Cradle and all; rocking the cradle of wealth. Human Capital Theory and Early Childhood Education in New Zealand, 1999-2008

Stuart, Margaret Joan
Devine, Nesta
Humphries, Maria
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Doctor of Education
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Auckland University of Technology

With the emergence of a managerial state founded on neoliberal market-oriented values in New Zealand in the late twentieth century, the generally accepted view of education changed: to that of a private good instead of a public one. A contemporary perception is that education of very young children, can also serve the deployment of their parents in the workplace. Early childhood education (ECE) is viewed as the first step on an educational pathway that has a primarily vocational purpose, with outcomes tied to an individual’s potential life-trajectory. The value of ECE, as with education in general, is discussed in terms of cost-benefit investment returns to both the individual and the state. This approach to education derives from the economic theory known as ‘Human capital theory. This thesis uses Michel Foucault’s methodological tool ‘genealogy’ to plot the emergence of Human Capital Theory (HCT). The use of this tool supports a critique of the validity of HCT and the appropriateness of its application to ECE.

Economic evaluations of education reduce it to a performative, technical matter of skill-enhancement where skills are conceived in predominantly employment-related terms. HCT emerged first from the Chicago School of Economics and has influenced the direction of ECE policy and practice since the beginning of the twenty-first century. HCT relies heavily on a use of statistical comparisons of apparently discrete groupings of people together with assumptions about developmental progress and potential earnings over a life-trajectory. Normative expectations are deeply entwined in HCT, and because significant ethnic and socio-economic differences in educational outcomes are posed as a risk to the national economy and social stability, these are of explicit concern to policy-makers. Public policy aims to mitigate the achievement-gap risks because education is seen as vital in attaining both individual and national wealth in a competitive international market environment. When Māori and Pasifika participation and achievement is compared with the national norm, the disparities of outcomes are particularly acute. Influenced by the supra-national discourse of HCT, educational policy, including ECE policy, aims to ensure that Māori and Pasifika peoples improve their educational outcomes on the basis of strategically placed government support. Policy-makers believe, in accordance with HCT principles, that this investment will improve the educational outcomes of children and thus enhance their job opportunities and life chances. This thesis is a discursive analysis of the educational policy documents of the Fifth Labour Government (1999–2008), including Pathways to the Future: Nga huarahi arataki. A 10-year Strategic Plan for Early Childhood Education from 2002–2012. A genealogical investigation is conducted that disturbs HCT’s claim to offer solutions for growing the population’s skill-base that are founded on universal verifiable truths identified through neuro-economic science. Doubt is cast on both the efficacy of HCT to support the broader humanistic goals for ECE and the expectation that ECE policies based on the principles of HCT will be able to deliver what is promised, i.e. better educational outcomes with future job opportunities for Māori and Pasifika children. This exposure of the weaknesses of HCT reveals not only its inability to deliver the promised equalised outcomes, but also the extreme short-sightedness of the intensification of an economically driven purpose for education.

Human Capital Theory , Early Childhood Education , Genealogy , Foucault , Policy , Fifth Labour Government
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