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Blog post Part of special issue: What are we educating for?

What are we educating for in early childhood education?

Jo Warin, Professor of Gender and Social Relations in Education at Lancaster University

The overall question of this BERA Blog special issue can be understood in two different ways: what is being done now at the current time by educators (what are we educating for), and it can also be understood as an invitation to consider what we could or should be educating for when we free our imaginations to capture the very best aims we can express for the next generation.

Reading the current guiding principles in the Early Years Foundation Statement statutory framework (what are we educating for), I am struck by the emphasis on individualism and the focus on children as separate self-contained units. Instead of this narrow conception of education we could emphasise the interdependency of the individual and society. We could adopt, as a guiding principle, an ethic of mutual care in which children are taught through high-quality care to care for each other and their environment, a move from egocentric to ecocentric education.

An arresting and fruitful question within this blog special issue is about what the different educational sectors can learn from each other. I want to emphasise three things that I believe can be gifted by the early years to sectors for older people:

  • The wisdom, built into much early years practice, that powerful learning occurs when it is enjoyable and fun. Positive emotional experience associated with learning is more likely to become a habit of mind, making for a lifelong learning capacity.
  • The experience of ‘freedom’, relatively speaking, from neoliberal constraints on academic performance. My research on what attracts practitioners to the early years reveals this as a strong motivator in English and Swedish settings (Warin, 2018). (However, I do need to temper this statement by pointing out that the freedoms of the early years environment are becoming increasingly eroded (Roberts-Homes & Moss, 2021)).
  • Communication channels between children, teachers and parents. In the early years opportunities are found and created for these three parties to work together to benefit young children’s education and wellbeing.

I also want to draw attention to the way that the early childhood education workforce is often a pioneering force when it comes to inclusive education. In my research on gender and education in early childhood education I have found examples of practitioner gender sensitivity, such as the support of gender non-conformist children, as presented in my recently published book (Warin, 2023).

Who should determine what we are educating for in early childhood education? Early years practitioners, researchers and policymakers must rise to the challenge of asking children themselves. This is a good place to voice an increasing concern about a growing trend among researchers to baulk at researching directly with young children, a legacy from Covid-19 when this was impossible and an anxiety about safeguarding concerns. I see many PhD researchers, whilst paying lip service to the need to hear the voices of children, actually engaging in research methods that do not directly involve them.

‘Early years practitioners, researchers and policymakers must rise to the challenge of asking children themselves: Who should determine what we are educating for in early childhood education?’

In addressing improved collaboration between professionals, researchers and policymakers, greater understanding is required by each of these parties to access the expertise of the others. For example, a demystification of research and a respect for professional knowledge would enhance the possibilities of creating meaningful dialogue focused on children’s wellbeing and their development as caring citizens.


Roberts-Holmes, G., & Moss, P. (2021). Neoliberalism and early childhood education: Markets, imaginaries and governance. Routledge.

Warin, J. (2018). Men in early childhood education and care: Gender balance and flexibility. Palgrave Macmillan.

Warin, J. (2023). Gender in early childhood education: Implementing a gender flexible pedagogy. Sage.