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Towards a democratic early childhood education for all -Peter Moss

The Committee interprets the right to education during early childhood as beginning at birth and closely linked to young children’s right to maximum development’. If we take this statement by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as[1] [2] [3]  a starting point, where might it lead us? Let me share the direction it leads me in, drawing on recent work by myself and colleagues[1] – as well as the direction it leads me away from.

  • Towards early childhood education as a universal entitlement from birth, with mothers and fathers (benefitting from at least 12 months of well-paid parental leave) taking the lead for the first year, then sharing responsibility with a fully integrated system of early childhood education – and away from systems split between ‘education’ and ‘childcare’ or between under and over 3-year-olds;
  • Towards early childhood education as a public responsibility, a public resource and a public good, benefitting children, families, communities and societies, available as of right and free – and away from early childhood provision as a private and marketized commodity sold to parent-consumers by businesses;
  • Towards early childhood education as the first stage of the education system, with a distinct pedagogical identity and in a strong and equal relationship with other stages of the system – and away from early childhood as the poor and subservient relation of compulsory education, tasked with preparing young children for primary schooling;
  • Towards early childhood education that chooses to work with the image of the rich child and the theory of the hundred languages of children, embracing uncertainty and the unexpected – and away from the image of the child as future ‘human capital’ and what Malaguzzi terms ‘prophetic pedagogy’ where everything is known and predictable;
  • Towards early childhood education that is about learning, but is also responsive to many other needs of children, families and communities and takes place in multi-purpose and community-based schools (what we call ‘Children’s Centres’ in England) – and away from a narrow idea of the school that is inward looking and limited to teaching children;
  • Towards early childhood education that acknowledges that all children (and adults) require care, understood as an ethic that defines how children and adults should relate to each other – and away from the idea that only children of working parents need care;
  • Towards early childhood education that requires a well-educated, well paid, well supported  and diverse workforce, enjoying parity with teachers in the rest of the education system – and away from the low qualified, low paid and unsupported female workforce so often considered good enough for young children;
  • Towards early childhood education that is first and foremost a political practice, which evolves through public deliberation on political questions, such as: what is our diagnosis of the times? what is our image of the child? what is education for? and what are the fundamental values of education? – and away from treating education as first and foremost a technical and managerial practice focused on ‘what works?’
  • Towards early childhood education that has democracy as one of its fundamental values, following pedagogues such as Dewey, Freinet and Malaguzzi in pursuing a ‘democratic education’ in which democracy is not only a value but also a practice and relational ethic – and away from empty managerial talk about ‘quality education’;
  • Towards early childhood education that works with democratic accountability, in which assessment is a participatory, cooperative and dynamic process embedded in everyday educational experience – and away from managerial accounting, in which assessment is about standardised testing of performance;
  • Towards early childhood education understood as an essential part of social infrastructure, of a renewed welfare state and of a just and sustainable society, a service that can contribute to children’s learning and well-being, support for families and communities, promoting gender and other equalities, strengthening inter-generational relations and local democracy, forging an inclusive society – and away from a belief that early childhood education is some magic potion that replaces the need for strong policies to ensure children and their families have decent incomes, food, housing, environments and health.

I offer these views not as prescriptions, but as inputs to a democratic politics of early childhood education, a politics made all the more urgent by the times we are living through.  The cumulative crises affecting people and countries around the world – crises of insecurity and inequality, crises of health, crises of environment – confront us with enormous dangers and choices of the utmost importance. Now, more than ever, we need to be asking what we want for our children, for our communities, for our world. It is in this context, I believe, that we should be discussing early childhood education; and that we should no longer accept flawed and dysfunctional services and policies but demand a transformation to enable early childhood education to be one of the building blocks of a better future.


[1] Moss, P. (ed.) (2013) Early Childhood and Compulsory Education: Reconceptualising the relationship. London: Routledge.

Moss, P. (2014) Transformation Change and Real Utopias: A story of democracy, experimentation and potentiality. London: Routledge.

Cameron, C. and Moss, P. (eds.) (2020) Transforming Early Childhood in England: Towards a democratic education. London: UCL Press (free download at https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/128464)


Peter Moss is Emeritus Professor of Early Childhood Provision at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. His interests include early childhood education and care; the workforce in children’s services; the relationship between care, gender and employment; the relationship between early childhood and compulsory education; social pedagogy; and democracy in children’s services. Much of his work over the last 25 years has been cross-national, in particular in Europe. He is co-founder of the International Network on Leave Policies and Research and co-editor of the network’s
annual review of leave policies. Recent books include: Transformative Change and Real Utopias in Early Childhood Education; Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia (co-edited with a working group from Reggio Emilia); Alternative Narratives in Early Childhood: an introduction for Students and Practitioners; Parental Leave and Beyond (co-edited with Ann-Zofie Duvander and Margaret O’Brien); and Transforming Early Childhood in England: Towards a democratic education (edited with Claire Cameron).

Contact at: peter.moss@ucl.ac.uk

1 Comment:

  • Sarah Te One / Reply

    Kia ora Peter and thank you for this blog. Now, more than ever it seems, all children’s rights (and all rights apply to all children) matter for the here and now as we, the grown ups, determine the future.

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