The complexities of ‘school readiness’ as a transitional construct

Year: 2018

Author: Kay, Louise

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The announcement by the Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD) (2017) of an international assessment of children’s early learning, the International Early Learning Study (IELS), and the recent OfSTED (2017) report, Bold Beginnings, further strengthens the ‘school readiness’ agenda where the production of controlled, compliant children who are driven to achieve academic success is at the forefront of thinking.  Discourses of ‘school readiness’ have become increasingly prevalent in Early Childhood Educational (ECE) policy in England leading to what Roberts-Holmes (2015) describes as the ‘schoolification’ of the Early Years (p.72).  Furthermore, current educational policies based on scientific constructions of development have defined how 'readiness' is understood, a view that has a tendency to ignore the cultural complexities of everyday lived experiences. 
Although the OECD has no formal control over its members, it has become a powerful player in western market democracies and has successfully implemented direct forms of governance, particularly within the education system.  By defining what is important when building neo-liberal constructs of human capital, the OECD has become a major influence in global education policy due to the ‘measure and compare’ approach of the skills of each nation through studies such as Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  As a result, the state adopts an intervening role to ensure the education system is responding to the disciplines of global competition, which drives right down into ECE.  
Making a case that neo-liberalism is a structural force that has influenced the ‘school readiness’ agenda in England, this paper reports on findings from a recent doctoral study and draws on literature that illustrates how global policy continues to push towards a reductionist view of ECE as being a place to ‘ready children for school’.  Using Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) (Engeström, 1987) as a methodological framework, the ways in which 'school readiness' was constructed through pedagogical practices were identified, and the tensions that emerged between these practices and teachers’ beliefs were explored in depth.  The analysis focused on 'manifestations of contradictions' (Engeström & Sannino, 2011) within the data that highlight the tensions between beliefs, practices, and policy frameworks.  The findings from the research illustrate how using ’school readiness' as a performativity and accountability measure serves to offer little space for transformative agency within the activity system, and subjugates both teachers and children.  Furthermore, it is argued that the complexities of ‘school readiness’ as a transitional construct marginalises already marginalised groups of children.