A Pleasant Way To Fail: Early Years Learning and Social Class

Year: 2015

Author: Evans, John, Stirrup, Julie

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Early years learning, social class, play, educational achievement

Despite 40 and more years of ‘progressive education’ in the UK the same-old classed patterns of educational success and failure, stubbornly prevail. To be sure, living standards for the majority of people across the UK have steadily improved over the last 40years, discernably so; with an increasingly beleaguered welfare state and National Health Service together softening the worst excesses of poverty while dissipating disaffection where and whenever it occurs.
So how, where and when does it all go wrong for the very many children who continue to fail in school and beyond? Indeed, given the persistence of such patterns we might reasonably ask: are such patterns of educational failure political expediency, or product of poor pedagogical design?
Whilst acknowledging that no rendition of education failure is complete without some acknowledgement of its out of school socio-economic contingencies, this paper draws attention primarily to processes within early years’ education (EYE) which, we claim, help launch children on careers as either educational successes or failures. The data suggest that in the progressive play pedagogies of Early Year Learning children happily play their lives away in the process learning the social and ability hierarchies that help define, if not determine, their future careers in and outside schools. That such hierarchies prevail is neither fault of teachers nor parents, many, through no choice of their own having insufficient opportunity to engage with EYL to seriously question the inevitability of such outcomes. Indeed, it is what EYL settings (following Early Years Foundation Stage policy) are expected to do, legitimately so; sieve and sort, make children ‘school ready’ pliant and prepared for a lifetime of learning to succeed or fail.
Calling on data from a three year-long ethnographic study of three early years’ settings in the UK (catering for children age 3-5) the paper highlights some of the pedagogical processes by which social and ability hierarchies are produced and maintained within and between EYL settings in England, in effect reproducing those of wider society. With reference to organizational structures and transactions between practitioners and children the analyses, somewhat pessimistically, offer salutary reminder that education ‘cannot compensate for society’. Only redistributions of income, erosion of economic inequalities, and massive investment in EYL for those ‘most disadvantaged’, will make any difference to the educational and wider life chances of those most dispossessed.