Other stories to tell

Underachievement: A neoliberal problem?

I often find it interesting how a lot of what is ‘okay’ or even great at an everyday level, becomes problematic when you consider the wider political context. Who would imagine ‘progress’, ‘development’, ‘high quality’ or ‘early childhood intervention’ to be sinister words? Yet when you filter those words through certain kinds of political discourse and agenda, they tell different stories; stories that pretend to have children’s wellbeing and development as their priority, but then a deeper analysis tells us otherwise.

Professor Peter Moss’ recent works (2014, 2019) help us see more clearly the ill effects of neoliberalism in an early childhood context. He vehemently opposes the infamous Thatcher slogan ‘There is no alternative’ (TINA), and invites the early childhood sector to engage with alternative narratives that truly put children at the heart and soul of policy-making and theory/practice. The current early years landscape is a troubling one:

‘More great childcare is vital to ensuring we can compete in the global race’ (DfE, 2013, p.6)

In the DfE strategy 2015-2020 document (DfE, 2016) the UK government revealed its ambition to top the international league tables, with a promise of winning the global economic race. Tied into this agenda is the story of ‘quality and high returns’ (Moss, 2019, p.10), where it is believed that high quality early intervention leads to higher economic returns. Such a formulaic and near-sighted narrative has led to the emergence of tight systems of inspection and control. Ofsted ratings, EYFS scoring systems, ELGs, phonic screening checks, baseline assessments, value added, ability groupings are all disciplinary technologies used to regulate and uphold reductionist notions of quality. In recent years, such disciplinary mechanisms have been described by researchers using Bentham’s notion of the Panopticon (Perryman, 2006), where those who are observed/inspected/scored/assessed/compared are always ‘objects of information, never subjects in communication’ (Foucault, 1995, p.200).

‘Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere’ (Foucault, 1995, p.195)

It becomes clearer why words such as ‘progress’, ‘achievement’ and ‘development’ become an issue when seen within the current political context. This is where I see the obsession with developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) become problematic, as linear developmental perspectives constantly seek to crystallise what is ‘normal’, often leading to the proliferation of moral panics and media scare stories. Closely linked to this is the story of ‘underachieving boys’ and its correlation to underrepresentation of men in schools, which is what I hope to address in this article.

The recruitment drive

Before I go any further, I believe it is important to appreciate the efforts to normalise men’s work with young children. Sweeping generalisations whether in favour or against men leads to marginalisation and discrimination: on one hand, men are villainised and framed as high-risk, while on the other, their role is essentialised. I believe it is crucial we resist such simplistic formulations and stay tuned to the nuances of how gender is produced within early years contexts.  

In the past few decades there has been an intensified focus on recruiting more men into early childhood education. Governments as well as various independent organisations have rallied to address the underrepresentation of men in the early years sector, with recruiters often succumbing to using an essentialist rationale for welcoming more men. I have argued elsewhere that such a narrative is worrisome as it leads to the marginalisation and alienation of men who do not perform those pre-determined gender scripts. Moreover, such views fail to capture the shifting, passing and unpredictable performative nature of gender.

‘Common sense’ storylines

The notion that boys need ‘positive male role models’ and ‘father-figures’ in order to succeed is a crucial part of the stories that are told within neoconservative circles. This not only frames female teachers in deficit, but it is also a gross misrepresentation of family diversity. It promotes heteronormativity, as though men and women are complementary parts of a whole, and that the absence of one leads to instability and in turn, failed families. I find such ‘common sense’ views appalling as someone from the LGBT+ community, especially when there are studies that clearly show that children raised by lesbian parents and single mothers fare just as well as those raised by heterosexual parents (Baiocco et al., 2018; Perlesz, 2005; Silverstein & Auerbach, 1999). The fear of the absent father has led to the incrimination of non-traditional families that do not have a father-figure. The Early Years Workforce Strategy adopts this absent father account:

‘Male practitioners can be positive role models for boys, especially if their own father is absent’ (DfE, 2017, p.24)

I find these depictions of male teachers having to take on the role of a father not only unprofessional, but it also ignores the vast body of research that explicitly disputes the correlation between boys’ underachievement and men’s participation (See Skelton, 2012; Carrington & McPhee, 2008; Martino & Kehler, 2007; Carrington et al., 2005; Carrington and Skelton 2003; Skelton, 2001).

More liveable worlds

In my opinion, underachievement is a created problem, not one that is neurologically rooted or an outcome of the feminisation of education. It is a problem that emerges as a result of a fixation on producing certain kinds of children, ‘normal’ neoliberal subjects. If we really want to promote equality and inclusion, and take diversity seriously in early years, we have to look elsewhere. Developmental logic, which at one point was a helpful model to nurture children, has become ineffectual and even detrimental to children’s wellbeing. What would happen if we weren’t so preoccupied with developmental milestones and assessment scores? What if education wasn’t a rat race? What other worlding or world-making processes can we engage in? What other stories can we tell that can make our worlds liveable again? (Haraway, 2016; Osgood, 2019).

‘Alternative narratives’ and the ‘multitude of perspectives and debates’ from which they are derived are not only inevitable but something to be welcomed, reflecting a world rich in diversity; it is invigorating, since encounters with difference can provoke experimentation, movement and new thinking (Moss, 2019, p.7)

Sid Mohandas is a Montessori teacher and teacher trainer from the UK. He founded The Male Montessorian, as a platform to grapple with the complexities of gender within early childhood spaces. He completed his Montessori training at Montessori Centre International (MCI), London. Later pursued qualifications in Early Childhood Education with London Metropolitan University and his Master’s in Early Childhood Education at the Institute of Education, UCL. Sid is currently doing his PhD on reconfiguring gender of the early years workforce using posthuman theories.


Baiocco, R., Carone, N., Ioverno, S., Lingiardi, V. (2018). Same-Sex and Different-Sex Parent Families in Italy: Is Parents’ Sexual Orientation Associated with Child Health Outcomes and Parental Dimensions? In Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 39(7), pp.555-563, DOI: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000583

Carrington, B. & McPhee, A. (2008). Boys’ ‘underachievement’ and the feminization of teaching. In Journal of Education for Teaching, 34(2), pp. 109-120, DOI: 10.1080/02607470801979558

Carrington, B., Tymms, P. & Merrell, C. (2005). Forget Gender: Whether a Teacher is Male or Female Doesn’t Matter. In Teacher, pp.32-34.

Department for Education (2013). More great childcare Raising quality and giving parents more choice. London: DfE

Department for Education (2013). DfE strategy 2015-2020 World-class education and care. London: DfE

Department for Education (2017). Early Years Workforce Strategy. London: DfE

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books

Haraway, D.J. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene. London: Duke University Press

Martino, W., & Kehler, M. (2007). Gender-based literacy reform: A question of challenging or recuperating gender binaries. In Canadian Journal of Education, 30(2), pp.406–431

Moss, P. (2014). Transformative Change and Real Utopias in Early Childhood Education: A story of democracy, experimentation and potentiality. Oxon: Routledge

Moss, P. (2019). Alternative Narratives in Early Childhood: An introduction for Students and Practitioners. Oxon: Routledge

Osgood, J. (in press, 2019) Materialising professionalism in the nursery: exploring the intimate connection between critique and creation. In Robb, M., Thomson, R. & Montgomery, H. (2019, 2nd Ed.) Critical Practice with Children & Young People. London: Policy Press

Perlesz, A. (2005). Deconstructing the Fear of Father Absence. In Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 16(3), pp.1-29, DOI: 10.1300/J086v16n03_01

Perryman, J. (2006). Panoptic performativity and school inspection regimes: disciplinary mechanisms and life under special measures. In Journal of Education Policy, 21(2), pp.147-161, DOI: 10.1080/02680930500500138

Silverstein, L.B & Auerbach, C.F. (1999). Deconstructing the essential father. In American Psychologist, 54(6), pp.1-21

Skelton, C. (2001). Schooling the boys: Masculinities and primary education. Buckingham: Open University Press

Skelton, C. (2012). Men teachers and the “feminised” primary school: a review of the literature. In Educational Review, 64(1), pp.1-19, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2011.616634

Thornton, M. & Bricheno, P. (2006). Missing Men in Education.Staffordshire, England: Trentham Books Ltd.

One thought on “Other stories to tell

  1. To address, “What other worlding or world-making processes can we engage in? What other stories can we tell that can make our worlds liveable again?” I share.

    “The Real Wealth of Nations; Creating a Caring Economics” by Riane Eisler. (The following is from the book’s back cover.)

    The greatest problems of our time –– poverty, inequality, war, terrorism, and environmental degradation –– can be traced to flawed economic systems that fail to value and support the most essential human work: caring for people and the planet. Renowned social scientist Riane Eisler introduces a bold reformulation: a “caring economics” that transcends traditional categories like “capitalist” and “socialist” and offers enormous economic and social benefits. She provides a blueprint for putting this more humane and effective economic system to work.”

    “The Real Wealth of Nations” gives us a template for the better world that we have been so urgently seeking. As practical as it is hopeful, this brilliant book shows how we can build economic systems that meet both our material and spiritual needs. It illuminates the way to a bold and exciting new future.”
    –– Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

    “A call to action. Not only must politicians, businesses and financial institutions change, each one of us must play a role in developing a more caring society. This book is an important tool that can help us make that happen.”
    –– Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE, Founder, The Jane Goodall Institute and United Nations Messenger of Peace

    “A prescription for an economic system that is both equitable and sustainable. It should be read and used by everyone who wants a better world!”
    –– Deepak Chopra, author of “Why Is God Laughing? The Path to Joy and Spiritual Optimism”

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