This symposium built upon BERA’s research commission, Competing Discourses of Early Childhood Education and Care, and critically explored why and how early childhood education and care (ECEC) school readiness policy intensification has made the early years an ever more tightly governed space. For example, the proposed Reception Baseline Assessment (2020) and the new Early Learning Goals (2021) suggest that ECEC is being reimagined, reconfigured and reduced to school readiness preparation (Kay, 2019; Roberts-Holmes, 2019; Wood, 2019). Strong managerial control and governance through the imposition of school readiness performance measures, curtails early years teachers’ and practitioners’ perceived inefficient and self-seeking professionalism.
Indeed, school readiness is now extended to two-year-olds through ‘disadvantage’ constructs which are productive of abilities-driven subjectivities in the increasing formalisation of early experiences (Lee, 2019). Lee uses a Foucauldian policy genealogy in tracing how funded nursery places construct a particular ‘disadvantage’ so that the early years are requisitioned by policy as sites for integrating technologies between the home, education and health. This raises the critical question: What does policy make of ‘disadvantaged’ two-year-olds? When framed in economic and political terms as human capital investment, the question becomes: What constitutes capital investment that forms an ‘abilities-machine’ within a neoliberal society? Paradoxically, it seems the wider the scope of educational investment, the narrower the possibilities for imagining early years for young children. It is suggested that concepts such as governmentality and policy technologies, all intensified through datafication, are useful tools to further understand what is happening in ECEC and why. These governing techniques ostensibly deploy ECEC in ameliorating ‘disadvantage’, even where the causes of disadvantage lie in austerity economics and poverty.
Pierlejewski (2019) uses the notion of the data-doppelganger (Williamson, 2014) or data-double as a theoretical lens through which to view the datafication of early years education. The data-doppelganger is the version of the self which exists in the significant quantities of data collected about the child. The drive for the collection of this data is the draw of the ‘good level of development’ (GLD) – the measure of school readiness. Data must be collected to prove that each child has attained this level, and progress towards the measure is tracked throughout the Reception year. Using a psychoanalytic understanding of the double, she explores the role of data in the formation of child subjectivities. She finds that data holds a mirror up to the child, revealing the version of the self as it compares to the norm of school readiness. The child is compared to normative expectations and begins to see itself as an object. Thus, the ego is altered. The innocence of the pre-data-self is lost, and a new form of normative subjectivity is created.
However, the intellectual thrust of policy research is to deconstruct, to speak truth to power, to expose the limitations of what policy is or is not doing. So, as public intellectuals we must proceed with caution and we need to take care we do not construct our own universal truths, deficit narratives, or dire warnings, or to construct new totalising discourses. Foucault (1988) optimistically states that, ‘As soon as one can no longer think things as one formerly thought them, transformation becomes both very urgent, very difficult, and quite possible’. For example, Archer (2019) has found that it is not only a matter of policy driving or changing practice: there is evidence of ECEC policy navigation, interpretation, contextualisation – indeed, multiple competing and disruptive discourses at work. The challenge now becomes, how can we put this dangerous (and powerful) knowledge to work in productive ways in ECEC?
Archer, N. (2019). Hope and Resilience in Testing Times. Children’s Centre. Retrieved from https://medium.com/children-s-centre/hope-and-resilience-in-testing-times-22d37b8c6af7.
Foucault, M. (1988). Truth, power, self: An interview with Michel Foucault. In L. H. Martin, H. Gutman, & P. Hutton (Eds.), Technology of the Self: A seminar with Michel Foucault. Amhurst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Kay, L. (2018). Bold beginnings and the rhetoric of school readiness. Forum, 60(3), 327–336.
Lee, S. F. (2019). Governing ‘disadvantage’ through readiness: A Foucauldian policy genealogy of funded nursery places for two-year-olds. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. Advance online publication. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/1463949119864200.
Pierlejewski, M. (2019) The data-doppelganger and the cyborg-self: Theorising the datafication of education. Pedagogy, Culture and Society. Advance online publication. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/14681366.2019.1653357.
Roberts-Holmes, G. (2019). ‘School readiness, governance and early years ability grouping’. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. Advance online publication. Retrieved from doi.org/10.1177/1463949119863128
Williamson, B. (2014). Reassembling children as data doppelgängers: How databases are making education machine-readable. In Powerful Knowledge Conference. Bristol, pp. 1–14.
Wood, E. (2019). Unbalanced and unbalancing acts in the early years foundation stage: A critical discourse analysis of policy-led evidence on teaching and play from the Office for Standards in Education in England (Ofsted).’ Education 3–13, 47(7), 784–795. Retrieved from doi:10.1080/03004279.2019.1622494.