Early childhood is not flying a plane

What needs to be different about quality in practice? PROFESSOR PETER MOSS, internationally acclaimed early childhood expert and author, shared his insights with The Spoke, ahead of his keynote presentation and workshop at 2019 ECA National Conference. In this interview, Professor Moss talks about the influence of an ‘investment’ approach towards young children and the demands it places on educators, educational systems and children. He explores the kinds of questions we should be asking instead: about ethics, about childhood and education as well as the kinds of questions he hopes conference delegates will take away from his keynote address.

Early Childhood Australia (ECA): Although the last 25 years or so has seen intense focus on early years and brain research, do you think that communities and policy-makers understand and value young children’s experiences, their right to learn and thrive, and the early learning environments that can support them?

Professor Peter Moss: As you say, there has been an intense focus on early years in recent years, especially in the ‘English-speaking’ world, which has come to the field rather later than some other countries, especially in Continental Europe. I think that, unfortunately, this new found interest has been too much influenced by a belief in what might be called the ‘redemptive’ or ‘investment’ potential of young children, that early intervention using the right ‘human technologies’ will produce enticingly high rates of return on investment, by reducing social problems and their costs and increasing ‘human capital’, which will enable countries to win the ‘global race’ – invest a dollar and get lots of dollars back! This is what I call ‘the story of quality and high returns’, that is told over and over again to and by policy makers and others. Along with ‘the story of markets’, ‘the story of quality and high returns’ has come to dominate in the ‘English-speaking world.

I don’t believe this hype, the claims are, in my view, naïve and fanciful. The consequences of the story of quality and high returns also worry me, including the belief in a simple technical fix to solve what are huge issues of social injustice exacerbated by a generation of neoliberal economics, the assumption of a world of more of the same that we know is dangerously unrealistic given the converging environmental and other crises facing us—and because the story leads to a very economistic, instrumental and technical approach to young children and their services with an emphasis on ‘readying’ and a narrow approach to education with an emphasis on governing children to achieve predetermined outcomes. Of course, there are other voices out there, a resistance movement to such dominant stories, voices telling other stories, voices which for example attach importance to democracy, listening and experimentation in education, voices that see early childhood education as having a contribution to make to a more democratic, sustainable and just world, and it is important that these voices become louder and are heard more widely, hopefully provoking transformative change.

ECA: Your co-authored book, Beyond Quality in early childhood education and care, was first published in 1999. Twenty years later many people might say we still need more quality, and that we are not ready to move beyond quality in early childhood. Yet in a recent article, you lamented that we have not moved beyond quality? 

What needs to be different about quality in practice?

PM: The point about the book, which has its 20th birthday this year, was to question the concept of ‘quality’ itself, to get people to think whether or not ‘quality’ was a concept they really wanted to work with. The issue for us as authors was not whether there is a need for more or less ‘quality’, but whether there was a need for ‘quality’ or for some other way of thinking and talking about early childhood education. Let me explain. We argued that ‘quality’ has a particular meaning—conformity to universal, objective and stable standards defined and measured by experts, context and value-free. As such, ‘quality’ is essentially a technical practice and a tool of and for management—hence ‘quality control’, ‘quality assurance’.

Now ‘quality’ has its place. When I fly from London to Hobart, I want to be on a ‘quality’ plane, that has been built to the highest technical standards agreed by all experts, everywhere in the world, to assure safety and efficiency. I see no role for, indeed would be disturbed by, flying in a plane whose builders worked with multiple perspectives and diverse values. If I am flying on an Airbus, whose various bits are built in France, Germany, Spain and the UK, I don’t want each bit to be contextualised—I want them to share a common manufacturing context so they all fit and work together.

But early childhood education, all education, is not like flying and building a plane. There are different ideas, perspectives, values about education; education is embedded in different cultural and social contexts; times and conditions change, the world is dynamic. There is not, should not be and need not be a universal, objective, stable, value-free and context-free view about education. For example, I believe that democracy should be a fundamental value of education; others may disagree, taking a different view. In other words, in the words of Loris Malaguzzi, education is a political discourse calling for political choices; a plane is not! Those political choices in education have to be made in response to political questions, that is questions that have alternative and often conflicting answers, questions like: What is your image of the child? What is the purpose of education? what ethics for education? What values? What do we mean by ‘education’ or ‘care’? What do we want for our children?

If I am flying on a plane, I hope it is a quality plane, based on technical practice, with experts answering technical questions by coming up with the one right technical choice. By contrast, I want a ‘good’ education, based on political practice involving democratic debate about political questions, leading to a political choice about what ‘good’ means—but always acknowledging there is no one right choice to such political questions or to the meaning of ‘good’.

ECA: Beyond Quality talked about the ‘problem of quality’. Is the problem ‘unexamined usage’—that people are not making ‘deliberate and acknowledged choices’* or do you think there is something intrinsically wrong with applying the concept of quality in early childhood and trying to measure it?

PM: As I’ve implied in reply to the last question, I think we have a choice about whether or not to use the concept of ‘quality’. I would choose to use the concept of ‘quality’ when it comes to manufacturing products, like planes. I would not choose to use it when it comes to complex social and cultural institutions like education and schools. I don’t want to tell people what to choose, but I do want them to understand they are making a choice—between treating education as a technical practice by using ‘quality’ or treating it as a political practice that calls for political choices, or as we put it in the book: quality is ‘a concept that we can choose to take or leave’.

The question of measuring, or rather evaluating, will then depend on that initial choice. If you go down the ‘quality’ route, then you will probably look to experts to provide you with some supposedly objective, context-free rating scales or something similar enabling a measurement of conformity to agreed standards. If you go down the political route, then you may also see evaluation as a more complicated but also richer and more insightful process, involving participatory processes of meaning-making in relation to political choices.

ECA: In Australia among recent challenging debates is whether there is a place for ‘professional love’ in early childhood education and care. The work of scholars, such as Fay Hadley and Liz Rouse (University of Macquarie and Deakin University, Australia) and the UK’s Jools Page (University of Brighton), examines these concepts, although the issue is hotly contested by others. Do you have a view on where love and care intersect with the educational aspect of an educator’s role with young children?

PM: I must admit to not having followed the debates about ‘professional love’. What I have been interested in is the question of ethics—the political question: ‘what ethics?’ and in particular: ‘what relational ethics?’ In other words, what ethics should we adopt in our relationships with others. I have been interested in two approaches (there are clearly more). An ethics of care, in Joan Tronto’s definition, involves both particular acts of caring and a general habit of mind that should inform all aspects of life and which includes attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness. While an ethics of an encounter, associated with Emmanuel Levinas, is about respecting the otherness, the singularity of the Other, and not relating in a way that ‘grasps’ the Other and tries to make the Other into the Same. As my friend Gunilla Dahlberg writes about an ethics of an encounter, it ‘challenges the whole scene of pedagogy. It poses other questions to us pedagogues. Questions such as how the encounter with Otherness, with difference, can take place as responsibly as possible.’ So I certainly think that ethics intersects with the educator’s role, and that ethics should form an important part of the educator’s initial and subsequent education and of her or his everyday work.

One conclusion I draw from this is that we should stop talking about ‘childcare’ or ‘daycare’ services, or ‘childcare for working parents’, and recognise that all children need care and that all services for children, young people and adults (early childhood centres, schools, colleges, universities, etc.) should be inscribed with an ethics of care. Care as an ethic is vitally important, but we should not be defining services as ‘care services’.

ECAFinally, what is the message you hope that the ECA Conference audience will take away from your keynote address?

PM: I would like to leave the audience thinking about some questions, which I will be raising during my presentation. Do you choose to work with quality or go beyond quality? With early childhood education (ECE) as a technical or as a political practice? What are your political questions about ECE? What are your political choices? What relationship do you desire between early childhood and compulsory education? What alternatives do you want to existing policies? What stories about ECE do you like?

I hope to have the opportunity to discuss these and similar questions in my post-keynote workshop and during the course of the conference … or with readers of this blog.


Professor Peter Moss is international keynote at 2019 ECA National Conference in Hobart 25-28 September. You can still ‘book now’ to be part of the live stream conference and hear Peter Moss’s keynote presentation in real-time—and listen later too! Buy a five-for-one Virtual Team Pass (up to five team members can participate for only $595) or a Virtual Delegate Pass (from $394).

ECA Recommends

Beyond Quality in early childhood education and care 
By Gunilla Dahlberg, Alan R. Pence, Peter Moss

With a brand new Preface to this classic text, the authors argue that there are other ways than the ‘discourse of quality’ for understanding and evaluating early childhood pedagogical work and relate these to alternative ways of understanding early childhood itself and the purposes of early childhood institutions. You can purchase your copy here on the ECA Shop.

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Peter Moss

Peter Moss is Emeritus Professor of Early Childhood Provision at UCL Institute of Education, University College London. He has researched and written on many subjects, including early childhood education and care; the relationship between employment, care and gender; and democracy in education. Much of his work has been cross-national, and he has led a European network on child care and an international network on parental leave. He was founding co-editor, with Gunilla Dahlberg, of the book series, Contesting early childhood, whose aim is to question ‘the current dominant discourses surrounding early childhood’ and to provide a platform for alternative narratives. His books include Beyond quality in early childhood education and care (with Gunilla Dahlberg and Alan Pence); Ethics and politics in early childhood education (with Gunilla Dahlberg); Radical education and the common school (with Michael Fielding); and Transformative change and real utopias in early childhood education. He recently co-edited—with colleagues from Reggio Emilia, Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia—a selection of writings and speeches by the great Italian educator.

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