Policy Imperative in Early Childhood Education and Care
Significant variations across national contexts in key terminology for this entry necessitate the inclusion of explanatory notes. The age range for early childhood is from birth to 8 years. The term early childhood education and care is used to refer to formal education and care services provided for young children in the years before compulsory schooling and in the early years of school. These services may or may not be part of State education systems. This definition encompasses the range of prior to school education and care services available to children including preschool, kindergarten, nursery school, and child care.
Policy imperatives frame and shape the implementation of early childhood education and care systems in particular ways and are bound by social understandings of childhood, children, and the role of the family. Since the spread of formal early childhood education with the nineteenth-century kindergarten movement, there have been significant shifts in how early childhood education and care is understood and provided through policy interventions in many, mainly minority world, countries. It is a domain, often uneasily posited, at the intersection of multiple policy spheres, including education, welfare, and workforce. Since the turn of the second millennium, policy for early childhood education has been subject to considerable scrutiny internationally through the international flow of research and the influence of world policy institutions (e.g., the OECD and World Bank). This scrutiny has been driven by multiple factors including the challenges of disadvantage and inequality, changes in demography, changes in how the institutions of early childhood education are constituted and understood, and considerations of the enactment of children’s rights.
Policy and Policy Imperatives
Policy is designed to steer practices toward desired futures. Formal policy documents articulate objectives and frequently seek to mandate or guide how these objectives are to be achieved. Importantly, policy encompasses more than text and is manifest through how texts are translated into practice, as well as choices and silences about preferred courses of action (Press and Mitchell 2013). The term “policy imperative” is used to describe and capture the stated objectives driving policy choices, the framing of the problem to be addressed through policy, and the underlying (and often unarticulated) beliefs and values underpinning policy.
Early childhood education and care systems vary significantly across national contexts in their purpose as well as in how they are organized. These variations have been explained in various ways. In an examination of the marked differences in policy approaches to child care in France and the United States, White (2009) argues that the ideas underpinning policy choices, specifically the interaction of “norms, frames, and programmatic ideas” are key to explaining how different systems emerge. Thus policy solutions are shaped when policy actors put forward the “right” programmatic ideas using the “right” policy frames that resonate with extant norms to convince policy decision-makers. Rigby et al. (2007) argue that policy design choice, for instance, government investment in public child care or reliance upon the market, shapes not only what the system looks like but also how the policy problem is understood. Most policy scholars agree that policy regimes leave institutional legacies that are highly influential in determining the general direction of future policy.
Policy imperatives provide another way of understanding variations in the nature of early childhood education and care systems and enable an understanding of these variations within, as well as across national contexts. Attention to the policy imperatives at play is particularly useful for understanding early childhood education and care systems because this sector sits at the intersection of multiple policy domains in a way that is distinct from that of education systems for older children and adults.
Following the emergence of formal early childhood education with the nineteenth-century kindergarten movement, policy for early childhood education has been shaped by objectives related to welfare, women’s equality, educational achievement, and the workforce needs of the economy. It has also had to negotiate competing views about the role of the family and the State in relation to responsibilities for the development and well-being of young children. More recently, the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1989 has lent momentum to advocacy for early childhood education and care policy to be based on a commitment to children’s rights. Each broad policy domain shapes early childhood education and care systems in distinct, and at times, competing ways. How (and whether) children’s rights and interests are conceptualized and enacted within each policy framing is contested.
The Family or the State: Where Does Responsibility for Children’s Early Education Rest?
Children’s right to education is enshrined in Article 28 of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child. This article states that, in particular, primary education should be “compulsory and available free to all.” Although a number of global policy institutions, such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Education Forum (WEF), promote universal access to early childhood education (OECD 2001, 2006, 2012, WEF 2015), this exhortation does not enjoy the same degree of unanimity as children’s access to school education. In part this is because the desirability of early childhood education and care for infants and very young children is strongly contested. Such contestation arises from competing discourses of motherhood, conflicting understandings of the conditions considered necessary to children’s healthy development, concerns regarding young children’s vulnerability, and competing views about the nature and extent of State intervention in care and education. In an essay canvassing Western philosophical constructions of childhood in early childhood education, Davis (2010, p. 289) writes that the education of very young children “(m)ore than any other stage in child development…foregrounds the relations of private to public, family to community, maternal sustenance to civic welfare.”
At the end of the nineteenth century, many kindergarten advocates emphasized the responsibility of mothers for children under 2 or 3 years of age by refusing the youngest children access to kindergartens. This position was reinforced later in the twentieth century by Bowlby’s maternal deprivation theory that emphasized exclusive maternal care for the first 3 years of life. Thus, for much of the previous century, the assumed family norm informing early childhood education and care policy was of one parent in the workforce (usually the father) and one parent at home (usually the mother) responsible for children and the domestic sphere. As a result, early childhood education and care in many minority world nations focused on older children in the years before school and paid scant attention to younger children and infants, except in cases where the family was deemed unable to provide appropriate levels of care. In addition, although some governments’ policies strove for universal access to early childhood education for older children, the policies of other governments sought only to provide access as a compensatory measure for children facing risks to their development.
Feminism and Women’s Participation in Paid Labor
In the latter third of the twentieth century, feminism has been instrumental in driving significant shifts in early childhood policy, particularly in relation to the expansion of childcare provision. The availability of child care enables mothers with young children to engage in paid labor and to participate in the public sphere. It thus becomes a strategy to support women’s equality.
As women’s participation in paid labor has become a norm in many nations, economies have become reliant on women’s contribution. Hence government policies to support child care are often now framed as key labor force strategies.
Early childhood education and care policy objectives concerned with welfare are usually concerned with outcomes related to children. In more recent years, however, such policy has also sought to achieve welfare objectives concerned with parents.
The kindergarten movement evident in many minority world nations at the end of the nineteenth century was associated with philanthropic interventions on behalf of children living in poverty and children who were often poorly nourished and living in cramped and unsanitary conditions. Similarly, in the first few decades of the twentieth century, the nursery movement emerged to provide for the babies and very young children of mothers who worked from necessity, because they were widowed, deserted, or otherwise unable to rely upon their husbands for support. These were interventions targeted to specific groups of children deemed to have particular needs because of the failure of the family or the State to provide adequately for their healthy development. Nursery care in particular was often described in terms of being an unfortunate necessity.
In more recent decades, a number of highly influential longitudinal studies (e.g., the Effective Provision of Preschool Education study 2004) have affirmed the positive impact of high-quality early childhood education and care for children who face risks to their healthy development and/or who are at risk of school failure. In his review of longitudinal studies, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman (2006) concluded that early childhood education and care was the most cost-effective intervention for children facing disadvantage.
Another version of early childhood education and care as a policy response to welfare emanates from changes to family formation, in particular, increasing numbers of single-parent households (predominantly female headed). Child care enables women to maintain employment, post-childbirth and regardless of family composition, and thus reduces the likelihood of children being raised in poverty. Hence, acting as a buffer against poverty, child care mitigates the risks to children’s development that poverty may pose.
Rights and Citizenship
The widespread ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) at the turn of the 1990s has generated increasing attention to the rights of young children. Rights considerations not only concern the entitlement rights of children to particular services such as education, they also focus upon how rights might be manifest within services.
Article 3 of the Convention states that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children. Thus, attention to the daily experiences of children within services (rather than anticipated outcomes from attendance) and how children’s citizenship is played out within early childhood education is also an important objective.
The Impacts of Policy Imperatives
The following section canvasses the tendencies toward particular policy outcomes associated with each policy imperative. This is followed by a short discussion of the policy problem this poses for the development of early childhood education and care systems.
When the primary policy imperative for the provision of early childhood education and care is to enable women’s paid employment, it is positioned as an adjunct to workforce participation (either as an emancipatory measure or as an economic measure). In this case, the policy tendency is to prioritize outcomes of childcare accessibility and affordability. That is, policy focuses on supply – ensuring that there are sufficient numbers of child care places to meet demand and containing the cost to families. Child care is often made available for children from a young age.
When the primary policy imperative for the provision of early childhood education and care is related to welfare objectives, the policy tendency is to target the provision of services to particular individuals, groups, or localities. Eligibility for government-supported provision is determined typically through the application of assessment criteria and might include economic or social indices, or health, ability, or welfare assessments.
When the primary policy imperative for the provision of early childhood education and care is related to educational outcomes, provision may be universal or targeted. In universal systems, provision is often (though not always) limited to 1 or 2 years before school entry. As educational discourses strengthen in early childhood education and care, early childhood policy analysts point to the risk of the “schoolification” of curriculum in early childhood education and care. That is, creating early childhood curricula that more closely resemble those of schools and the loss of play-based pedagogies that have traditionally distinguished curriculum for very young children.
When the primary policy imperative for the provision of early childhood education and care is within a discourse of children’s rights and citizenship, the policy tendency is to attend to the experiences of children within such programs and to nurture children’s values and dispositions for democratic life. So, for instance, the OECD report Starting Strong II recommends that early childhood education and care systems “support broad learning, participation and democracy” (p. 218) and safeguard communal, interactive, experiential, and social contexts for children’s early learning.
The Policy Problem Policy Imperatives Pose
Policy interest in children’s early care and education is exemplified by the OECD’s production of four Starting Strong reports – international policy reviews of early childhood education and care (2001, 2006, 2012, 2015) in addition to the Babies and Bosses (2007) report which canvassed issues of childcare provision as part of reviewing work and family policies. Starting Strong I adopted the term “early childhood education and care” to denote the inseparability of children’s care and education. The need to adopt such a term in itself is indicative of the policy problem posed by the impact of diverse policy imperatives.
In many nations, policy for children’s early education and care has been developed in a piecemeal manner as different policy imperatives give rise to different responses. Significantly, policy rationales for the provision of early childhood education and care may be driven by objectives unrelated to children, such as supporting parents’ (read “mothers”) participation in the paid workforce. Even in cases where such rationales are primarily focused on children, there are tensions between whether the resulting service system is primarily a welfare intervention, an educational intervention linked, for instance, to ideas of school readiness or an environment constructed around conceptions of children’s democratic practice and citizenship. Many other implications arise from the various policy imperatives at work in relation to early childhood education and care, including who should work in such services, how services are to be provided, from what age children have access, and the nature of early childhood curricula.
Nations’ extant norms – including conceptualizations of children and childhood, the positioning of the family and the State, the perceived role of women and mothers in particular, and the emphases placed on governments and markets in the provision of services – interact with the various policy imperatives at play in early childhood education and care, to shape early childhood education and care in particular ways.
- Heckman, J. (2006). Investing in disadvantaged young children is an economically efficient policy. Retrieved from http://jenni.uchicago.edu/Australia/invest-disadv_2005-12-22_247pm_awb.pdf
- Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). (2001). Starting strong I: Early childhood education and care. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
- Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). (2006). Starting strong II: Early childhood education and care. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
- Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). (2012). Starting strong III: Early childhood education and care. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
- Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., & Taggart, B. (2004). The effective provision of preschool education project: Findings from preschool to end of key stage 1. Retrieved from https://www.ioe.ac.uk/RB_Final_Report_3-7.pdf
- United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)Google Scholar
- World Education Forum. (2015). Incheon declaration. Education 2030: Toward inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all. Retrieved from http://www.waam2015.org/sites/default/files/incheon_declaration_en.pdf