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Hyper-governance and datafication in early years education: children as ‘abilities-machines’ or ‘like sausages in a factory’

Alice Bradbury Siew Lee Guy Roberts-Holmes

The growing use of data in education has both been lauded as a revolution and criticized as detrimental to teachers and children; no wonder then that it is increasingly a focus for educational research. Policy developments such as the use of Baseline Assessment in Reception (likely to be re-introduced in 2018) and the OECD’s new ‘mini-PISA’ for five-year-olds make this research vitally important as we see significant impacts on teachers and on children as they increasingly become the subject of measurement to ensure they are ‘school ready’ or ‘nursery ready’. At BERA Conference this year, our symposium will explore systems of accountability in the early years, with a focus on theorising these policy developments as forms of datafication and hyper-governance. Drawing on data from settings for children aged from two to five, we argue that through these processes children become ‘abilities-machines’, to use Foucault’s phrase, or as one teacher commented more prosaically, ‘like sausages in a factory’.

Across three papers, we explore how traditional early years pedagogy is compromised as teachers and early years educators attempt to manage the tensions between the production of data for accountability purposes and the care and learning of young children. We examine how dataveillance, that is the constant surveillance of comparative data, leads to the ‘hyper-governance’ of teachers and children’s subjectivities. Foucault’s notion of governmentality and Deleuze’s ‘societies of control’ are used to theorise the shifting operation of performativity and accountability in early educational settings.

Siew Fung Lee’s paper examines the policy of funded nursery places for disadvantaged two-year-olds, which is seen as an ‘answer’ to identifying and then engaging with ‘disadvantaged’ families. Here Foucault’s concept of ‘governmentality’ is used to investigate how the government constructs self-governing subjects and in particular, how ‘disadvantaged’ two-year-olds have come to be significant targets of the state. In the drive to meet government outcomes and measures of ‘nursery-readiness’, the child as ‘abilities-machine’ (Foucault, 2008) is being created, through the very practices that are assumed to be about play pedagogy in the early years. With the choice of 30 hours’ free childcare offered by primary schools and academies, some nurseries are struggling to fill their places for three- to four-year-old children; thus rather than asking if two-year-olds should be in formal provision, the urgent concerns of nurseries shift to financial survival.

Using similar theoretical perspectives, the papers from Alice Bradbury and Guy Roberts-Holmes explore in depth their research on Baseline Assessment, a government policy in England which attempted to measure children’s attainment in the first six weeks of Reception, and thus reduce all the complexity, diversity and contradiction of four- and five-year-old children to a single number. This number was to be used to predict children’s progress across seven years of schooling. Baseline was abandoned in 2016 but is likely to return in 2018, as proposed in the government’s Primary Assessment Consultation.

Guy Roberts-Holmes’ paper considers Baseline as an example of neoliberal datafication in the early years, and as an inaccurate, pseudo-scientific and flawed algorithmic fantasy which aimed to hold a primary school to account by recording scores for each child on entry and crudely comparing this number with ‘what comes out’, in Sats results, seven years later. In particular, he explores the use of three ‘approved’ private providers for Baseline Assessment, which blurred the distinctions between not-for-profit social enterprises, digital policy innovation labs, edu-business and the state. 

Alice Bradbury’s paper considers how the collection and analysis of data shape pedagogy and practice in classrooms of young children, the values and discourses that dominate the setting, and the data-driven subjectivities that result.  Drawing on the growing field of data studies in education (Selwyn, 2015), the paper considers how teachers’ and children’s identities are reshaped in the data-obsessed school, as collectors and providers of data respectively.

Taken together, the papers in this symposium ask what is served and produced through constructions such as Baseline Assessment and funded places for ‘disadvantaged’ two-year-olds. The term ‘milieu’, in denoting spaces of uncertainty, allows us to examine government policy as investment in the child as human capital: the child as ‘abilities-machine’ who produces returns on the government’s educational investments.  We argue that within processes of hyper-governance and datafication, the political and ethical purposes of early years education become collapsed into an economistic and business approach, so that complex social problems such as inequality and poverty are purported to be managed through data. 



Ball, S. J., & Junemann, C. (2012). Networks, new governance and education Bristol: Policy Press:.

Foucault, M., (2008). The birth of biopolitics: lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979: London: Palgrave.

Selwyn, N. (2015). Data entry: towards the critical study of digital data and education. Learning, Media and Technology, 40(1), 64-82.


Symposium details: Governance, Accountability and Data in the Early Years and Primary Education Tuesday 5th September 2017, 11.00 – 12.30  FUL-109