Contemporary curriculum debates in early childhood education and care
With the revised Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) becoming statutory, the Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) special interest group arranged a webinar series to provide space for wider democratic conversations around the purpose of ECEC and how this is enacted (Fairchild & Kay, 2020). The webinars included: curriculum building in ECEC with Liz Chesworth; activism within ECEC educators with Nathan Archer; and the collaborative nature of the development of Birth to 5 Matters exemplification documents with Nancy Stewart.
Liz Chesworth situated her discussion within global policy trajectories for ECEC in which curriculum is frequently determined by children’s progress towards universally prescribed outcomes. She drew upon her recent research, funded by the Froebel Trust, to discuss alternative enactments of curriculum that value children’s everyday lives as rich sources of learning. Building a curriculum upon the diverse contexts in which young children live and learn begins with recognising, valuing and responding to the ‘real questions’ (Hedges & Cooper, 2015) that children explore and express in their play. Respecting children’s diverse interests and enquiries (Chesworth, 2016) can inform a living, dynamic curriculum that is democratically co-constructed by children, educators and families. A dynamic curriculum is open to multiple possibilities and recognises that children’s individual and collective interests develop in unpredictable directions. For this to occur, educators need to recentre whose intentions and interests matter in order that the curriculum integrates, but is not defined by, nationally prescribed outcomes. The revised EYFS presents new configurations of a familiar challenge: how can educators build a dynamic curriculum that has relevance for children’s diverse interests and experiences within a system that continues to be driven by predetermined learning goals?
‘Educators need to recentre whose intentions and interests matter in order that the curriculum integrates, but is not defined by, nationally prescribed outcomes.’
Against the backdrop of recent policy changes there is evidence of educators not only navigating policy and practice but of actively resisting some of these developments. In the second webinar, Nathan Archer shared data from his doctoral study which illustrated how workforce policies construct the ‘ideal’ educator who is required to comply with multiple and changing curricular demands. The study also revealed the complex, nuanced and subversive responses of educators to these discursive policy manoeuvres. Data from life story interviews included multiple examples of educators pushing back on these pressures. Participants’ responses to these ideal identities (while sometimes limited) were often powerful and agentic. Educators’ stories offered examples, not only of coordinated and public acts of activism, but of micro-level resistances which were often low key (Archer, 2020). These took the form of disruptions and creative subversions, often made ‘under the radar’, within the school or nursery. In one narrative, an educator reflected on ‘quiet activism’ suggesting that professional restrictions do not always limit resistance, but these may occur in more covert ways in order to achieve intended aims. Such quiet or ‘closet activism’ (Lowe, 2015) moves beyond conventional understandings of activism as public, visible and ‘loud’, and extends our understanding of resistance and activism in ECEC.
Birth to 5 Matters was created as a sector response to the revised EYFS to ensure that the child was at the centre of practice. Drawing on 16 ECEC membership organisations and a wealth of ECEC educators, leaders, consultants and academics, this collaborative piece was developed and released in March 2021. Nancy Stewart discussed the rationale behind Birth to 5 Matters and highlighted the multiple voices involved in its inception. The key focus was to draw together research and best practice into the ways in which educators could develop a curriculum that focused on the child, their families and their local, national and global community. One of the key aspects of the development were listening to the voices of children and incorporating these into the document. This democratic process drew on the need to consider the whole child including physical, social and emotional wellbeing, health and learning. Within the documents there are important links to children’s rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, anti-discriminatory and anti-racist practice, the United Nations Sustainability Goals, UNESCO’s Education for Sustainable Development and the SEND Code of Practice. The Birth to 5 Matters website includes a wealth of guidance and support for educators to build a curriculum that meets the needs of their communities, including a range of material for educators to engage with.
Overall, the three webinars provided clear examples of how education research enhances our understanding of young children’s lives and their social and material worlds, educator voices and sector-led collaborations. The aims of the work presented highlights the multiple and nuanced ways to understand contemporary curriculum debates, educators’ perspectives, and ways to work with young children from democratic and egalitarian perspectives.
Archer, N. (2020, August 6). Activism, autonomy and identities: Stories from early childhood educators [BERA Blog]. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/activism-autonomy-and-identities-stories-from-early-childhood-educators
Chesworth, E. A. (2016). A funds of knowledge approach to examining play interests: listening to children’s and parents’ perspectives. International Journal of Early Years Education, 24(3), 294–308. https://doi.org/10.1080/09669760.2016.1188370
Chesworth, E. A. (2018). Theorising young children’s interests: Making connections and in-the-moment happenings. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lcsi.2018.11.010
Fairchild, N., & Kay, L. (2020, November 26). The early years foundation stage (2021): Challenges and opportunities [BERA Blog]. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/the-early-years-foundation-stage-2021-challenges-and-opportunities
Hedges, H., & Cooper, M. (2015). Inquiring minds: Theorizing children’s interests. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 48(3). https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2015.1109711
Lowe, S. (2015). Closet activism, covert workplace activity, and the social work voice? https://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2015/04/closet-activism-covert-workplace-activity-and-the-social-work-voice/