Nathan Archer considers stories of activism by early years professionals in response to political decisions.
Much recent news in our sector has focussed on the challenges facing children’s centres and wider early childhood services as lack of investment means programmes are stretched and, in some cases, closing (Action for Children, 2019). Difficulties in delivering services for children and families stem from apparent policy neglect over children’s centres to a freeze on 30 hour funding and a vacuum in workforce policy. Despite these extraordinary challenges there are powerful stories of hope and resilience; stories in which children and families remain at the forefront of our work.
My recent research has explored how early educators are positioned in early childhood policy, how they feel about that and what they do about it. Interviewing practitioners from all corners of the country and across the sector has provided rich insights into practice and policies.
What comes through powerfully from policy analysis of workforce reform over the last ten years is that those involved in early childhood services are positioned in multiple, often conflicting ways. Workforce policies and external accountability demand that practitioners ‘face’ different directions at the same time, notably as:
* enablers of school readiness
* facilitators of social mobility
* carers to enable parental employment
* reducers of health inequalities and many others.
Additionally, these constructions of the workforce are perceived as changing with political impulses and priorities. Language of ‘narrowing the gap’, ‘diminishing the difference’, ‘agent of change’ and much more illustrates shifting emphases and ideologies which seek to shape identities.
But, importantly, professional identities are not formed by policy alone and practitioners demonstrate their agency in responding to (and despite) such formations, forging their own identities.
Based on professional life story interviews with a diverse range of early childhood professionals I sought to gather and document the perspectives of individuals working with children and families in testing times.
Whilst participants faced different challenges dependent on their roles and local context, a common factor was the tension between their personal beliefs and policy expectations. In the majority of cases practitioners were navigating, negotiating and mediating external expectations with strongly held values and beliefs. Courageous leadership (Long et al 2016) was evident.
Equally apparent in the research were the principles and passion of those in our sector and their bravery to advocate and be activist, both with and on behalf of families. Such advocacy and activism took many forms including lobbying, social media activity, petitions, engagement with policy makers and informing others. However, examples also included what might be called ‘micro-resistances’ when practitioners took a stand or advocated at a service level in the interests of children and families.
Whilst the examples below (Case Studies) might not be perceived as activism in the sense of street marches, these forms of resistance have shared features. Whether the resistance was individual or collective, loud and public or small scale and quiet, a disposition to challenge the status quo unites these stories.
One practitioner opposed the forthcoming baseline assessment policy by speaking to politicians at a party conference against the proposals.
Another nursery practitioner ‘qualified’ what she saw as a limited approach to the two year old progress check in the setting she worked in. She discussed the check with parents in terms of the valid but partial information about their child, stating ‘this is not your child but a narrow way of assessing who your child is’.
Inspired by colleagues across the country, one teacher dispensed with ‘subject exercise books’ in a Reception Class and prioritised outdoor play and loose parts play in a school culture which discouraged this.
One childminder recalls concerted lobbying of politicians over proposed changes to staffing ratios in 2012, engaging in social media activism and petitions.
A key to this strength of the practitioners in the study, and, I believe, a pre-requisite for activism, appears to be their critical awareness, or critical ‘literacy’ about policy developments. Through engagement in consultations, sector discussions, online forums and network meetings, practitioners demonstrated a form of literacy in analysing and critiquing emerging policy.
Critical literacy can be described in terms of recognising the power of dominant narratives and how these shape policy trajectories. Sumsion (2006) developed a model (see below) in which she sees such literacy informing critical imagination (of alternatives) and, in turn, critical action or ‘manoeuvring strategically’ (p.6). This takes the form of acting on community concerns, forging new allegiances, strategic representation with policy makers and critical engagement with government agendas.
However, not everyone involved in the study was comfortable with the term activism, nor did they see themselves as an activist. Some participants in the research were cautious about the implications of being labelled as such or, as one participant saw it, in terms of being ‘a trouble maker’. Whilst not wanting to diminish this view, I would argue that activism does not necessarily mean marching with placards (although why not?). It might also be considered resistance, often on a smaller and quieter scale where practitioners speak truth to power or manoeuvre strategically. By framing these actions as everyday activism, might this affect how resistance and activism are viewed? By taking heart that our actions might be seen as advocacy and activism, does this empower us further? Is it always the best course of action or are multiple responses required depending on the situation? I would be keen to hear your view on this.
Shared Commitments — Hope and Resilience
Many practitioners in the study used the power entrusted in them to challenge policies and practices, working innovatively, strategically and based on their convictions. Whilst representing diverse roles in the sectors and a range of locations across the country, they shared a number of commitments:
* They serve as advocates for children and families with authenticity and conviction
* They continue to develop critical literacy or critical awareness to consider, evaluate and respond to policy developments
* They listen to colleagues, children and families using these insights to disrupt misperceptions and injustices.
* They connect with other professionals, building solidarity and collective action
* They challenge or negotiate creatively (where possible) unreasonable policy expectations.
In times when there is much work to do in reclaiming, rebuilding, and revitalising early childhood services, these are stories of hope and resilience which should give us heart.
Action for Children (2019) The Challenges Faced by Children’s Centres, 16 January 2019
Long, S., Souto-Manning, M. & Vasquez, V.M. (2016) Courageous Leadership in Early Childhood Education: Taking a Stand for Social Justice. New York: Teachers College Press
Sumsion, J. (2006). From Whitlam to economic rationalism and beyond: A conceptual framework for political activism in children’s services. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 31(1), pp.1–9.
Nathan Archer has worked in early childhood education for twenty years across the public, private and voluntary sectors both in and with schools and settings, for a local authority, and with two national early years organisations. He is an associate tutor at the University of Sheffield and is currently studying for a doctorate.