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Not for Sale? Early childhood education as public good and public responsibility

published 20 October 2015 updated 20 October 2015
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The dictatorship of no alternatives

It works for railways, water supply and prisons we are told. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that we are too, told that the only way forward for under resourced public education lies in handing it over to private-for-profit providers. According to powerful international agents the widespread privatisation of schools and universities is not only inevitable, it is utterly desirable and nothing but another case of TINA (There Is No Alternative). In consequence, private educational activities have become an increasingly regular part of educational provision in many countries; a trend that is nurtured by an increasingly unashamed embracing of neo-liberal ideology in all aspects of human life. As Roberto Unger puts it: ‘the world suffers under a dictatorship of no alternatives’ (Unger, 2005 p. 1).

In recent years, a growing body of research has emerged, addressing the global trend towards privatisation, commodification and globalisation in compulsory and higher education in its various forms and regional manifestations (Spring, 2008, e.g. Macpherson et al., 2014, Ball, 2007, Ball, 2012, Ball et al., 2012). Despite a relatively good understanding of the overall picture of privatisation, we know comparatively little about the impacts of privatisation on the youngest children, their families and communities. There are indications, however, that private provision of early childhood education and care can result in poor quality of provision and in an increase of social exclusion.

Privatisation in Early Childhood Education (PECE)(Urban and Rubiano, 2015) comprises case studies from 14 countries, based on information provided by Education International member organisations. Main purpose of the study was to create a better understanding of how education professionals and organisations (unions) experience the phenomenon of privatisation, make sense of what is going on, and perceive the impacts and implications.

The study shows that the expansion of the private sector has implications for the quality of provision and contributes to discrimination against members of the ECE workforce. The inquiry also reveals that the ECE profession is actively resisting different forms of privatisation, while governments and unions are facing challenges around achieving free and public ECE provision for all. The findings suggest that there is a need to create ‘democratic spaces’ and conditions for active democratic practice (Moss and Urban, 2010, Moss, 2007) in order to counterbalance the ideology of the market.

Given the range of participating countries it is not surprising that the case studies reveal a hugely diverse situation. However, there are some overarching phenomena that frame the global picture:

Privatisation in ECE, in all its forms is increasing: 13 out of 14 countries report an increase in private provision. Policy tools that are used on a regular basis include tax credits, vouchers, and contracting private providers for extended hours. Countries also resolve to using Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) finance ECE provision, they rely on owner-provider companies, and on State-NGO and State-Philanthropy partnerships.

The trend towards privatisation threatens to overshadow public ECE: In many cases there is an increase in the allocation of public funds to private providers. That means increases in public expenditure do not necessarily lead to increased access to public education.

The trend is strong but not universal: In some countries (e.g. Argentina, Chile, Sénégal) initiatives are emerging that aim at reversing the trend toward privatisation.

Confusion, oppression and hegemony

Trying to communicate the implications of privatisation in their countries, practitioners and union representatives express feelings of confusion, oppression and hegemony: They find it difficult to describe or understand critically the hidden privatisation of the field or to challenge the widespread belief that ‘private is better’. They strongly feel that privileged groups reap advantage, often in unconscious ways, from the disempowerment of disadvantaged groups, and they express concern about the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways in which oppression is reproduced through the voluntary consent of those who are subjected to it. This reflects Antonio Gramsci’s stance that ‘every relationship of “hegemony” is necessarily an educational relationship’ (Gramsci, 1971, p. 666, discussed in Urban, 2015).

Hope, resistance and action

There are other developments that give reason for hope: participants from one country (Sénégal) report a decrease in the rate of private ECE provision, and there are countries where governments and professional associations are developing counter-strategies and are actively reclaiming public early childhood education.

A key feature across all case studies is the importance of a strong professional identity as an early childhood educator. Strong professional associations and union representation are a key to developing effective strategies to understand and counter the effects of privatised early childhood services.

Where to from here? Next steps and some recommendations

Education International has a crucial role as a global advocate for public early childhood education for all. As part of this responsibility EI should initiate and facilitate critical debate about the impacts of privatisation in early childhood education. What is needed is to move the debate beyond the simplistic dichotomy of public (good/desirable) vs. private (bad/undesirable). Privatisation, marketisation and commodification are manifestations of a neo-liberal mindset that affects all aspects of life including ECE.

The 14-country PECE study provides first insights and interpretations. This first step needs following up in order to develop conceptual frameworks and practical approaches to counter the taken for granted neo-liberal narrative.

It will also be necessary to build global and local leadership capacity and knowledge base for early childhood education as a public good and public responsibility. Much of the difficulty of proponents of free and public ECE relates to the weakness and fragmentation of the field (compared to the well organised protagonists of corporate and private ‘solutions’). EI, together with member organisations and an external research partner, should identify resources for a global leadership and capacity-building programme. This should go hand in hand with building a global but locally rooted research and knowledge base to promote public education and social justice in early childhood.

The full report of the research linked to this blog entry is available on the Education in Crisis webpage under EI Publications.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.