Early Childhood Sector
The rise of early childhood education (ECE) as both a unique sector of a country’s education and social policy and as an important part of nation’s economy is a feature across many nations. Historically, each country develops its own local context, although increasingly shaped by global political and economic agendas. Aotearoa New Zealand’s ECE system is the focus of this entry, where the metaphor of the sector (as ECE is frequently referred to) is explored to interrogate ambivalent claims to knowledge and practice. This short study by way of a singular metaphor – sector – explores more than 20 years of intense development that reflects a curious confabulation of complex discourses dominated by various forms of neoliberalism.
Almost without exception, ECE developments globally have centered around the notion of quality – an important aspect of production and consumption in economic discourse but arguably less applicable to education as an ethical enterprise involving personal engagement and respect for the dignity of its human subjects. For consumers, standardized products of uniform consistency constitute the basis for relying on particular products to perform their prescribed functions. In the marketplace, standardized quality benchmarks establish the basis for assessing the suitability and usefulness of such products, with consumer guarantee legislation now ensuring that products are fit for their intended purpose. Although quality benchmarks and indicators may be necessary, even beneficial in the service and manufacturing sectors, their application to the education of young children is, at best, problematic, in that it is not clear what the word actually refers to. Although heavily critiqued by educationalists (e.g., Dahlberg and Moss 2005), the idea of quality has underpinned significant policy development in New Zealand.
New Zealand’s early childhood education has been heralded by many scholars as a world leader for its development of curriculum, policy, and practice. Especially celebrated are its bicultural curriculum document Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education [MoE] 1996) and related planning and assessment practice learning stories (MoE 2004). The cause for celebration is as much the collaborative process of its development as the inclusive nature of its contents. Since policy developments of the late 1980s, and the inception of the curriculum in the 1990s, a comprehensive policy and regulatory framework (in the form of specific policies, strategies and funding) has annexed ECE, now largely privatized, to the stronger State-funded compulsory education sector. Although attendance is still voluntary, recent government initiatives (including financial incentives) intensify the pressure on families for their children to participate in formal, licensed early childhood education programs. Various social services have been recruited to help meet the government’s escalating targets for participation rates, currently set at 98%. The onus is increasingly being shifted onto early childhood centers to make themselves desirable enough to attract sufficient numbers of enrollments to ensure economic viability. New Zealand’s early childhood education sector has clearly been marketized and can be seen as a forerunner for the marketization of the compulsory education sectors in New Zealand, including recent growth in government funding to support and develop special interest charter schools.
The economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s inexorably altered the face of early childhood education in line with other areas of social policy in New Zealand. These reforms largely followed a new right political and economic direction, effectively decentralizing government departments, including health, education, and social welfare, to form self-managing units run according to marketized principles. This neoliberal reformulation of the social services entailed proliferation of the dominant values of modern capitalism, including competitive individualism, commodification, and consumption, along with entrepreneurial flexibility in reinventing ourselves to meet the demands of economic intensification. Within this new reality, early childhood is now seen as a mechanism for facilitating women’s reentry into the workforce, as an alternative to dysfunctional families for the socializing of children, as an observation and monitoring site for early intervention and protection of vulnerable children, and as a pathway for building a healthy and wealthy State. The recent intensification of interest in early childhood by government, parents, employers, and communities marks out early childhood as an increasingly contested site for implementation of social policy and renders early childhood as a clearly identifiable sector in New Zealand’s education. The idea of early childhood education as a sector has been around, then, at least since the integration of early childhood services in the mid-late 1980s. Early childhood education in other OECD countries has received similar economic emphases and undergone parallel developments, although for manageability, the policy focus of this entry is deliberately limited to developments within New Zealand.
With that background in place, the entry now turns to the conceptualization of early childhood as “sector” and some implications of such a concept for early childhood knowledge/discourse. To frame our thinking within particular concepts in any knowledge domain is necessarily to shape or delimit how we might think about that domain, and by extension, the way we understand knowledge. The converse is also true: what we mean by “knowledge” shapes the way we understand the domain. The rest of this article focuses on the way the word sector is used to describe early childhood education, and how the resulting discourse then impacts reflexively on that sector. Such theorizing acknowledges that a particular representation is never an accurate depiction of reality, suggesting that describing early childhood education as a sector is, at best, a metaphor that (like all metaphors) conceals as much as it reveals about its referent. Belying the homogeneity captured or implied in a label such as “sector,” the various individuals and organizations that comprise the early childhood sector are members of diverse communities, constructed by a variety of discourses – unique subjects “precariously and temporarily sutured at the intersection of those subject-positions” (Mouffe 1988, p. 44).
Sector as a Metaphor
Metaphor is generally understood as understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another, for example, we may attribute an intelligent person with a razor wit. Metaphor is not a matter of playing with language; how we perceive, how we think, and what we do are largely metaphorical (Lakoff and Johnson 2003). Metaphor use is systematic – it shapes understanding, experience, and the way we talk. Most concepts are partially understood in terms of other concepts. The razor wit metaphor attributed to the intelligent person in the above example provides a conception of the person as having a sharp mind who could perhaps cut this argument to ribbons. Metaphors such as the razor wit, the keen mind, the sharp thinker, and the person who can cut right to the heart of things with a cutting remark are so pervasive that they are often taken as self-evident. That they are metaphorical may not occur to us, yet it is the way most think and operate. Metaphorical thought then is normal and ubiquitous, conscious and unconscious, yet provides a coherence to our thinking. As principal vehicles for understanding, metaphors play a central role in the construction of social and political reality through a “coherent network of entailments that highlight some features of reality and hide others. The acceptance of the metaphor, which forces us to focus only on those aspects of our experience that it highlights, leads us to view the entailments of the metaphor as being true” (Lakoff and Johnson 2003, p. 157).
Dictionary definitions generally refer to a sector as representing a distinct part of something – in particular a part of society such as a nation’s economy, the housing sector, the educational sector, etc. This involves an understanding of sector as a group with some sort of shared perspective (“we”) with appeals to ideals of community and belonging – an appeal to being part of that group with affiliations and ties. This interpretation sits comfortably with the community and family focus of ECE. There are a range of other entailments, which, in the following exploration, provide interesting perspectives on some of the developments in ECE. The rest of this section explores the etymology of the word sector, along with other entailments in the metaphorical use of the word. Space limits the number of possibilities for exploration, but there are, it is hoped, sufficient to support the claim made here for multiple nuances in our understanding of early childhood and the sector that purports to act as its representative and its champion.
Sector as “Cutting”
The word sector is derived from the Latin sectus (past participle of secare to cut). So a sector may be thought of as resulting from some kind of cut. Our choice of cutting instrument has a significant bearing on the kind of cut we make. Chainsaws and scalpels are both perfect instruments for cutting, albeit for different purposes. In everyday language, we refer to various types of cuts often with metaphorical allusion: clean/clear cut (decisive action), cold cuts (pieces of meat), sweeping cuts (radical changes), and cut throat (unscrupulous violence). Cuts may refer to variations to the way resources are apportioned (salary or funding cuts).
Cuts are made with various intentions: perhaps to segment or to reshape, to make something look different, to make a structure smaller or weaker (as in cutting down a tree), or to make a large object more manageable by being able to manipulate its pieces. In the medical surgery, a cut from the surgeon’s scalpel may be associated with putting something right, curing an illness – the skillful and incisive crafting to put right injured/diseased organs in order to heal and to make better. Although the cut ostensibly causes further damage, the intended outcome is repair – short-term pain for long-term gain – a metaphor carried through to many familiar social situations involving delayed gratification, such as saving for long-term spending goals, working hard to achieve peak fitness, or having a rest after the work is complete. The nature of a cut, then, depends on who is making the cut, their intentions, and their ability to carry out the incision properly.
In defining the early childhood sector, a significant instrument of identification is the curriculum, Te Whāriki (MoE 1996) – the result of cutting or dividing up areas of knowledge, sociocultural development, and pedagogical theories to align with expressed aspirations for competent, capable children. In terms of the current “cutting” metaphor, the curriculum could not be adequately justified in terms of weakening, manipulation, or mere reshaping of knowledge. Arguably, there is surgical intention in segmenting the curriculum as a specific area of knowledge to engage in skillful and incisive crafting with the intentions of making things better – an intention which many working with Te Whāriki would argue is largely successful.
Another aspect of curriculum is evident in our “cutting” metaphor, though, in the phrase “cutting someone off” when driving a car or engaging in a conversation. When we cut people off, we get in their road, usurp their place, try to reach a destination faster than them, or superimpose our version of how things are/should be over and above others. Within the ECE sector, it may entail prescription from positions of formal authority about curriculum or procedural policy. Complying with such prescription is often prerequisite to institutional funding, or even organizational survival, since satisfactory audit reports and continued funding are generally conditional upon such compliance. Compulsory compliance is an issue if one considers curriculum as contestable, with decreasing choice allowed about whether to adopt standards, pre-specified learning outcomes and performance targets as the course for young children to follow under the name of education. For government and for efficient management, imposition of authority may facilitate achieving a preferred outcome with speed and efficiency. Similarly, measurability may provide indications of progress toward targets in imposing strands, dispositions, and stories as specific teaching interventions, but it is doubtful whether superimposing particular prescriptions on others does justice to education in its fullest sense.
Sector as a Geometric Segment
In various MoE statistical publications, the early childhood sector is represented as a segment of a circle, like a wedge of cheese or a pizza slice. The size of the slice represents the level of privilege or the comparative funding of each sector. This is a quantifying reference, in that it is the significance of a sector that is assessed relative to the proportion of the circle compared with other sectors. Within the early childhood sector, similar figures are used to represent the comparative importance of the various services that comprise the sector, serving as a de facto ranking mechanism. This kind of segmented pie chart signifies the spread of limited available resources among the represented sectors, providing a “zero sum” model of allocation that sets each sector off against all the others. In other words, the problem is made into a competition among sectors for a given and limited resource rather than calling into question the whole basis for the model. Problems in geometry often start with the “given” within which one has to solve particular problems; it is not a legitimate move in geometry to ignore the givens or to challenge the geometric nature of the problem. By analogy, it is not considered legitimate to contest the overall level of resource allocation. Despite government and OECD rhetoric about the importance of early childhood education, a recent NZEI campaign grew wings on the slogan “The biggest cuts to the smallest people.” It may be legitimate, though, to question the intentions of the cutter.
Sector as Territory
From the Greek for area or division, the word sector was used in WW1 to refer to the part of a military zone based on a circle around a headquarters. Such an area is designated by boundaries within which a unit operates, and for which it is responsible, such as a division or headquarters. In reference to early childhood, we might think in this way about ministries, government agencies, the early childhood center, or the home as centers of various sectors. In each case, we might impose boundaries and designate a bounded territory using physical walls, fences, buildings, an abstract line, or merely an idea. The idea of territoriality appeals to our human instincts: we are physical beings bounded by our skins, we experience the world as outside ourselves, and we have familiar boundaries inside which we belong. This idea is inherent in the very notion of early childhood centers as places marked out for children. It may be stretching the metaphor too far to describe as a sector the space prescribed for ECE centers in the MoE where licensing regulations require a minimum of two square meters per child. It would mean each time a child moves, the boundaries are redrawn – perhaps a very productive metaphor for the flexible, playful possibilities of early childhood.
Within this exploration of the early childhood sector and its various entailments is a serious observation that marking out a sector constitutes both a set of discourses and a set of practices, shaping our experience and the way we talk about it. Reflexively, the resulting discourse impacts on that sector in a dynamic and formative way. The ubiquity of metaphor within discourse means that our daily conversations and “common sense” dialogue mask a range of metaphorical entailments that may remain hidden but continue to impact on the way we interpret our experience.
Despite the supposedly homogenizing impact of globalization, New Zealand is one of many countries whose population is increasingly multiethnic/multicultural. This complexity is amplified by neoliberal economic demands for a flexible workforce, comprised of competitive individuals, able to solve future problems that do not yet exist and able to thrive amid the plethora of visions for our social and technological futures. Even if it were possible to pin down the early childhood sector within a static, literal definition, it would be an immense problem to secure agreement among the myriad voices about how to respond in any meaningful way. Compounding the issue infinitely is inevitability of metaphorical allusion to represent the future visions and the current actions of what we call the early childhood sector. Possibly, the best we are left with is to acknowledge the problematic and complex nature of early childhood contexts and their competing forms of knowledge and to be aware of the metaphorical imposition of our individual and collective pleasures, fears, and desires on the constitution of early childhood. Whether we are promoting the rhetoric of quality, the politics of participation, or a particular prescription for the early childhood sector, it is important to acknowledge that each of us has different views about what these things mean and what we might expect from them.
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