Unbalancing Acts: a critical discourse analysis of policy-led evidence in the Early Years Foundation Stage in England

Year: 2018

Author: Wood, Elizabeth

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper presents a critical discourse analysis of a recent report produced by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) – the inspection body for education in England. The report ‘ Teaching and play - a balancing act’ was published in 2015, and focused on provision for play for children age four to five years in the Reception year in England. The report aimed to provide evidence to address the ‘recurring myth’ that teaching and play are disconnected endeavours in the early years, and used that evidence to produce guidelines for practitioners. These guidelines, in turn, serve to define what OFSTED inspectors expect to see when they inspect settings, what they value, and hence how they judge a setting to be outstanding, good, or requiring improvement. Drawing on critical discourse analysis analysis, I argue that this report creates unbalancing acts of policy-led evidence in early childhood education.
Fairclough (2003) identifies four main modes through which legitimation is discursively accomplished in policy texts: authorisation, rationalisation, moral evaluation and mythopoesis. The concepts of inter-textuality and interdiscursivity are used to identify borrowings from other texts, the interpenetration of specific genres and discourses and the socio-political contexts of text production. This analytical process reveals both the policy archaeology and the policy architecture in which government (via OFSTED) defines problems and their solutions, specifically the methods used to legitimate policy versions of ‘good’ and ‘effective’ practice.
This analysis reveals how this OFSTED report constructs problems of practice, based on the assumed inadequacies and misconceptions of practitioners about play, and the presentation of solutions based on flawed and biased ‘research’. The apparent logic of this report rests on 'research evidence' generated by OFSTED that is biased in its methodological assumptions and production, and its selective reference to policy-led research. The OFSTED report therefore represents a circular discourse that values and mirrors selected and approved sources of evidence. The report is an ‘unbalancing act’ in the generation of policy-led evidence, and the legitimation of policy-led solutions. Set alongside similar reports in ECE, this represents further ‘push-down’ effects that may act to reduce professional agency and resistance. 
How these reports work on practitioners, and on the ECE field, is considered in light of their reception, and the intensification of power effects via discourses and language, structures and systems. These events, relationships and processes construct the ‘meaning-laden architectures’ (Fairclough et al, 2004) that connect discourse and power within ECE.