Early childhood education: re-asserting the role of story-telling

We believe that the roots of [the converging crises of our times] lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves…We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.

These words, from an environmental group the Dark Mountain Project (http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/), resonate strongly with me when I look at the current dire state of early childhood education and care in the UK. If not yet in crisis, ECEC is in a dire state, the result of a missed opportunity to build a new public education for our young children, after decades of neglect – a new public education based on universal entitlement, an integrated and holistic service, a valued and well educated workforce, and democracy as a fundamental practice. Instead we got more of the same: a split system, fragmented and divisive services, a devalued and poorly educated workforce, and an abiding obsession with ‘childcare’, failing to see it as just one part of education-in-its-broadest-sense.

This was what followed from failing to re-form and re-new our deeply flawed post-war legacy. But it has been made worse, far worse, by two stories we – or at least the powers-that-be and their cheer leaders – have been telling: what I term the ‘story of quality and high returns’ and the ‘story of markets’. In a nutshell, the former tells the story of how early intervention plus correct human technologies (aka ‘quality’) will produce wondrous returns on investment, with social problems much reduced, educational and employment performance much improved, ‘human capital’ exploited to the full – ‘smart investment, massive savings’  (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/61012/earlyintervention-smartinvestment.pdf). While the story of markets asserts that early childhood education is best provided through developing a market in competing providers and services, delivering choice, quality, efficient, consumer empowerment and innovation. And behind both stories can be heard the larger, louder story of neoliberalism, creating a climate where instrumental rationality, calculative relationships and technical practice reign supreme, its economistic thinking and language leaching through the two early childhood stories.

I won’t go into detail about why I don’t ‘buy’ these stories, nor like them in the least (for my detailed objections, see my recent book, ‘Transformative Change and Real Utopias in Early Childhood Education’ http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415656016/). Suffice to say they don’t seem to me to work even in their own terms. But, worse, I don’t like the reality they seek to weave. The image of children as bundles of potential ‘human capital’; of educators as technicians applying prescribed technologies; of parents as consumers; or of centres as factories processing children to prescribed specifications. The naïve notion that we can sort profound issues of social injustice through technical fixes – a spoonful of early intervention will make our manifold discontents and dysfunctions better. The need for ever greater control of children and adults alike, since for quality and high returns to work we need to apply the correct technologies in exactly the correct way – no room for uncertainty or the unexpected, no concessions to local context or decisions.

The stories too have no time for any other stories. They know they are the only true stories around, they are convinced their reality is the only one worth having. They seek to impose what Roberto Unger calls the ‘dictatorship of no alternative’ (akin to Mrs. Thatcher’s favourite, ‘there is no alternative). This, the story-tellers believe, is the only voice that should be heard, the only room for debate being on technical matters, tweeking the technologies to enhance effectiveness and efficiency, in response to the supremely technical question ‘what works?’ But as Gerd Biesta reminds us this leaves us with impoverished and uninspiring stories, that offer us “a technocratic model in which it is assumed that the only relevant research questions are questions about the effectiveness of educational means and techniques, forgetting that what counts as ‘effective’ crucially depends on judgments about what is educationally desirable”.

But, of course, there are (and have always been) many other stories about early childhood education, each weaving a different reality, offering listeners a richness of possibilities, alternatives that can form the basis for a vibrant democratic politics of education. My recent book offers just one such story, while recognising there are more to be heard. I call this the story of democracy, experimentation and potentiality, a story that takes democracy and experimentation as fundamental values and practices in education, and the image of a rich child, whose possibilities we cannot know, for (in the words of Baruch Spinoza), ‘we can never tell in advance what a body can do’ – nor indeed what a parent, an educator or an early childhood centre in a public education can do. Nor is the story just words, for there are many examples of the story being put to work every day in the classroom, whether in a municipal school in Reggio Emilia or in preschools in Sweden.

Different stories weave different realities. They are born of different experiences, perspectives, understandings and sensibilities. They reflect different desires, beliefs and values. And they express their differences through different language, including the particular vocabularies of the story-tellers. The tellers of the two dominant early childhood stories – quality and high returns and markets – speak the language of child development, programmes, competition, choice, consumers, investment, (predetermined) outcomes, returns, human capital and quality. Whereas in the telling of the story of democracy, experimentation and potentiality I find myself resorting to quite different words: projects, potentialities, experimentation, democracy, cooperation, citizen, rights, wonder and meaning-making.

Some stories may claim to be the truth, some stories may seek hegemony, some stories may gain a temporary dominance, at least in the hothouse atmosphere of technocratic policy-making. But nothing lasts forever, what seems unchallengeable today is tomorrow’s embarrassment, and there are always resistances, cracks in the faced through which other stories can be heard, faintly perhaps for now, but there nevertheless and waiting to pour forth into a renewed early childhood education.

Emeritus Professor Peter Moss

Thomas Coram Research Unit

UCL Institute of Education



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