Researching Early Childhood Policy and Practice. A Critical Ecology

Mathias Urban Introduction Our societies’ engagement with the upbringing and education of the youngest children has finally become a highly political issue. At least this is the impression one could get by browsing through the rapidly increasing collection of international policy documents concerned with early childhood education and care. The World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and UNICEF have been hugely influential in promoting systematic investment in services for children below compulsory school age and in outlining and underpinning early childhood policies in many countries (OECD, 2001, 2006; UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2008; World Bank, 2003). Childcare and early education have played a role in EU policies for some time, with the 1992 Council Recommendations on Childcare being an early example of a EU policy document emphasising the need for coherent policy making across several areas that are seen as affecting families with young children: childcare services, parental leave, labour regulations and gender equality (Council of the European Communities, 1992). More recently, the EU policy interest in early childhood has increased significantly. This is manifest in the publication of high level policy documents linking early childhood and the services set up by Member States to support young children and families to the framework strategy for the EU for this decade (European Commission, 2010).These documents, including the 2011 EU Commission communication ‘Early childhood education and care: providing all our children with the best start for the world of tomorrow’ (European Commission, 2011) are discussed in many of the contributions to this issue. The renewed interest in early childhood has created a growing demand in research to inform, orient and legitimate the policies promoted by the EU. There is a second approach to the relationship between policy and practice in early childhood.Caring for and educating young children lie at the core of any society. Childrearing practices and the institutions and professions we establish around them are the most fundamental manifestations of the relationship between the private and the public which is not static, universal or uncontested. Due to unequal distribution of private and public resources, they are more favourable for some than for others. There are growing numbers of children and families for whom this most basic relationship has become precarious. Approached from this perspective, early childhood education and care has always been a ‘res publica’, a political issue. The questions we ask as researchers depend on how we position ourselves in the micro- and macro-politics of early childhood (Dahlberg & Moss, 2005). They are shaped by our personal and professional backgrounds and histories (and biases) and shape the image of the child and the possible, desirable, imaginable practices and policies. In this article, I analyse the questions we might ask in early childhood research and how they relate to the constructions of the child and to our understandings of bs_bs_banner European Journal of Education, Vol. 47, No. 4, 2012 © 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA. the role of research.The article begins with a brief examination of recent European policy documents that have been influential in promoting a particularly important, but, as I argue narrow, view of children and early childhood education in a changing European policy context. I then discuss current research in early childhood in relation to the policy analysis and argue for a much broader understanding of the challenges we are facing and the implications for doing research in our field. The final two sections make the case for a radical reconceptualisation of research as a democratic, transformative and inevitably political practice. ECEC in a Changing European Policy Context Since the 1992 Council Recommendations on Childcare (Council of the European Communities, 1992), Early Childhood Education and Care have been a recurring topic on European policy agendas. Reasons for the interest in services for the youngest European citizens and their families have varied widely and have often been contradictory.The 1992 Recommendations urge EU Member States to ‘take and/or progressively encourage initiatives to enable women and men to reconcile their occupational, family and upbringing responsibilities arising from the care of children’ (ibid, article 1).This requires coherent policies addressing the provision of childcare services, matching parental leave arrangements, organisation and structure of work in order to meet the needs of workers with children and a general commitment to gender equality: ‘the sharing of occupational, family and upbringing responsibilities arising from the care of children between women and men’ (ibid, article 2). The document then specifies the characteristics of each of the above policy areas: ‘childcare services should be affordable and accessible to all children and families and offer reliable care of high quality combined with pedagogical approaches.There is further emphasis on initial and continuous training of staff, close collaboration with local communities and appropriate public funding for services. The provision of childcare services needs to be complemented by much greater flexibility in the workplace in general, which take[s] into account the needs of all working parents with responsibility for the care and upbringing of children’ (ibid, article 5). Member States are asked to ensure that ‘due recognition’ is given to childcare workers, their working conditions and ‘the social value of their work’ (ibid, see also Peter Moss in this issue)

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