Academic journal article CEPS Journal : Center for Educational Policy Studies Journal

Challenges and Responses to the Vulnerability of Families in a Preschool Context

Academic journal article CEPS Journal : Center for Educational Policy Studies Journal

Challenges and Responses to the Vulnerability of Families in a Preschool Context

Article excerpt

Introduction

Vulnerability in the context of poverty and inequality

Contemporary times are marked by the negative effects of the economic crisis and austerity measures, and, consequently, a narrowing field of support mechanisms available to individuals and families. Increasing poverty levels and social inequality (e.g., Leskosek et al., 2013) are related to a range of negative social phenomena, such as psychological distress, psychoactive drug abuse, crime and lower educational achievements (Wilkinson and Picket, 2012). We are witnessing the growing phenomenon of families with multiple problems, identified as vulnerable families, who are coping with poverty as well as a number of other related problems.

As pointed out by Andersen (2014), poverty as a structural condition can be used to understand children as subjects who are simultaneously vulnerable during the childhood life phase. Poverty turns childhood into a period of insecurity for children. Just as security is found to be the central indicator of child wellbeing, (a feeling of) insecurity can be regarded as an indicator of vulnerability in childhood, along with experiencing insecure situations, relationships or residential environments (ibid.). Poverty has a particular impact on the educational opportunities of children. Within the dominant anti-poverty policy, the child and his/her parents have become the central objects of intervention (Schiettecat, Roets & Vandenbroeck, 2014). Child and family social work has been assigned a key role in ensuring the wellbeing of children and the family. In addition, education systems have become increasingly perceived as a key instrument in the promotion of the social inclusion of children.

Early childhood education as an equaliser of educational opportunities

In the context of the transition of welfare states to "social investment" states, early childhood education and care (ECEC) has become regarded as an investment in human capital (Cantillon, 2011) as well as a profitable investment in terms of public expenditure (Heckman 2011; Ruhm and Waldfogel 2011). ECEC is a provider of lifelong learning, social integration, personal development and, later, employability; in the long term, its role is to produce economically profitable adults in the future. Both children and (their) parents are expected to adjust to the changing socioeconomic circumstances and integrate into post-industrial labour markets. As "inequalities in childhood pose a real threat to the accumulation of human capital and are a root cause of unequal opportunities in the labour market and later in life" (Van Lancker, 2013 in Schiettecat, Roets & Vandenbroeck, 2014), ECEC is seen as the most effective equaliser of educational opportunities.

As children and childhood are considered the key to a successful social investment strategy, they become the central objects of interventions. Various types of disadvantaged families, including those with immigrant and ethnic minority backgrounds, have been adjudged "at risk profiles" in terms of not providing an adequate upbringing environment for children. Consequently, "parenting" has become a public concern and therefore a legitimate site for state intervention (Schiettecat, Roets & Vandenbroeck, 2014). The discourse on promoting "good parenting" is characterised by attempts to control and regulate the conduct of (poor) parents and, by orientation, to "pedagogicise" them. As Gillies (2012, p. 13) infers, "governments have increasingly come to see families more in terms of their practices than structures and have targeted policy interventions accordingly" (ibid.).

Consequently, the focus is on the preventive and compensatory role of ECEC as a promising means to compensate for a disadvantaged home life (Cleveland & Krashinsky, 2003; Schiettecat, Roets & Vandenbroeck, 2014). However, there is growing doubt among scholars in the field regarding the "formula" according to which early childhood education represents a good investment in the social state. …

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