The following essay proposes to look into the changing role of parents within the context of children’s development and learning, focusing in particular upon the way in which government policy has impacted upon this change at both an ideological level and a grass roots level. We propose to concentrate upon the change in language and focus inherent within contemporary curriculum documents, analysing the shift in policy discernible within the Early Years Foundation Stage as a means of accenting the changing role of parents with regards to children’s development and learning.
This, therefore, clearly represents an especially complex topic to attempt to tackle with the vast array of reforms to educational standards witnessed over the course of the past two decades constituting a watershed moment in the history of social welfare provision in the contemporary era (Ball, 2008:1-11). We cannot, in the final analysis, divorce the education reforms of the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty first century from the broader changes to the welfare state that have come about as a result of a combination of economic, social and cultural forces in the post-modern epoch. Education today should therefore be seen within the context of the broader ideal of ‘market forces’, which shape the socio-political pattern of life in every post-industrial democratic capitalist state. Concepts relating to increased competition, social inclusion and the fostering of a decidedly a market mentality consequently dominate the contemporary policy making agenda with regards to the provision of education (Jones, 2002:143-170; Tomlinson, 2005:48-71).
Thus, where, prior to the advent of the privatising policies of the Thatcher era and the neoliberal assault that characterised the first two terms of the Blair governments education was conceived of as a matter for the state and central government, after the widespread reforms to the public sector administered over the course of the past two decades, education has increasingly become the concern not only of the government but also of private sector institutions as well. As a result, local businesses and families have been increasingly integrated into the concept of educational provision in the contemporary era with this new policy initiative resting upon the twin pillars of partnership and accountability (Chitty, 2004:114-119). Partnership therefore represents the key concept underpinning all education and social reforms at the dawn of the twenty first century, constituting “evidence of a shift in emphasis at government, local and settings level away from a ‘top-down’ approach towards a ‘bottoms-up’ approach.” (Gasper, 2009:1)
As a consequence, it is important for us to note from the outset the way in which the role of parents – and of the family and the home – should no longer be seen as being separate from the role of the state as the primary educational provider. Rather, we should make a point of underscoring the way in which the vast array of education and social policy reforms witnessed over the course of the past two decades represents a protracted process best understood in terms of the blurring of the boundaries between the public and the private spheres set to the backdrop of a devolved vision of welfare provision in the contemporary age (Alcock, Daly and Griggs, 2008:108-130). In this way, policy makers have intended to establish a clear and concise framework for education provision that would eventually positively impact upon paradigms relating to inclusion, equality, selectivity and – most importantly – standards (Alcock, 2008:48-50).
It is within this radically altered landscape of welfare provision, education policy and social policy reform that the new educational framework for twenty first century Britain has been constructed with parents invited to play an increasingly prominent role in the development and learning of their children, particularly young children in a pre-school context (Clark and Waller, 2007:1-19). As a consequence, it is prudent to begin our examination by analysing the Early Years policy initiatives of the New Labour government and their broader impact upon parents and the family in order to establish an ideological and conceptual framework in which the remainder of the discussion can effectively take place.
The Early Years policy initiatives and the family
The election victory of New Labour in May 1997 telegraphed a major turning point in the way in which early years education provision would be meted out in contemporary Britain. Indeed, compared to the relative inertia of the previous Conservative government, the New Labour regime can be seen to have radically altered the very concept of Early Years’ social policy with much greater attention being paid to the way that young children are looked after and taught during the preschool years (Palaiologu, 2009:3-10). This fits neatly into the broader policy objective of raising standards and imposing a discernible market mentality into education, which we briefly outlined during the introduction. Improving the way in which early years education is provided will, in theory, have a positive impact upon the way in which primary and secondary education is provided with a new generation of economically independent young adults emerging from the reforms enacted during the last decade of the twentieth century and the opening decade of the twenty first century. Viewed from this perspective, Early Years’ education policy in the contemporary era can be characterised in terms of a social construct; part of a much broader vision of a reinvigorated twenty first century British society built upon ideals relating to equality and cohesion as opposed to difference and segregation (Baldock, Fitzgerald and Kay, 2009:39-43).
When, for instance, we pause to consider the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (2008), we can see that the New Labour government has taken significant policy making steps towards reconstructing the provision of education for young children around the new paradigms of accountability and partnership. Furthermore, by analysing this document we can see the foundations upon which this new early years educational has been built with the role of the parents underlined at a fundamental level, especially with regards to fostering a working relationship with the education professionals charged with bringing about reform to the youngest elements of contemporary British society (Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage, 2008:6).
As a consequence, we should acknowledge the important change to the partnership approach where, rather than teachers working with parents under the auspices of the old Children’s Act of 1989 where professionals were conceived of as an aid to parents in need of advice and help concerning bringing their children up, under the auspices of the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage, professionals and parents are supposed to work together during the key, formative years of a young child’s educational, social and cognitive development. In this way, the role of the contemporary education professional at the early years foundation stage is integrated around children’s lives and children’s learning (Tarr, 2009:92-111).
As a result of the fresh, partnership-centric ideological impetus fuelling the policy initiatives of the New Labour government, we can begin to see a new working partnership between the state, education professionals and parents emerge that is increasingly reminiscent of the relationship between the producer and the consumer in the private sector with educational change being underpinned by greater scope with regards to educational choice (Coffey, 2001:22-37). In integrating parents and the family into the policy making landscape of the Early Years Foundation Stage the state can be understood to have facilitated an increase in choice with both parents and professionals working out the best way to move forward with regards to implementing government policy (as opposed to simply following legislative guidelines as was previously the case).
When, for example, we consider the advent of the Sure Start Centres in the UK and the way in which these state-funded nurseries and day care institutions look to adopt a decidedly holistic interpretation of early years education, incorporating educating parents as well as children, we can see the extent to which the blurring of the boundaries between the public and the private spheres has served to incorporate a wholesale re-configuration of the role of the parent within the context of the development of their children (Weinberger, 2005:31-43). Indeed, according to Valerie Wigfall, Janet Boddy and Susan McQuail, parental involvement is a vital component in the ongoing development of children’s services in the contemporary era, especially in state run institutions such as Day Care centres which have been built upon the premise of partnership as the key concept upon which children’s learning and growth can be further consolidated (Wigfall, Boddy and McQuail, 2007:89-101).
As a direct result of this fundamental shift in both policy and practice, the concept of partnership need no longer be thought of solely in terms of government rhetoric and political hyperbole. Unlike, for instance, the concept of partnership as it relates to the community and the police which, on account of the special authoritative powers placed upon the police force, is a partnership more in name than in practical purposes, understood within a discussion pertaining to education, the ideal of partnership is a contemporary, relevant manifestation of policy and practice at both a central governmental level as well as a local grass roots level. Without the active input of parents, New Labour’s Early Years initiatives would differ little from previous governments’ attempts at overhauling and modernising the British educational system. By including parents within the policy making framework of young children, the state has therefore championed a radical new approach to rights and responsibility in contemporary society whereby the government plays only one part within the broader tapestry of public service provision. This is especially true with regards to education where the New Labour government has made a clear and identifiable effort to tackle deep-seated inequalities in all aspects of the British educational system (McKnight, Glennester and Lupton, 2005:69-93).
We should, at this point, though acknowledge the essential paradox that resides at the epicentre of the discussion whereby, on the one hand, the state has advocated a de-centralised approach to government, reducing the impact of policy upon practice in the process, while, on the other hand, the state can be seen to have presided over a period of ‘policy overkill’ where, as far as education and indeed all social policy reform is concerned, there has been dramatic rise in the visibility of the government as both the arbitrator and instigator of education policy and educational standards (David, 1999:111-132). This paradox is a reflection of the uneasy relationship between the public sector and the private sector as well as the conflicting demands of instilling a policy making landscape built upon the harmony of the home and the family while at the same time championing education policies aimed at getting parents back to work as quickly as possible. Understood in these terms, New Labour’s educational reforms enacted since 1997 can be understood in broad terms relating to industrial policy with pupils and parents alike both being conceived of as economic actors working within the framework of a more efficient early twenty first century state (Stedward, 2003:139-152).
This paradoxical relationship between economic and social policy, and between the public and the private spheres, is likewise mirrored in the often uneasy relationship between professionals and parents within the context of Early Years’ welfare provision. To understand more about this paradox and the way in which it impacts upon the government’s vision of a more egalitarian society constructed upon premises pertaining to choice, competition and inclusion we need to turn our attention towards attempting to understand the home-school setting as the bedrock of the partnership approach to education and social policy that defines New Labour’s approach to governance.
Home-school setting partnership
The changing role of the home-school partnership reflects the constantly shifting landscape of policy and practice with regards to children’s development, especially children operating within the context of the early years. Where, previously, education was interpreted as a matter for the state with teachers constituting the primary means of educating young children about both themselves and the world in which they live, today there is an increasing emphasis upon the home as the new locus for learning with a radically new vision of educational culture being founded upon a partnership between the school place and the home (Beauchamp, 2009:167-178). As Miller succinctly observes, “education is not something that happens to children; is something that they do.” (Miller, 2002:373).
Thus, we should observe the fundamental difference between a passive early years education and an active early years education with the latter representing the front line of contemporary approaches to young children’s education and preschool development. It is therefore the stated aim of contemporary policy makers to instigate a partnership approach towards an active Early Years’ education with professionals, parents and day care workers all expected to move away from the passive approach to young children’s development which many educational researchers and experts believe represent an outmoded method of educating preschoolers.
When, for instance, we pause to consider the way in which the curriculum for the Early Years Foundation Stage has evolved over the course of the past decade, we can better understand the extent to which the home-school partnership represents the ideological backbone of the new active approach to young children’s learning and development. Unlike the national curriculum in the primary and secondary stages of the educational system, which is conceived of as a rigid framework where teachers and students must adhere to certain rules and regulations, the curriculum at the Foundation Stage is a much more amorphous concept where teachers and education practitioners have more leeway with regards to discerning the best way of improving learning and instigating development. Thus, the curriculum for the Foundation Stage is not defined by dictatorial rules; rather the curriculum for the Foundation Stage is underpinned by ‘guiding principles’ which, in this instance, are understood as: “a unique child”, “positive relationships”, “enabling environments”, and “learning and development”. Each of these guiding principles is further augmented by four commitments that explain “how these principles can be put into practice.” (Department for Children, Schools and Families Website; first accessed 02.04.10)
Examining the guiding principles of the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework serves to bring to light some important points on both the perspective of parents and young children’s learning that are crucial to our understanding of the subject matter at hand. Firstly, it is clear that, in keeping with the shift towards a discernibly more active educational environment, young children are expected to learn and develop through doing, not merely through being told about themselves and the world in which they live by adults. Thus, we should, once again, underscore the significance of an active Early Years curriculum which focuses upon development, social interaction and play as much as language and cognitive development. This, in turn, has impacted upon the role of the adult within the learning and development of young children with a much greater emphasis placed upon adults as educational enablers charged with creating a learning culture in both the home and the school or day care environment which, in conjunction with one other, can help to significantly and positively impact upon learning and development. By this we mean to state that, rather than passively transferring information to young children as a means of educating and developing them, adults working within the Early Years setting are expected to adopt a more involved, participatory role in the learning and development of young children. For instance, according to the Northern Ireland Curriculum Guidance notes, “young children require adults who will treat them as individuals and sensitively participate in their play.” (Miller, Cable and Devereux, 2005:96)
In this way, therefore, the revised role of the adults as the key enablers within the broader context of young children’s learning and development represents the convergence of the four guiding principles for the Early Years Foundation Stage with the principles of “a unique child”, “positive relationships”, “enabling environments”, and “learning and development” all being underpinned by a new role ascribed to adults as facilitators within the new educational environment offering a decidedly more active approach to the Early Years curriculum underpinned by ideals relating to playing, moving and learning as a way of young children becoming better acquainted with the world and the society in which they live (Parker-Rees, 2007:13-24). It is under the auspices of these guiding principles for the Early Years Foundation Stage that the new home-school partnership has been championed with the key part to be played by parents being underscored time and again, as the following excerpt from the Department for Education and Skills attests:
“Partnership with parents should be a key aspect of provision. Parents should be recognised as children’s first and enduring educators, and should be seen as key partners in supporting children’s learning and development.” (Draper and Duffy, 2006:151)
Understood in this way, the home and the epicentre of the private sphere that this represents is no longer seen as constituting a separate realm from the educational environment of the school and day care centres. Rather, understood in these terms, the home and the school appear to have been fused into one realm where children learn and develop through play and interaction with adults in both the school environment and the home. Parents, therefore, are interpreted as educators in the same sense as educational professionals which, has created fresh dilemmas for both parents and teachers seeking to construct a common ground upon which these new Early Years’ guiding principles can flourish (Nurse, 2007:9-19). As a result, it is prudent to turn our attention towards highlighting the true nature of the key problems and dilemmas of the partnership approach to learning and development within the Early Years’ context in order to understand how partnership in preschool education can be made more effective. In this way, we will be better able to comprehend the nature of the paradox that characterises the blurring of the boundaries between the public and the private spheres.
Making partnership effective: Obstacles to effective partnership
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to championing an effective partnership approach to Early Years’ provision concerns the views of both the parents and educational professionals who are the key actors charged with responding to the vast, fundamental changes to education policy and social policy witnessed over the course of the past two decades. Put simply, it is clear that not all families and parents wish to be involved in partnership. Some families and parents will expect education professionals to perform the task of educating their children, keeping within the guidelines of the Early Years framework as is the case with children operating in the primary and secondary spheres. There are a number of reasons why this, quite logically, is the case. Firstly, we have to acknowledge the pressures upon working parents in the contemporary era where, with many mothers and fathers having full time jobs, parents do not feel as if they are able to make the time to take such an active role in the learning and development of their children. Understood in this way, when parents drop their children off at day care centres, nurseries and other preschool institutions, they expect the education professionals working within these buildings to take care of all the important aspects of learning and development so that parents can get on with their own work commitments while at the same time getting on with the basics of parenting once they finish their jobs in the evening. The idea that the task of learning and development should be undertaken on a partnership basis with parents having to take on the role of educational enablers in addition to working appears as something of an anathema to many parents and families.
Ultimately, this is a problem arising from the generational aspect of the vast array of education and social policy reforms enacted in the contemporary era whereby many parents assume that the conditions in which they were brought up remain the same at the present time. As a result, we have to underline the nature of the obstacle posited by a lack of perspective afforded to parents attempting to understand the new educational parameters dictating the pattern of Early Years provision at the dawn of the twenty first century. As Norman Gabriel observes, adults’ concepts of childhood are rooted and rigid; as such we have to be aware of the major obstacle to partnership manifest in the way in which parents think of the early years and preschool provision where conceptions of childhood harboured by adults are inherently difficult to change (Gabriel, 2007:59-69).
We must, therefore, observe the dichotomy between traditional interpretations of early years’ learning and modern notions of early years’ learning and the way in which this threatens to undermine the partnership approach to Foundation Stage education in the contemporary era (Waller and Swann, 2009:32-40). The paradox of the blurring of the boundaries between the public and the private spheres can therefore be seen to have been meted out in a practical level within the context of the partnership approach. Although, in theory, there exists fertile grounds upon which parents and education professionals can work together in order to improve the learning and development of young children in the Early Years Foundation Stage, in practice there remain many obstacles to achieving a consensus between the public and the private spheres as they relate to the partnership between parents and education professionals. Overcoming the considerable divide between theory and practice remains one of the great obstacles to achieving a harmonious, effective partnership during the Early Years Foundation Stage.
We also have to take note of the other ways in which parents might be put off working with teachers and professionals within the context of the contemporary partnership approach to education and welfare provision. We should, for instance, bear in mind that many parents will naturally shy away from any involvement with any form of state and welfare services because of a previous history of neglect or incompetency. Some families and parents that have been involved in child protections proceedings, for example, are afraid of engaging in any kind of partnership approach to early years’ education because of the inherent possibility that their children could be taken away from them. A lack of trust on the part of some parents is therefore another major obstacle to attaining an effective relationship between the public and the private spheres.
Furthermore, we must take due note of important social and cultural differences in contemporary multicultural society whereby diversity can negatively impact upon attempts at fostering an effective and harmonious partnership approach to education provision in the early years. Certain ethnic, racial and religious groups will not, for instance, be versed in the modern approach to child care provision championed in the vast majority of western post-industrial capitalist states and, as such, will not be prepared for the joint venture of learning and development that characterises the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum. There are also a number of related issues to consider involving single mothers whereby much of the language and rhetoric surrounding the education and welfare reforms of the past two decades have been shrouded in problems pertaining to gender inequalities and socio-economic differences. As a result of all of these inter-related factors, we have to acknowledge the implications of diversity and difference upon Early Years Professionals (EYP) who will be faced with a variety of social, economic, cultural and political obstacles to partnership at a practical level (Tedam, 2009:111-122).
Although policy makers might assume that, in theory, professionals and parents ought to understand the need to work together in order to raise educational standards, in practice there remains a considerable divide between the school place and the home which is mirrored in the vast differences in society at large. Overcoming these obstacles cannot be achieved solely via recourse to policy and principles; rather, education professionals and parents need to be able to find a common ground so as to put into practice some of the ethics and ideals talked about at a settings and policy making level. Thus, improved communication between parents and professionals represents the greatest opportunity of the new partnership approach to education provision and it is towards such a scenario that we ought to now turn our attention before necessarily attempting to formulate a conclusion as to what this means for parents within the context of young children’s learning and development.
Fostering Good Communication
We have already noted the chasm that exists between theory and practice when it comes to implementing the reforms to Early Years policy enacted over the course of the past two decades with parents and professionals having to work together, bringing together two very separate spheres of the private and the public sectors. The crux of the problem consequently relates to a lack of communication between the two spheres with parents in particular being wholly unsure as to the new guidelines and principles which form the backbone of contemporary Early Years policy. It is, therefore, up to the Early Years Professionals to better equip parents with the requisite knowledge they need to assist their understanding of the deep-seated changes that have occurred to education and indeed the whole concept of welfare provision at the dawn of the twenty first century.
This increasing emphasis upon good communication as a means of bridging the divide between Early Years Professionals and parents has been addressed in a number of recent policy documents published by the New Labour government’s departments. For instance, one of the key documents for the training and professional development of teachers and Early Years Professionals is the Common Core Skills and Knowledge for the Children’s Workforce (Department for Education and Skills, 2005), which observes at the point of introduction the significance of “effective communication and engagement with children, young people, their families and carers.” (Tarr, 2009:102).
As a consequence, it is clear that fostering good communication between teachers and parents serves to narrow the divide between the private and the public spheres (Beckley, Elvidge and Hendry, 2009:53-63). This has been proven in a number of independent studies and surveys undertaken in recent years. A developmental project undertaken at the Pen Green Centre in Corby, England, for example, found that increased dialogue between professionals and parents from the outset directly and positively impacts upon the learning and development of children in the Early Years. Positive communication related to children’s achievements and learning served to erode some of the barriers that exist between families, carers and education professionals.
“The results suggest that rich and challenging dialogue can develop when early years practitioners work collaboratively with children and families and when, given the opportunity, parents demonstrated a deeper and more extended interest about their children and became more equal and active partners.” (Einarsdottir and Gardarsdottir, 2009:200)
Thus, it is evident that, as we outlined in the above chapter, effective partnership between the home and the school place can occur where parents are willing to engage in such a collaborative developmental scenario. Furthermore, it is evident that parents will be more likely to engage in the partnership approach to Early Years education when the teachers and professionals make parents and families feel as if they are equal, active partners as opposed to pupils being taught how to bring their children up (Beckley, Elvidge and Hendry, 2009:53-63). Thus, it is also clear that good communication and effective dialogue between education professionals and teachers is the key to achieving this more effective, harmonious partnership where parents feel as if they are playing an active role in their children’s learning and development. It is, therefore, crucial that Early Years Professionals instigate a dialogue with parents and families from the very beginning of the relationship. In this way, the partnership approach to development and learning can become normalised and routine.
More importantly, parents, carers and families will not feel as if teachers and Early Years education practitioners are encroaching upon their own sphere of influence. Thus, the key to creating a more effective partnership approach to Early Years education rests not in perpetually merging the private and the public spheres; rather, success within the context of partnership rests upon adopting a fresh perspective where teachers retain influence in the classroom, parents retain influence at the home and where both parties can meet in an open manner in the territory that exists between the two. With this in mind, we must now turn our attention towards reaching a conclusion as to the changing role of parents within the context of young children’s learning and development.
We have seen how a fresh approach to welfare provision in the contemporary era has telegraphed a completely new ideology of education based upon a partnership approach with a ‘bottoms-up’ policy of integration and accountability being championed at both a policy making and local level. This, in turn, has had a clear and identifiable impact upon the role of the parents as educational enablers with the previously private sphere of the home being opened up to the same curriculum and policy making objectives that serve to shape the school place. In this way, the role of the parent has become merged with the role of the Early Years Professional with both parties being charged with improving standards by working together to positively influence the learning and development of preschoolers.
There are, however, obvious obstacles to achieving a harmonious partnership between parents and Early Years education practitioners with the blurring of the boundaries between the public and the private spheres resulting in a discernible sense of paradox with regards to rights and responsibilities concerning the learning and development of young children. Parents and families still expect professionals to take care of the education of their young children while, conversely, teachers and practitioners are swamped within an avalanche of policy overkill that makes the day to day job of teaching increasingly difficult. Finding a lasting, durable common ground between these disparate spheres represents the greatest
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