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Home arrow Geography arrow Global Perspectives on Human Capital in Early Childhood Education: Reconceptualizing Theory, Policy, and Practice


Three Historical Models of Human Capital

In Luke’s (1997) iteration the first model of human capital was most prevalent during the Dawkins era (1987-1992) in Australia. Educational narratives, by drawing on social scientific knowledge in regard to social structure and disadvantage, constituted particular subjects as “unskilled” and “disenfranchised” due to their social position in society. The aim of governments was to ensure the future competitive productivity of these workers and their social mobility through some form of compensatory education. The Strengthening Australia’s Schools document (Dawkins, 1988) stated that a national effort must produce a skilled and reliable workforce to reform the economy. Most efforts were focused on the upper end of schooling and resulted in a decrease in funding for preschool (Ailwood, 2004). The reasoning of this model goes back to the social planners of the

1960s in the United States, who also initiated Head Start programs, which were mirrored in Australian early childhood education as compensatory education during the 1970s (Millei, 2008). For example, the Nott Report in Western Australia summarizing the state and need for ECEC expresses the need to compensate for “many under-privileged, mentally and physically retarded children and children whose need for pre-school education is so pressing but who are for a variety of reasons not in a position to avail themselves of it” (Education Department of Western Australia, 1972, p. 2). Its counterpart, the Fry Report, initiated the support of migrant and Aboriginal communities to establish their own preschool centers “in which the program is partially orientated to their cultural and linguistic heritage” (Australian Pre-schools Committee, 1974, p. 221). Hence, lack of participation in society and workforce was understood on structural terms related to one’s belonging to a particular social group. The individual was constructed on social categories based on these divisions and associated “deficits.” Education focused on the identification, quantification, and categorization of lack and the filling of that lack as a social and economic project. Educational funding aimed toward the reorganization and redistribution of knowledge.

The second narrative described by Luke (1997) repositions deficits generally onto all human subjects. It does so by removing their belonging to certain social categories. With the perception that certain types of knowledge and skills were necessary for the purposes of industry, this way of thinking reshapes our understanding of the subject in terms of the possession or lack of specific skills necessary for employment, making that individual productive or not. People were now seen in terms of their ability to adapt to these needs. The introduction of outcomes-based education exemplifies this discourse where potentials (and deficits) were articulated in clear standards: outcome- based education offered “potential in the clear articulation of ‘what’s important’ and the commitment to ensuring that all groups of students, regardless of their class, gender, race, ethnicity, physical ‘ableness’, and so on, are expected to achieve at high levels on a common curriculum” (Willis & Kissane, 1995, p. 3). Education and training became closely intertwined. Outcomes were defined as matched with employment requirements and discursive markers from management were used such as “targets,” “benchmarks,” “reporting,” and “outcomes” (Taylor, Rizvi, Lingard, & Henry, 1997). The compensatory model of “equality of opportunity” turned to “equity of access and participation” for all (Marginson, 1993).

In ECEC, compensatory education shifted to the need for early intervention coupled with early investment and return based on the aim to increase individual employability and savings on welfare spending (Millei, 2008). The aim of education became to deposit or strengthen these employment related skills in all children, linking education with ensuring economic reform/outcomes by increasing individual skill levels for employment requirements. The child subject was reconstituted as the future employable worker.

In the third narrative about human capital theory, “national economic survival and competition in the world economy have come increasingly to be seen as questions of cultural reconstructions” in terms of enterprise and the “acquisition and use of so-called entrepreneurial qualities” (Peters, 2001, p. 60). This knowledge—enterprise culture—constitutes creativity and entrepreneurship as important aspects of the subject reflecting the context of risk and knowledge society and mechanisms for risk and knowledge management. Constructed as being part of the international knowledge economy and culture, industrialized nations were concerned about assurances against risks in changing international markets—for example, quality assurance, monitoring, regulation, centralized planning, and evaluation—that were seen to be secured by individuals’ creativity and entrepreneurship. Backing Australia’s Ability uses this rationale the following way: “A road of high growth based on the value of our intellectual capital, we need to stimulate, nurture and reward creativity and entrepreneurship” (Commonwealth of Australia, 2001, p. 2). These new discourses also constituted a novel type of school leaver, “an economic citizen that was better attuned to the requirements of an enterprise culture” (Marginson, 1997, p. 154). For example, the Guidelines for the Identification of Best Practice in Early Childhood Education for Four to Eight Year Olds (Guideline) promotes “positive attitudes towards risk taking” (Rice, Shortland-Jones, & Meney, 2001, p. 8). The child is constituted by the Guideline’s discourses as being able to choose between activities that best support her educational advancement, as being able to shape and govern her own capacities and competencies through her own will and choice, and as being an autonomous and lifelong learner (Millei, 2008). The second edition of the Guideline (Rice, Shortland-Jones, & Meney, 2006) introduces the idea of career development for early childhood. Against dominant discourses that position young children as innocent and needing protection, this document repositions children as part of adult world who from the beginning of their lives learn to and are liable to succeed. The Guideline explicates this idea this way:

Career development involves actively taking charge of one’s learn- ing/work/life destiny in a complex, changing world. It is about creating the life one wants to live and the work one wants to do. An integral component of this process is self-management through ever- changing contexts and circumstances of an individual’s life and work journeys. (p. v)

As was well summarized by the words of the Curriculum Framework's (for Western Australia incorporating the early years): “All students need to attain [these outcomes] in order to become lifelong learners, achieve their potential in their personal and working lives and play an active part in civic and economic life” (Curriculum Council, 1998). Human capital theory through individual enterprise and creativity sought to mitigate risk for economic competitiveness of the nation.

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