‘ridiculous simplification of knowledge, and a robbing of meaning from individual histories’. For example one of the educators quoted in our book told us,

We have seen the curriculum narrowed and impoverished by an over-focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of a broad and balanced curriculum. The teaching of numeracy and literacy has become overly prescriptive and formal as a result of this, ignoring the ways in which children develop emergently. Instead of focusing on laying the foundations, both for understanding and also for developing a love and enjoyment of reading, writing and maths, we are increasingly pressured to force children to become ‘school ready’ (p. 136).

This reductionist and competitive measurement culture creates inappropriate stress for young children. This leads some to suffer what William Davies calls ‘depressive-competitive disorder’. For example,

They knew they were being assessed and many were scared of ‘getting it wrong’. They are 4 YEARS OLD! When there have been reports out recently about older children feeling so much stress and anxiety about tests, education and learning I think this is simply embedding it earlier. We are going in the wrong direction here!’(ibid p. 142)

The relentless ‘high stakes’ competitive culture conflicts with early educators’ professional values, principles and identities, leading some to experience Stephen Ball’s ‘terrors’ of performativity.

As we saw in our previous blog, there is a distinctive image of a good neoliberal subject – homo economicus. But neoliberalism has produced further economistic images in early childhood education: the young child as investment and potential human capital; the parent as consumer; services as businesses selling products; and workers as businesswomen, managers and technicians.

Last but not least, neoliberalism has tainted not only how we think about early childhood education, but how we speak about it through a technical and economistic language of ‘outcomes’ and ‘quality’, ‘testing’ and ‘assessment’, ‘interventions’ and ‘programmes’, ‘investment’ and ‘human capital’, ‘preparation’ and ‘ready-ness’, ‘markets and marketing’.

We both take neoliberalism very seriously and have no illusions about its strong hold on the collective psyche, not least that of policy makers. But we are also hopeful. We argue neoliberalism has entered into crisis, becoming a ‘zombie’ ideology. As such, it is eminently resistible and eventually replaceable, for example by developing critical thinking and critical literacy among practitioners, different ways of thinking about early childhood education and services, and alternatives to existing policies. In the book’s ‘Pandemic Postscript’, we add that:

now is the time for a radical re-thinking of education freed from the constraints imposed by neoliberalism, a ‘Great Reset’ that starts with deliberating on the purposes of education…Early childhood education and care can and should take its part in this ‘Great Reset’, no longer dominated by the logic of the market but firmly situated in the public domain, a public service taking its rightful place in a renewed public education.


Photo: Nathaniel the Facemaker by Tony Alter via Creative Commons


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