Visibility of structural injustice in early childhood degrees
The Early Childhood Studies Degrees Network advocates for a graduate-led workforce that is competent in leadership and in promoting social justice. The recently revised QAA sector benchmark for Early Childhood Studies emphasises graduate skills in critical thinking, challenging inequality and ensuring wellbeing in the sense of protecting the self from burnout due to emotional labour. However, the sector benchmarks remain silent on the structural injustices for the early years workforce.
The professional status of practitioners working in the early years sector in England has long been contested (Lloyd & Hallet, 2010). Social injustices are created and sustained in a complex way that impacts negatively on this mainly working-class and female workforce (Osgood, 2021). Injustices arise from pay and working conditions where practitioners are underpaid and undervalued (Lloyd, 2018). Furthermore, a recent comparative literature review on the topic of childcare and early education systems found that the system in England does not work for women as mothers or women as members of this workforce (Ville et al., 2022).
On 22 October 2022 the campaigning group Pregnant then Screwed brought women, pressure groups and trade unions together on the streets of London with a call for government action to ensure affordable childcare. Within the public discourse of protest the voices of practitioners are made visible by United Childcare Workers, Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding and Early Years Equality. However, early years practitioners are situated within a complex environment where any industrial action in the sector may compromise relationships of trust with parents, families and children that are underpinned by an ethic of care.
How might early childhood degrees prepare students for navigating the enduring structural injustices in their future career?
In England, Early childhood degrees are situated within both a neoliberal higher education system and the structural injustices of the early years sector. Critical reflection leads us to question whether we risk neutralising or silencing debates about injustice in the formation of professionalism in the early years. Higher education institutions could develop graduates’ knowledge and skills to enable them to navigate structural injustice. The academic study of activism and advocacy as an integral aspect of leadership in the early years is not new. Woodrow and Busch (2008), researching in Australia, problematise the tensions between professional discourses of leadership underpinned by values of care and those that focus on advocacy and action. They formulate practical strategies for an activist professional who is ‘situated, local and works across professional boundaries’ (Woodrow & Busch, 2008, p. 91). Such studies can shape knowledge as to how the workforce might take action in order to achieve justice for children, families, parents and practitioners.
‘Higher education institutions could develop graduates’ knowledge and skills to enable them to navigate structural injustice.’
What forms of action are realisable for the early years workforce?
Horden (2016) develops a conception of early childhood professionalism that brings to the foreground the professional community and its key role in influencing government. In this sense the professional community arises from but also supports the development of collective agency in the workforce. Alternatively, Arndt et al. (2018, p. 68) recognise that developing individual and collective professional identities opens up the possibilities for a ‘(political) consciousness and collective voice’ that can engage with systemic challenges in the local, national and transnational arena. Graduates on early childhood studies degrees can construct critical knowledges of advocacy, activism and solidarity and evaluate their relevance to the sector. Such knowledge might reveal new possibilities for collective action that uphold the value of care in the profession. Graduates in the early years workforce may initiate dialogue and alliances between trade unions, campaigning groups and sector advocacy groups in order to arrive at realisable actions to work towards justice for children, parents, carers and practitioners.
Arndt, S., Urban, M., Murray, C., Smith, K., Swadener, B., & Ellegaard, T. (2018). Contesting early childhood professional identities: A cross-national discussion. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 19(2), 97–116. https://doi.org/10.1177/1463949118768356
Hordern, J. (2016). Knowledge, practice, and the shaping of early childhood professionalism. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 24(4), 508–520, https://doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2014.975939
Lloyd, E., & Hallet, E. (2010). Professionalising the Early Childhood Workforce in England: Work in progress or missed opportunity? Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 11(1), 75–88. https://doi.org/10.2304/ciec.2010.11.1.75
Lloyd, E. (2018, April 20). Underpaid and undervalued: the reality of childcare work in the UK. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/underpaid-and-undervalued-the-reality-of-childcare-work-in-the-uk-87413
Osgood, J. (2021). In pursuit of worldly justice in Early Childhood Education: Bringing critique and creation into productive partnership for the public good. In A. Ross (Ed.), Educational research for social justice. Education science, evidence, and the public good (vol 1., pp. 171–188). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-62572-6_8
Ville, L., Marren, C., Rose, J., Parsons, S., & Bazeley, A. (2022). Childcare and earlyeducation systems: A comparative literature review of liberal welfare states. The Fawcett Society. https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/childcare-and-early-education-systems
Woodrow, C., & Busch, G. (2008). Repositioning early childhood leadership as action and activism. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 16(1), 83–93. https://doi.org/10.1080/13502930801897053