Inside Story

Early childhood economics

Has business changed the culture of childcare?

Amanda Walsh Books 10 August 2021 2094 words

Neoliberalism and Early Childhood Education: Markets, Imaginaries and Governance
By Guy Roberts-Holmes and Peter Moss | Routledge | $62.99 | 234 pages

How often over the past year have you seen public spending on childcare described as an “investment in women’s workforce participation” or a way of “building the workforce of the future”? More than a few times? Then you’ve already glimpsed neoliberalism reshaping our view of early childhood education and care.

As anyone with a HECS debt can tell you, education is no longer a process. It’s a commodity. At the non-compulsory ends of the education spectrum — early childhood at one end, university at the other — education is a business enterprise, even if the business is run on a not-for-profit basis. What if the right “policy lens” could help us understand the pressures and the competing interests better? Would that help us to better plan and deliver education and care to young children? After reading Neoliberalism and Early Childhood Education, my answer is a qualified “yes” — accompanied by nagging thoughts about where this book could have taken us.

Guy Roberts-Holmes and Peter Moss set out to do something potentially very powerful: to “emphasise the significance of the political and economic for early childhood education.” But their book is not a straight work of analysis: their purpose is forcefully subversive. They are here to explain not only how neoliberalism operates in early childhood education and care, but also how to resist it. They want to convince the rest of us that neoliberalism is “deeply problematic, eminently resistible and eventually replaceable.”

A historian by training, Peter Moss has devoted his academic career to interrogating the assumptions and ideologies that underpin early childhood policy and practice. His colleague at University College London, Guy Roberts-Holmes, is a former early childhood teacher who entered academia after several years working with children. They therefore bring experience to bear, along with a strong sense of mission.

The revolutionary framing might seem odd for a book about the early childhood education and care sector. At times, it feels that way — particularly when Roberts-Holmes and Moss draw their bows too long. Nonetheless, the pairing of these two subjects — neoliberalism and early childhood education — makes sense. As the authors note, neoliberal economics is the lingua franca of policymakers across the globe, and education systems have not escaped its reach. While there are piles of analysis on neoliberalism in the university sector and in schools, preschools, kindergartens and long daycare centres have received relatively little attention.

For those not familiar with how neoliberalism grew from a boutique economic theory to a manual for business and government, Roberts-Holmes and Moss only skim the surface. But they get away with it because they are writing not so much about neoliberalism as about resisting the dominant paradigm — which, at the moment, happens to be neoliberalism.

The authors define neoliberalism as a “meta-narrative” that “reduces everything to the economic.” The market mediates both economic and social relations, and citizens are replaced by customers. Their analysis has a strong sociological bent, and it takes a wide frame, describing “the conversion of non-economic domains, activities and subjects into economic ones.”

Roberts-Holmes and Moss survey the school education system to provide context for their study and get a head start on building their thesis. They are mightily displeased with what they see, mapping neoliberalism’s “infection” of education systems across the developed world, tracing it through the spread of policy ideas and assessment tools like the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, known as PISA.

The book focuses heavily on Britain, although the policy environment there is familiar enough to be accessible for Australian readers. Elements of the story will ring a bell (or, for some, welcome heralds of change) among Australian readers. These include national control of previously disparate and diverse school curricula; standardised national testing; and a relentless narrative of “parent choice” in school selection, even in the public sector.

For the authors, the “marketisation” of early learning and care is objectionable largely because it has fostered the emergence of private, for-profit providers, who compete with government and not-for-profit providers in a mixed market. In Britain, the number of private providers skyrocketed over the course of the 1990s, driven by demand from working families. By 2019, commercial providers accounted for 82 per cent, by value, of the long daycare sector.

The private sector has not come to such prominence everywhere. In Germany and Norway, for example, not-for-profit providers still dominate early learning and care. Roberts-Holmes and Moss demonstrate market similarities across the Anglosphere, from the United States to Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, but private capital has also found opportunities elsewhere across the globe, particularly in Asia. By 2013, two-thirds of the kindergartens in China were privately owned.

So how and why did the private sector come to play such a significant role in early learning in so many countries? As the authors show, where rapid expansion of the early learning sector was required it was private providers who were ready to move quickly enough to meet demand. The dynamic runs thus: the government neglects early childhood education and care; the government has an epiphany and realises it needs more of those services, in a hurry; private capital mobilises to meet demand.

While Roberts-Holmes and Moss are trenchant critics of neoliberalism, they also argue that, even if we accept the terms and tenets of orthodox economics, the operation of the open market in early childhood education and care is not “a roaring success.” The authors identify particular elements of market failure in the system, beginning with the fact that competition can’t drive down costs for parents because staffing is by far the largest expense for all providers, and pay and conditions for early childhood educators can’t be cut any further.

Using research from Europe, they also highlight the role of poorly informed consumers in driving the market. Parents are generally time-poor and find it difficult to compare the quality of competing early learning and care services. They are a long way from embodying Homo economicus, so they have little capacity to drive up quality by only purchasing services from the best providers.

Neoliberalism and Early Childhood Education includes a detailed account of the governance and assessment systems for early childhood and school education introduced in England over the past twenty-five years. For Roberts-Holmes and Moss, the very notion of national frameworks, curricula and quality standards — and the data they generate — is frightening. Disturbed by this evidence of intensified “surveillance capitalism,” they predict that our current trajectory will lead us to “monitoring and measuring children’s emotions” and trying to make them more “compliant,” and to “mass surveillance of school populations.” It’s sweeping and Orwellian. It’s also a shame they didn’t look further afield, to Australia.

Australia has leapfrogged most of the world in codifying and regulating high-quality early learning and care, via the National Quality Framework, a rigorous set of principles, policies and practices designed to ensure high-quality early learning and care for children. The curriculum document that underpins the Australian system, the Early Years Learning Framework, does not (as Roberts-Holmes and Moss might expect) reduce young children to passive, two-dimensional economic units. It treats them as capable, wonder-filled people and active citizens. Interviews with the highly respected team of Australian pedagogues who developed the Early Years Learning Framework might have provided a very helpful counterweight in this book.

Of course, the book contains a kernel of truth. Measuring human beings’ attributes, knowledge and performance is highly contested territory, and has been for millennia. But the idea that we mustn’t engage in any measurement at all, because it is invariably reductionist and a neoliberal trap, removes any possibility that we can improve children’s learning, wellbeing and development by assessing what we’re doing right now.

The sense of doom grows as the book develops. Neoliberalism has forced us to see the long daycare centre or preschool as “a factory or processing plant… that will ready children for the future.” Roberts-Holmes and Moss loathe the term “school readiness,” and they have a point: it’s dangerous to imagine that early childhood education and care services should, for example, teach children to read and write. It’s also sound to insist that children are not “empty vessels” who need to be filled with knowledge and skills before they start school. But I’m not sure that most commentators in Australia have that in mind when they speak about “school readiness.” Mostly, people who talk or write about the importance of pre-primary education want to see children arrive at school confident and happy, ready to thrive and learn.

Roberts-Holmes and Moss also take a swipe at Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman. The “Heckman curve” has proven a very effective tool in explaining the importance of investing public funds in the first five years of a child’s life. But Roberts-Holmes and Moss are having none of it — not even in relation to children in vulnerable and disadvantaged circumstances. In fact, they dismiss talk of early education as a leveller, or a tool of equality of opportunity, because it “negates the need for more radical political measures,” such as government redistribution of wealth. To be sure, a Marxian approach would even things up, but in the meantime, is it so wrong to want all children to have the same chance at getting a high-quality early education?.

The final chapter of the book is a call to action, with the authors asserting that “neoliberalism is entering into crisis” and that “the end may well be nigh.” (Those who claimed the same at the time of the global financial crisis, only to be disappointed, might disagree.) Drawing heavily on Foucault, Roberts-Holmes and Moss call on their readers to resist. They hold up the prospect of radical action to create alternative pathways for early childhood education and care: for example, “scrapping a system of commodified private services competing in a market-place,” and replacing it with “a system of early childhood services based on cooperative networks and public provision.”

Their method for achieving this? To redirect public funding away from the private for-profit sector. Confusingly, they concede that “private, for-profit services will continue to exist and can continue to compete with each other, but will do so without the benefit of public money or public encouragement.” This raises the obvious question: if the goal is to create a nirvana for all children, why develop a bifurcated system? And which children get the “good” early learning and care (provided by government and community groups) and which get the “bad” alternative?

The conclusion highlights a weakness woven throughout the book: the binaries of “good” and “bad,” and what they gloss over or ignore. For example, Roberts-Holmes and Moss lament the rise of competition and choice in the early childhood education and care sector, looking back wistfully to the old days (pre-1980s) when parents simply enrolled their child in “a good local centre, perhaps provided by the local council, along with other children from the neighbourhood — a public service for the community.” But what if that local centre wasn’t so good? What if its opening hours didn’t match that parent’s work commitments (or job aspirations)? What if the “neighbourhood” was in a low socioeconomic status area and the council couldn’t invest the resources required to meet the needs of all those children?

For the authors, it’s as though neoliberalism has wiped the slate clean, leaving us in a wasteland dominated by new technocratic, managerial structures that are killing us. Neoliberalism has certainly draped itself like a veil over the top of what we already had in the West: community, government and economy (none of it perfect, mind you). But it hasn’t suffocated the world as we knew it. Parents still care about their children; early childhood educators are still interested in children’s welfare; early childhood education and care services still deliver good services for children and their families.

In essence, Roberts-Holmes and Moss over-egg the pudding. In order to demonstrate that neoliberalism has changed and challenged the early childhood education and care system, it isn’t necessary to prove that it has sucked all the goodness out of it. Because it hasn’t. As a piece of polemic, this book is impassioned; as a work of analysis, it is often frustrating; as a roadmap for how to improve early childhood education and care, it is incomplete. But the book is certainly thought-provoking — and perhaps this is what really matters, because any discussion about the importance of early childhood education and care is to be welcomed. •