From inspiration to uniformity? 20 years of OECD in the field of ECEC. Policy briefing

Since the start of the millennium the OECD has evolved into a global key player in the field of early childhood education and care (ECEC). Over a 20-year period the OECD appears to have shifted from offering some form of international inspiration in the field of ECEC to increasingly creating a globally uniform idea of how ECEC quality should be defined.

Download the policy briefing: From inspiration to uniformity? 20 years of OECD in the field of Early Childhood Education and Care

Read the norwegian version of the policy briefing: Fra inspirasjon til ensretting? 20 år med OECD på barnehageområdet

Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. OECD as an actor in the ECEC field
3. Experience-based knowledge-sharing
4. Evidence-based harmonisation
5. Results-based comparison
6. From international inspiration to global uniformity?
7. Conclusion
8. References

1. Introduction

Just over 20 years ago the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published its first paper on the Norwegian kindergarten sector. Since the start of the millennium the OECD has evolved into a global key player in the field of early childhood education and care (ECEC). Under the umbrella Starting Strong Early Childhood Education and Care the organisation has developed an extensive and ever expanding ECEC portfolio.


Fotnote: ECEC portfolio

The OECD produces papers, reports and information materials, etc. This policy briefing uses “ECEC portfolio” as a collective term for the organisation’s written output on early childhood education and care (ECEC).

Much has happened in the Norwegian kindergarten sector also in the past two decades. 90 per cent of Norwegian children aged between one and five now attend kindergarten compared with fewer than two thirds twenty years ago. Governance of the sector has been moved from the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs to the Ministry of Education and Research, and kindergartens have been defined as the first tier of the Norwegian education system.

Looking at the past 20 years more broadly, we can also see some common traits in the OECD’s ECEC portfolio and Norwegian kindergarten policy. This is true when it comes to scope, with an ever growing number of reports and policy documents being published, and in terms of orientation, where there has been a shift away from the focus on increasing the capacity of kindergartens towards improving kindergarten quality. Especially prominent has been the quest for more evidence-based knowledge, new assessment practices and better transitions from kindergarten to school.

Why a policy briefing on the OECD’s ECEC portfolio?

Unfortunately, there is little systematic information available on the relationship between the OECD and Norwegian policy development in the kindergarten sector. Nor has there been a comprehensive review of the organisation’s ECEC portfolio and its evolution over time as far as we are aware. The few studies that have been conducted are rather old and do not address developments in the past few years. The OECD’s working methods also make it difficult to identify the direction of political influence. Rather than seek to establish whether the organisation has an agenda which has guided Norwegian kindergarten policies, this policy briefing aims to demonstrate how the OECD’s ECEC portfolio has evolved and changed over time.

Developments in recent years in particular make it pertinent to discuss Norway’s role and involvement in the OECD’s efforts in the field of ECEC. From having been hailed as a role model, Norway is increasingly being treated like all other countries: dependent on OECD surveys for the improvement of ECEC quality. In addition, international interest in participating in the organisation’s latest studies also appears to be relatively limited. Thus, it would be apt to ask whether the OECD is about to fall out of step with the interests of its member countries. If so, what impact could this development have on the organisation’s ability to create an international forum for democratic development of its member countries’ ECEC systems, and what might it mean for Norway’s role in the continuing development of the OECD’s ECEC portfolio?

Structure of this policy briefing

In order to gain an understanding of how the OECD works in the field of ECEC, we begin with a brief account of how the organisation exerts its influence before proceeding to describe key trends in the ECEC portfolio’s 20-year history in the main section of this document. To accentuate the changes, we have divided the history into three periods which we have chosen to name experience-based knowledge-sharing (1998–2006), evidence-based harmonisation (2012–2017) and results-based comparison (2017–present). Two recurring and particularly evident themes emerge through these periods: the degree to which the organisation’s studies are culture-sensitive, and how the relationship between kindergarten and school is addressed. Concurrence between Norwegian policies and OECD recommendations in the area of ECEC is also investigated.

After providing an account of the development of the ECEC portfolio, we will discuss how the changes can be interpreted. Over a 20-year period the OECD appears to have shifted from offering some form of international inspiration in the field of ECEC to increasingly creating a globally uniform idea of how ECEC quality should be defined. We make this observation in light of the position of the English language as the international lingua franca and in relation to changes in how the OECD organises its work on ECEC.

To conclude, we will demonstrate how the organisation now appears to be at a crossroads regarding its ECEC portfolio. Any manifestation of a globally uniform understanding of ECEC could result in a democratic deficit as individual countries design their respective ECEC systems. Therefore, we will also address the need to discuss Norway’s involvement and role in the OECD’s continued work on the ECEC portfolio.

Brief commentary on language and translation

One premise for international co-operation is to be able to communicate in a common language, and the English language brings with it several challenges when communicating on the subject of ECEC. Language is contextual, and our understanding depends on our insights into traditions, cultures and values. Nuances that can be key to discerning the characteristics of kindergartens in Norway can be virtually impossible to communicate in English. Similarly, several English terms are difficult to translate directly in ways that make immediate sense in Norwegian kindergarten discussions. In other words, there is always a risk of loss of meaning, simplification and misunderstanding when international organisations such as the OECD are looking to compile information about ECEC systems in countries with very different traditions, values and political priorities.

Even identifying an international umbrella term for the different countries’ services for children below school age can be a challenge. The OECD has opted for Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC), but not everyone believes that the word “care” is appropriate. In this policy briefing we use the term “kindergarten” when describing the Norwegian context and the term ECEC to refer to international matters. Many English terms can also be interpreted in different ways in Norwegian. For instance, “quality monitoring” can be translated as both “kvalitetsvurdering” and “kvalitetsovervåkning” (assessment/ surveillance) in the same way as the term “well-being”, which does not exist in Norwegian, is variably translated as “trivsel” and “livskvalitet” (contentment/quality of life). Which translation that is most relevant depends on the context.


Fotnote: the term “well-being”

The term “well-being” has gained currency in the field of public health in Norway. The fact that it is a difficult word to translate was confirmed by the Norwegian Directorate of Health, which in 2015 asked for help to define it. This resulted in the 100-page report Well-being in Norwegian (Carlquist, 2015)


Fotnote: kindergarten

The word kindergarten in this context should be understood in light of its German origin, “children’s garden”, and not of the modern American educational institution.


Fotnote: the word “care” is appropriate

For example, Education International has chosen the collective term “Early Childhood Education”, dispensing with the word “care” altogether (Education International, 1998). For a further discussion on the terms “education” and “care” in “Early Childhood Education and Care”, please refer to the article What Place for “Care” in Early Childhood Policy? (Moss, 2018).


Fotnote: communicating on the subject of ECEC

This policy briefing was originally written in Norwegian and then translated to reach a wider audience. The following section on language and translation has therefore also had to be rewritten.

In other words, it is not always easy to communicate well on the topic of Norwegian kindergartens given the disconnect between the English language and the Norwegian kindergarten context. Where we have translated Norwegian quotations, we have done so with an aim to convey the Norwegian context, not primarily to adapt terms and concepts to fit the OECD lexicon.

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2. OECD as an actor in the ECEC field

The OECD is often seen as an organisation founded on a neoliberal ideology where welfare cuts, deregulation and privatisation permeate the recommendations it makes on public governance (Mahon, 2010). Even though economic growth, development and the expansion of world trade have always been the primary aim (Sellar and Lingard, 2013), one can hardly claim that the organisation has acted as a purely neoliberal driver on social policy (Skogedal Lindén, 2012). Instead, the OECD’s recommendations are characterised by what is called “social investment” (Mahon, 2010). Thus, its work is economically motivated, but it is justified by the social benefits of investing in what is called “human capital” rather than the benefits of putting services out to tender and cost-cutting in the form of deregulation and privatisation.


Fotnote: The OECD

The OECD is a member organisation originally founded by countries in Western Europe to administer the Marshall Plan to rebuild the continent after WWII. The organisation now counts 37 member countries from many parts of the world. (For more information about the OECD’s history and member states, see OECD, 2020b and 2020c).

How the OECD exerts its influence

The OECD does not have the authority to instruct or sanction its member countries neither economically nor legally. Instead, the organisation is granted authority as a provider of services. The expert analysis from the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) at the OECD’s Directorate for Education and Skills play a key role in building the organisation’s profile as an authoritative source and independent knowledge provider (Skogedal Lindén, 2010 and 2012). The OECD is also an influential force and exercises its influence by setting the agenda, disseminating ideas and making recommendations which can in turn impact thinking in different policy areas (Mausethagen, 2013). Such influence is frequently described as “soft governance” and is often driven by what is called the “open method of co-ordination”.


Fotnote: “open method of co-ordination”

The open method of co-ordination (OMC) is the name of a concrete collaboration model adopted by the EU in connection with the Lisbon Strategy launched in 2000. The characteristics of OMC broadly overlap the OECD’s working methods in the field of ECEC.

Krejsler et al. (2014) discuss how OMC impacts international organisations’ efforts to create consensus on policy development. It is a highly effective, yet hardly transparent, method by which member countries decides upon broad common objectives which the individual countries then use to shape national policy. This way the sovereignty of member states is preserved when it comes to national policy priorities, but everyone adjusts their policy design over time to the prevailing consensus on what the main challenges are and what the best solutions could be. This creates a form of voluntary coercion, or “peer pressure”, which is maintained by the participation of the member states. In practise, a country would exclude itself from the co-operation if it does not continually participate in shaping national answers to the political challenges the international community considers most pressing.

This peer pressure can also help create a “potential democratic deficit problem. […] Nobody makes decisions. Consensus gradually emerges in processes where it is not transparent who contributes with what, representing whom” (Krejsler et al., 2014, p. 183). This makes it difficult to trace the origins of the ideas communicated by the OECD, and it also makes it unclear whether the OECD should be understood as a producer of ideas or as a forum for collecting, refining and disseminating ideas. This can be exemplified not least when we look more closely at the relationship between the OECD and Norway on the subject of ECEC policy.

The OECD-Norway relationship within the field of ECEC

The few studies undertaken on the relationship between Norway and the OECD in terms of ECEC policy make a point of how difficult it is to ascertain whether the OECD has had an influence on Norwegian kindergarten policy or, conversely, whether it is Norway which has paved the way for the OECD’s recommendations. The study titles themselves convey this lack of clarity: How (inter)national are international recommendations? The OECD and Norwegian social policy (Skogedal Lindén, 2010), Disciple or missionary? Norway and the OECD’s recommendations on family policy (Skogedal Lindén, 2012) and A gentle holding of hands or a firm grip around the wrist? The OECD’s role in Norwegian kindergarten policy (Wagtskjold Eriksen, 2015).


Fotnote: (Wagtskjold Eriksen, 2015)

Nygård (2015) too has performed an analysis of policy documents from Norway and the OECD, identifying a degree of concurrence without being able to establish whether influence is being exerted and in which direction.

Skogedal Lindén (2010) has introduced the term “OECD-fication” to illustrate how the OECD exerts influence on national policy design, although he also lists a number of reasons why “one might ask whether it is at all possible to say anything definitive about influence” (p. 125). One of these reasons is what is known as “uploading”, which means that “concurrence between international and national policy may be the result of ideas developed domestically being exported to the OECD and then returned as recommendations” (ibid.). The point that Skogedal Lindén (2012) makes is that Norwegian policy is “broadly in agreement with these recommendations, but this is not due to influence being exerted by the organisation” (p. 59). The notion that Norwegian kindergarten policy is being “OECD-ified” is thus identified as a problem. We are more often pointed to “as a model country in terms of family policy[ ]. Consequently, Norway becomes a potential exporter of ideas about ‘good’ family policy to other countries” (ibid.).


Fotnote: as a model country in terms of family policy

Skogedal Lindén uses the terms welfare policy, social policy and family policy interchangeably but predominantly refers to OECD documents on ECEC.

It must be stressed that the perception of Norway as an example to be followed is based on studies of documents from the period when the OECD first began its work in the field of ECEC. However, Wagtskjold Eriksen (2015) demonstrates how Norway has continued to play a key role since then, not least in leading the organisation’s Network on Early Childhood Education and Care. The network was established in 2006 and “appears to be where the actual policy-making takes place” (p. 70). By 2015 Norway had “chaired the ECEC network for a total of five and a half years out of the nine years it has been meeting” (p. 69). In other words, Norway has maintained a leading role in the OECD’s work on ECEC since the very beginning.

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3. Experience-based knowledge-sharing

The OECD’s interest in ECEC arose in the early 1990s and has its roots in the European Commission’s Childcare Network established in 1986 (Mahon, 2010). The network was co-ordinated by the British Professor Peter Moss, who was – and still is – an advocate for children’s rights. He is also a committed supporter of the Italian Reggio Emilia approach and of the Nordic kindergarten systems which, with reference to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, emphasise the best interests of the child and children’s right to participation.

Incidentally, the European Commission’s Childcare Network was dissolved in 1996, the same year that the OECD began working to improve access to and quality in ECEC provision in its member countries under the banner Making Lifelong Learning a Reality for All (Bennett, 2006). This instigated the organisation’s ECEC portfolio, which was largely founded on the values of the European Commission’s Childcare Network. This was a natural move since the OECD education committee chose the Irish ECEC champion John Bennett to head the Starting Strong project (Mahon, 2010). He had previously led UNESCO’s Child and Youth programme and been involved in drawing up the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The first Starting Strong reports

In 1998 the OECD began conducting thematic reviews of the ECEC systems in 12 member states. Norway was one of the first countries to complete the review, which comprised a three-step process: 1) Preparation of a background report by the ECEC authorities in the participating country using a common framework set by the OECD. 2) A review team travelled to the participating country to observe and interview various stakeholders in the country’s ECEC sector. The teams were made up of people from different participating countries plus an expert appointed by the host country itself. 3) The OECD then prepared a country note based on the background report and the findings of the review team during their visit.


Fotnote: the host country itself

Norway appointed Peter Moss. He led a team comprising representatives from the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden along with one OECD agent. Norway was also represented in the teams reviewing the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom.


Fotnote: in 12 member states

Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The extensive thematic reviews culminated in 12 country notes, which provided a knowledge base for the OECD’s first Starting Strong report: Starting Strong. Early Childhood Education and Care. Education and Skills. It was launched in Stockholm in the summer of 2001. Soon after, the OECD began thematic reviews in eight new countries, and in autumn 2006 Starting Strong II. Early Childhood Education and Care was presented in Reggio Emilia. The latter report also provided an update on developments in the first 12 participating countries since 2001.


Fotnote: in eight new countries

Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Korea and Mexico.

The culture-sensitive nature of the Starting Strong project

The common framework for the background report led the participating countries to initially describe their broader social structures. They then gave an account of ECEC policy challenges, how the sector was regulated and evaluations and research in the field of ECEC. The participating countries were also encouraged to use their own terminology to describe issues surrounding ECEC. For some time, the Norwegian background report therefore used terms such as “barnehage” (kindergarten) and “pedagogisk leder” (pedagogical leader) in an otherwise English language text. The respective countries’ terminologies were also used by the OECD in its country notes and in the comparative reports Starting Strong I and II.

This injected the launch of the organisation’s ECEC portfolio with a sense of humility towards the participating countries’ national characteristics and solutions whereby it was claimed that “cross-national investigations of quality require sensitivity to different national and cultural situations, as the assumptions on which family and child policies are based differ widely from country to country” (OECD, 2001, p. 63). In other words, it communicated a desire to respect the diversity of ECEC policy approaches.

Amongst other things, Starting Strong I stressed that “this report does not attempt to compare countries in terms of better or worse, or right or wrong, or to rank countries in a league table” (OECD, 2001, p. 17). It also pointed out that all participating countries were post-industrial information societies and that the analyses provided in the report should not be understood as an attempt to present a single global model for ECEC policy. Rather, it sought to promote experience-based knowledge-sharing to encourage discussion about the significance and development of ECEC in the different countries.

Starting Strong II also underlined that the OECD did not wish to promote one single global ECEC model. Yet both reports presented certain overarching common elements. Starting Strong I presented these as eight “key elements”, while in Starting Strong II they were described as ten “policy areas”. The common elements described in both reports were otherwise so widely defined that they could be used to elucidate the countries’ ECEC systems even when traditions, values and attitudes differed. Starting Strong II express that the defined policy areas were “not intended to be normalising orientations. A major underlying lesson from the OECD reviews is that sound policy cannot be a quick fix from outside” (OECD, 2006, p. 206). Instead, the organisation advocated democratic consensus-building between stakeholders in each country and emphasised the importance of discussion and reflection on the solutions at a national level:

The aim is not fast-track policy transfer, as most experienced administrators would agree that policies should not be transferred from one context to another without due reflection and adaptation. Rather, the various processes of this review – with its country visits, reports and regular meetings of the national co-ordinators, open up a range of policy options and allow participants to discuss and question taken for granted assumptions (OECD, 2006, p. 222).

Fears of Anglo-American “schoolification” of ECEC

The OECD thus warned against “attempts at ‘fast’ policy transfer, where the research and practices of the larger countries, the concepts of a dominant language group, or the analytic framework of an OECD division may predominate” (OECD, 2006, p. 237). This was especially linked to Anglo-American ECEC research, and the organisation expressed concern that the “research focuses of the English-speaking countries reflect concepts and definitions of early childhood that do not necessarily correspond to the traditions of other countries or to their aspirations for young children” (p. 199). The OECD believed that this type of research had gained a hegemonic position, and because of the “strong links with education research, a high proportion of ECEC research in the English language tends to debate education questions that are often not central to the early childhood concerns of other countries” (p. 187). Consequences of this could be a “predominant focus on standards, instruction methods, cognitive outcomes, the mastery of literacy and numeracy skills at an early age, targeted programming and the like” (p. 199). The OECD described this as a “readiness for school” model.

The “readiness for school” model is a powerful one, as it is carried by American (English-language) research to all countries. It holds out the promise to education ministries of children entering primary school already prepared to read and write, and being able to conform to normal classroom procedures (OECD, 2006, p. 63).

According to the OECD, a natural by-product of the “readiness for school” model was a more school-like kindergarten where “[c]ontents and pedagogical method in early and primary education have been brought closer together, generally in favour of teacher-centred and academic approaches” (OECD, 2006, p. 57). This was termed “schoolification”, and the OECD voiced concerns over its lack of child-centeredness by pointing out that “a challenge exists in many countries to focus more on the child, and to show greater understanding of the specific developmental processes and learning strategies of young children” (p. 207). The “readiness for school” model was predominantly attributed to the English-speaking countries along with France.

As a contrast to the “schoolifying” “readiness for school” model, the OECD highlighted the social pedagogy traditions of the Nordic countries and pointed out that “[r]ather than ‘schoolifying’ ECEC services, there is a strong belief that early childhood pedagogy should permeate the lower classes of primary school” (OECD, 2006, p. 59). Norway, Sweden and Reggio Emilia were given a special mention, with an approach to ECEC that “counter[s] the tendency of seeing schools as the benchmark and of imposing external targets and skills on young children” (p. 207).

OECD recommendations and Norwegian kindergarten policy

Although the OECD stressed that the Starting Strong reports were not intended to be used for comparing and ranking the ECEC systems of the participating countries, the organisation did describe the contrast between the “readiness for school” model and the social pedagogy tradition in a way that painted Norwegian kindergartens in a favourable light. The organisation’s country note from 1999 consistently takes a positive view of the Norwegian kindergarten system and of the attitudes towards children and childhood permeating the framework plan as well as kindergarten practices:

Underpinning this is an interesting and well-articulated view about children, both individually and as a social group, about childhood, and about the place of children in society and in relation to their environment. At a time when debates about early childhood and early childhood provision are increasingly dominated in many countries by a narrow, instrumental and highly individualistic view, the Norwegian view offers an important alternative perspective and a reminder of the socially constructed nature of childhood – with all that follows from that, not least in terms of adult responsibility for how they choose to see and understand children (OECD, 1999, p. 37).

The OECD also stated that it is “important to distinguish the concepts of ‘pedagogy’ and ‘pedagogical work’, which are strong in the Norwegian barnehage tradition, from ‘education’ and ‘teaching’ in a school tradition which is associated with more subject-based and formal learning” (OECD, 1999, p. 22). Norwegian kindergarten pedagogy was thus presented as an alternative to narrower and more instrumentally instructional, individualistic and “schoolified” practices.

At the same time the OECD pointed out that many countries were facing challenges because ECEC and school policy were overseen by different government ministries. In Starting Strong I, Sweden was highlighted as the only country where the ECEC sector was integrated with education policy, and the importance of seeing the relationship between ECEC and school was underscored. At the time, responsibility for the kindergarten sector in Norway rested with the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs (MoCFA), and the OECD’s advice was to consider whether it might be better to reassign responsibility for kindergartens, schools and after school-programmes to one single ministry. That is exactly what happened in the period between Starting Strong I and II, when kindergarten governance was transferred to the Ministry of Education and Research (MoER).

This was not the only change to take place in the Norwegian kindergarten sector between 2001 and 2006. A maximum limit on parent’s fees was introduced, and the proportion of children attending kindergarten rose from just over 60 per cent in 2001 to around 80 per cent in 2006. The Kindergarten Act was also amended and the Framework Plan (kindergarten curriculum) revised. Starting Strong II described it all as a “striking development” (OECD, 2006, p. 400). In the report the OECD also stated that Norway’s kindergarten legislation was founded on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child before going on to recite the complete Section 3 of the Norwegian Kindergarten Act on the children’s right to participate.


Fotnote: the Norwegian Kindergarten Act

Children in kindergartens shall have the right to express their views on the day-to-day activities of the kindergarten. Children shall regularly be given the opportunity to take an active part in planning and assessing the activities of the kindergarten. The children’s views shall be given due weight according to their age and maturity.

The OECD’s positive reporting on Norwegian kindergartens was also highlighted by state secretary Lisbet Rugtvedt at the Ministry of Education and Research. In a press release headlined OECD report praises Norwegian kindergarten policies she wrote that “it is reassuring to see Norway take the lead in the field of ECEC” (Norwegian government, 2006).

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4. Evidence-based harmonisation

As shown, Norway, Sweden and Reggio Emilia in Italy were lauded as role models, and the first two Starting Strong reports were launched in Stockholm and Reggio Emilia respectively. According to Wagtskjold Eriksen (2015), the OECD’s original plan for Starting Strong did not extend beyond those two reports, but “Norway and Sweden joined forces to produce a third report because the ECEC network was in possession of a great deal of useful data in the years after the network launched” (pp. 63–64). In 2012, six years after Starting Strong II, the launch of Starting Strong III. A Quality Toolbox for Early Childhood Education and Care took place in Oslo. With this report, the OECD in many ways signalled a shift in the ECEC portfolio, which began to grow rapidly over the next five years. A further two Starting Strong reports and a series of country notes were produced, and the OECD’s ECEC network both commissioned and drew up its own documents.

More evidence-based policy development

The very first paragraph of the foreword to Starting Strong III can be read as a synopsis of the fundamental premise for the ECEC portfolio in the period 2012–2017:

There is a growing body of evidence that children starting strong in their learning and well-being will have better outcomes when they grow older. Such evidence has driven policy makers to design an early intervention and re-think their education spending patterns to gain “value for money” (OECD, 2012, p. 3).

Amid growing recognition of the impact of childhood on later learning outcomes, the OECD now sought to use “research to inform policy and the public” (OECD, 2012, p. 15). 2015 saw the publication of Starting Strong IV. Monitoring Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care, in which the OECD sought to answer the following: “What can research tell us about the effectiveness of monitoring practices?” (OECD, 2015a, p. 18). The aim was to “help policy makers and practitioners to better understand the rationale for monitoring quality and establishing monitoring systems in various areas across OECD member and non-member economies” (p. 19). With Starting Strong V. Transitions from Early Childhood Education and Care to Primary Education in 2017 the OECD gave what it described as “a state-of-the-art summary of the latest research and thinking on transitions” (OECD, 2017a, p. 3). In other words, during this period the organisation contended that “evidence-based policy and practice are an important approach in the field of education” (p. 70).

Longitudinal effect studies are given considerable weight in support of the evidence-based approach. Interestingly enough, in the Norwegian background report for Starting Strong I back in 1998 the Norwegian Ministry of Children and Family Affairs had communicated a desire to “inspire Norwegian researchers to do longitudinal studies on the barnehage’s effect on children’s development in order to improve programmes and quality” (MoCFA, 1998, 44 and 46). The OECD did not follow the lead at the time, instead recommending that Norwegian kindergarten research focus on issues that are “unique or more prominent than in other countries” (OECD, 1999, p. 36).


Fotnote: “unique or more prominent than in other countries” (OECD, 1999, p. 36)

Examples include the outdoor environment, male workers in kindergartens and children’s culture.

However, by 2012 the OECD’s view was shifting, and North American interventional studies became particularly influential in arguing for “investing in the early years to boost cognitive and non-cognitive skills and success later in the labour market” (OECD, 2015a, p. 169). The economic rationale that had now gained prominence was ascribed to the “recent global economic crisis and pressure on education funding [which] emphasise the need for accountability and ‘value for money’ in the education sector, including ECEC, and for evidence-based policy development” (OECD, 2012, p. 286).


Fotnote: North American interventional studies

The studies conducted by the US education economist James Heckman enjoy a unique position in this respect. Using the so-called Heckman Curve, he shows how the economic return on investment in “human capital” is greater the earlier in a person’s life the investment is made. Heckman justifies this with what he calls the multiplier effect: that learning begets learning.

The US education economist Steven Barnett assumed a particularly prominent role during this period whereby he first helped design Starting Strong III before being tasked by the OECD’s ECEC network to produce a report on measuring learning outcomes in the early years. Together with two colleagues Barnett completed Comprehensive Measures of Child Outcomes in Early Years: Report to the OECD in 2014. The report leant heavily on US research in order to “provide basic information to inform decision-making regarding the assessment of young children’s learning, development, and well-being for national and international data collections designed to inform Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC)-policies” (OECD, 2014, p. 2). The OECD referred to the report in Starting Strong IV, where the organisation presented a set of criteria “to determine the scope and tools of child outcomes assessments” (OECD, 2015a, p. 170). Among the criteria was that “[r]esults should enable comparability within and across countries and over time, especially for international studies” (p. 171).

Culture-sensitive ambivalence

While the OECD began to move towards more evidence-based policy development, the ECEC portfolio’s culture-sensitive character also started to change. This became particularly evident when the organisation conducted new thematic reviews. By now Norway’s background reports were being produced by the Ministry of Education and Research, and like before Norwegian terms where used to describe kindergarten concepts. However, the OECD’s country note did not retain the culture-sensitive wording. Instead, the English language was given a more defining role as the organisation produced a glossary of terms. The terms had no obvious connection to the Norwegian social pedagogy tradition, which was only mentioned twice in the country note of just over 130 pages.

The English glossary could also be found in Starting Strong IV and V, having doubled in size in the latter publication. Amongst other things, “pedagogy” was now defined as a “set of instructional techniques and strategies to support children’s learning, development, and the acquisition of skills, competencies, values and attitudes” (OECD, 2017a, p. 286). Even before the glossary was created, the OECD was issuing new definitions. Starting Strong III states that the term “curriculum” (framework plan) “refers to the contents and methods that substantiate children’s learning and development. It answers the questions ‘what to teach?’ and ‘how to teach it?’” (OECD, 2012, p 82). These English definitions illustrate a change since 1999, when the OECD stressed the importance of making a clear distinction between pedagogical work and teaching in order to promote alternatives to the “readiness for school” model and emerging “schoolification”.

At the same time the OECD also maintained a level of cultural sensitivity when in Starting Strong IV it was pointed out that “[i]mportantly, definitions of quality differ between countries, since the concept is value- and culture-based, and definitions of quality tend to change over time” (OECD, 2015a, p. 51). Similarly, on the subject of monitoring children’s development, it “should be carried out in a way that respects values and beliefs about child development in a particular society […] ensuring that the cultural context is duly considered in monitoring practices” (p. 169). On the transition from kindergarten to primary school Starting Strong V declares that not all policy orientations would be equally valid to all countries as “each country needs to take into account their context (values, traditions, characteristics of ECEC and education systems) and their policy priorities” (OECD, 2017a, p. 240). The OECD also stressed that the recommendations in this report were “exploratory only, seeking to provide a source of inspiration when designing and revising policies and practices” (p. 181). Such statements, combined with the OECD’s English glossary and new definitions, bear witness to a certain culture-sensitive ambivalence in the reports published between 2012 and 2017.

School-focused harmonisation

In parallel with the cultural-sensitive ambivalence of this period another prominent trait in the ECEC portfolio emerged, one that could be described as school-focused harmonisation. It was particularly evident in Starting Strong V, which only addressed the transition from kindergarten to school, but even in Starting Strong III the OECD declared that there is a need to “think beyond curriculum dichotomies (e.g., academic-oriented vs. comprehensive approaches, staff-initiated instructions vs. child-initiated activities, etc.) and consolidate the ‘added value’ of individual approaches” (OECD, 2012, p. 81). The aim was to “maximise learning, development and social outcomes” (p. 89), and the “added value” was linked to the effects of different curriculum designs on different aspects of children’s learning and development.

Starting Strong V, in which the OECD made recommendations to ensure continuity in children’s learning experiences between ECEC and school, also highlighted the significance of the curriculum. The organisation contended that the absence of continuity was caused by “fragmented coherence and lack of consistency of goals, curriculum, pedagogical practices between the two sectors and lack of cooperation and collaboration among actors” (OECD, 2017a, p. 256). The advice was to align the kindergarten and school curricula. The OECD also continued to view as problematic a “downward push from formal schooling towards ECEC, particularly in terms of the last year of ECEC” (p. 153), but allowing traditional ECEC to permeate the first year of school was not considered an option either. “A promising approach is to involve change in both directions: an increased emphasis on academic learning opportunities in ECEC and on social-emotional development in the early primary grades, to create a continuum based on a balanced curriculum across transition” (ibid.).

In addition to the significance of the curriculum, the OECD also highlighted the need to ensure a good flow of information about each child’s learning and development. The organisation expressed a desire to find out more about “the effects of documenting and mapping children’s learning and development in ECEC, what kind of documentation about the child should be transferred from ECEC to school, and how […] child development information [should] be used in school” (OECD, 2017a, p. 266). The OECD also stated a need to establish “what kind of transition activities are most effective in supporting children’s continuity in learning and adjustment to school” (p. 214).

Incidentally, only two years previously the OECD in Starting Strong IV had expressed concern that “[m]onitoring child development and outcomes is increasingly widespread” (OECD, 2015a, p. 165). The warning issued in the report of the consequence of “the focus on child outcomes and their measurement at an early age [being] ‘schoolification’” (p. 169) thus maintained a form of separation between ECEC and school. In Starting Strong V, however, the OECD appears to be saying that this dividing line represents a barrier to continuity in the children’s learning experience when they start school. In other words, this school orientation contributed to OECD’s efforts to harmonise potential discrepancies, both between different ECEC curriculum models and between the objectives and practices of ECEC and school.

Norwegian participation and concurrence with OECD priorities

As we have already pointed out, Norway was an advocate for Starting Strong III, which was largely informed by various research reviews. Starting Strong IV took as its starting point an online survey, which Norway responded to as one of 24 participating countries. Concerning Starting Strong V, Norway was one of nine countries “that made voluntary contributions to cover the costs of this project” (OECD, 2017a, p. 271). Norway also played a more prominent role as a contributor to the latter report, providing a new literature review prepared by the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for Education. “This review was prepared by Norway as an in-kind contribution to the OECD project on transitions” (p. 272).


Fotnote: one of nine countries

Skriv innEight member countries: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Japan, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden and Wales as well as one partner country: Kazakhstan. fotnoten her.


Fotnote: one of 24 participating countries

23 member countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, England, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Sweden as well as one partner country: Kazakhstan.

Norway was thus heavily involved in developing the OECD’s ECEC portfolio in the period up until 2017, and Norwegian kindergarten policy priorities were broadly in line with the organisation’s recommendations. This was particularly true in terms of ensuring high and equitable quality in the kindergarten sector by revising the framework plan, developing a quality assessment system and strengthening Norwegian kindergarten research.

Regarding the framework plan, Norway was one of ten countries to produce a separate OECD report entitled Quality Matters in Early Childhood Education and Care in 2013. The report was “intended to be a quick reference guide for anyone with a role to play in encouraging quality through Norway’s early childhood education and care (ECEC) curriculum” (OECD, 2013, p. 3). A good framework plan was needed because of concerns that if there is a “weak curriculum framework, children may miss out on stimulating environments that are of high importance during the early years” (p. 7). The OECD urged Norway to consider “developing goals or child outcomes to guide staff in their practices and identify children’s needs; [and] improving linkages between the curriculum for ECEC and the primary school curriculum” (p. 8).


Fotnote: one of ten countries

The Czech Republic, England, Finland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, the Slovak Republic and Sweden.

Two years later, in its background report for a new OECD thematic review, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research stated that “the guidelines in the Framework Plan of 2006 might be too vague” (MoER, 2015, p. 141). The ministry was now seeking answers to many questions about the contents of the framework plan, “especially questions on assessment and documentation, language mapping of children and the question of learning and outcomes for children in barnehager” (ibid.). By then work was already underway to revise the framework plan for kindergartens, and the ministry was consulting on proposed legislation for documentation and assessment practices in kindergartens.

National governance of the kindergarten sector was one of the issues that the OECD chose to highlight in its subsequent country note on Norway. In particular, the organisation drew attention to the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training’s new kindergarten mandate, stating that the directorate would help to “improve kindergarten quality and the linkages between kindergarten and primary schooling” (OECD, 2015b, p. 33). It also claimed that current kindergarten assessment practices were inadequate. A quality monitoring system should therefore be developed to prevent significant local quality discrepancies. The OECD also emphasised that the “monitoring system needs to be set up in [such] a way that reliable, objective and valid instruments to assess process quality are used” (pp. 100–101).

Two years previously the Ministry of Education and Research had already tasked the Directorate for Education and Training with “developing a national system for monitoring quality development in the kindergarten sector” (MoER, 2013, p. 25).

The OECD’s emphasis on reliable, objective and valid quality assessment instruments can otherwise be viewed in relation to the organisation’s statements on the need for more and better ECEC research in which it asserts that “[s]trengthening and utilising large-scale studies would create more generalisable results to inform policy and practice” (OECD, 2015b, p. 58). It was also “recommended that standardised instruments are used […] as that would allow for easier comparison across studies, as well as internationally” (p. 100). The OECD highlighted the ITERS, ECERS and CLASS tools and praised Norway, which had already launched the longitudinal research project Better Provision for Norway’s Children in ECEC. This project drew on ITERS and ECERS with a view to “developing a tool for national evaluation of process quality” (p. 97). The project later changed its name to Good Kindergartens for Children in Norway (GoBaN) and is the biggest research project to take place in the Norwegian kindergarten sector to date.


Fotnote: Good Kindergartens for Children in Norway (GoBaN)

For more information about Good Kindergartens for Children in Norway, see


Fotnote: highlighted the ITERS, ECERS and CLASS tools

These tools were all developed in the US to allow standardised assessment of the learning environment. The acronyms stand for Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale, Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale and Classroom Assessment Scoring System.

Norway’s choice of expert to lead the OECD’s work on the country note was the US education economist mentioned earlier, Steven Barnett. In her analyses Wagtskjold Eriksen (2015) has pointed out that the choice of Barnett could “suggest that Norwegian kindergarten policy is about to take a more instrumental turn” (p. 93). With White Paper 19 Time for play and learning – better content in kindergarten, published the year after the OECD’s country note was issued, the Norwegian government was calling for a “new framework plan to provide clearer regulations for the work taking place in each kindergarten” (MoER, 2016, p. 14). Among the suggestions was an “indicative standard for the language skills children should acquire in kindergarten” (p. 54). As we have previously explained, it is difficult to identify examples of direct influence – and the direction of any such influence – yet we can see that in the period between 2012 and 2017 there is again a significant degree of concurrence between OECD recommendations and Norwegian kindergarten policy.

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5. Results-based comparison

In 2017, the year in which the OECD published Starting Strong V, the organisation’s ECEC portfolio once again changes character. The premise for the shift was communicated back in 2012, when Starting Strong III declared that “[i]n an increasingly global economy, countries find more value than ever before in comparing progress across countries, sharing best practices and improving ECEC globally” (OECD, 2012, p. 293). Such comparisons of “best practice” require a different type of information to what the organisation had previously obtained. “Therefore, the OECD programme of work over the period 2017–2020 includes a series of projects to develop the scope of available data on ECEC” (OECD, 2017b, p. 38).

The problem as the OECD describes it is that “policy makers do not have a clear grasp of what happens within the playroom or classroom” (OECD, 2019a). Therefore “[p]olicy makers need to be informed of the evidence base regarding what quality elements are most important […]” (OECD, 2019d).

The challenge that needs solving is the lack of knowledge, because “there are [sic] still very little data available on what happens in the playgroup, playroom or classroom, and what the consequences are for children’s early development” (OECD, 2019b, p. 7). For that reason the OECD has “developed a long-term data development strategy and a suggested data collection roadmap to fill this gap” (ibid.) Because “[w]ithout reliable data countries cannot know whether or to what extent their policies are improving or exacerbating equity amongst children” (OECD, 2018a, p. 5). The OECD’s new projects are thus meant to “serve as the foundation for future analysis of what works for young children” (OECD, 2019a), and they are carried out in order to gather data at system, institutional and individual levels.

Indicator development and quality rankings

One premise for the OECD’s data development strategy is that it is “even more useful when data from one system can be compared with data from other systems, or over time” (OECD, 2019b, p. 14). Incidentally, such comparisons will “only become useful when the policy maker or policy analyst concludes that any apparent difference was unlikely to have arisen by chance” (ibid.). The OECD is therefore developing indicators for kindergarten quality in order to “yield information that is valid, reliable and comparable across participating countries” (p. 12). Such indicators make it possible to estimate means, variations and deviations.

The first publication under the OECD’s new strategy is Starting Strong 2017. Key OECD Indicators on Early Childhood Education and Care. Data from a total of 37 countries has been compiled in the report as a “first attempt to bring together all of the key OECD ECEC indicators” (OECD, 2017b, p. 3). These indicators concern structural aspects of ECEC settings such as financing, teacher qualifications and child-to-staff/teacher ratios. In Starting Strong 2017 the organisation also emphasised that “[i]nternational efforts are also necessary to develop new indicators, especially on child outcomes and process quality” (p. 37).


Fotnote: Data from a total of 37 countries

The indicator report covers all of the OECD’s then members countries as well as Brazil and Russia.

The large-scale study Teaching and Learning International Survey. Starting Strong (TALIS Starting Strong) looks at process quality and is accompanied by the following guiding principle: “The results should yield information that can be used to develop indicators […] that monitor ECEC systems at the levels of staff and centres” (OECD, 2019b, pp. 12–13). This is “the first international survey that focuses on the workforce in ECEC” (OECD, 2019g, p. 3), and the OECD “uses questionnaires administered to staff and leaders to gather data” (p. 22). Norway is a participant in the survey, which is conducted in a representative selection of kindergartens in the nine participating countries. The data was collected in 2018, and the first of the two main reports was published in autumn 2019. The second report is due in autumn 2020.


Fotnote: the nine participating countries

Chile, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Korea, Norway and Turkey.

The OECD has also developed indicators to “get closer to answering questions about what works in terms of learning gains, cost-effectiveness, and the quality of child outcomes” (OECD, 2019b, p. 10). The International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (IELS) assess the skills of a representative selection of five-year-olds in the three participating countries. According to the OECD, IELS provides a comprehensive assessment of a range of skills, although “the study does not measure everything. Instead, it focuses on those aspects of development and learning that are predictive of children’s later education outcomes and wider well-being” (OECD, 2020a, p. 13). The children are assessed on emergent literacy, emergent numeracy, self-regulation and social-emotional skills. The data, which comprises the assessment scores as well as surveys completed by the children’s parents and teachers, was collected in 2018. The results were published in the spring of 2020.


Fotnote: three participating countries

England, Estonia and the US.

Common to the new projects in the ECEC portfolio is the overarching goal of “[p]roviding international benchmarks that allow policy makers to ascertain what they may learn […] from other countries” (OECD, 2019b, p. 14). Such benchmarks can be used by the participating countries to “monitor the performance of their systems in giving all children a strong early start” (OECD, 2020a, p. 30). The point is that “[c]ountries will make faster progress on improving children’s early learning experiences if they are able to learn from other countries and systems, rather than each working in isolation” (p. 26).

Through indicator development, data gathering and comparison, the OECD also enables the participating countries to be ranked according to their performance on the different quality indicators. In Starting Strong 2017 this is expressed in the form of a scoreboard which first presents the average across the OECD before disclosing the results from each country using a three colour code. The colour code indicates whether a country belongs to the lower quartile, upper quartile or middle half. TALIS Starting Strong also provides a colour-coded scoreboard where the nine participating countries are ranked according to whether they are in the top three, middle range or bottom three. As for IELS, the average scores of the participating countries’ five-year-olds are presented in separate tables for the four learning domains. This creates a picture of which countries have the highest-performing five-year-olds in relation to the OECD’s early learning outcome indicators.


Fotnote: or bottom three

Norway is among the top three best performing countries on 19 out of 40 key indicators and in the bottom three on 14 indicators.


Fotnote: upper quartile or middle half

The OECD ranking on 24 key indicators shows that Norway is in the upper quartile on ten of them and in the lower quartile on five of them.

Cultural sensitivity as an obstacle to quality development

The OECD is currently not allowing much room for the characteristics of the participating countries’ social structures, political value systems or early years pedagogy traditions. It therefore appears as if the organisation does not consider it as a problem that the T in TALIS stands for teaching, even though the term had previously been criticised by the OECD because it was part of the “readiness for school” model’s “schoolified” ECEC approach. The OECD also stresses that it is Starting Strong III–V that have been “influential in the development of the TALIS Starting Strong Survey and have informed this conceptual framework” (OECD, 2019b, p. 17). Rather than take into consideration the participating countries’ own languages and terminology, these are the three reports that used the OECD’s own glossary with English definitions.

TALIS Starting Strong is also inspired by the findings of the TALIS schools survey, which was conducted in 2008, 2013 and 2018. The OECD has sought to find “some overlap in the themes and indicators in both surveys. This overlap provides the added analytical value to compare indicators across ISCED[ ] levels for countries with data on multiple ISCED levels” (OECD, 2019b, p. 18). The aim is thus to perform comparisons between kindergarten and school, while cultural variations in the form of alternative ECEC perspectives that distance themselves from the “readiness for school” model no longer appear to be relevant to understanding the ECEC systems in different countries.


Fotnote: ISCED

ISCED stands for International Standard Classification of Education and indicates different education levels, e.g. ISCED 0 refers to ECEC, ISCED 1 to primary education and ISCED 2 to lower secondary education.

Not only does IELS portray cultural variations as irrelevant; it also paints them as an obstacle to international comparisons. The OECD considers it problematic that “decisions affecting children’s early years of learning and well-being are fraught with political and commercial interests, in addition to ideology” (OECD, 2020a, p. 11). Culturally dependent questions surrounding values are thus seen as problematic and potentially damaging to the efforts to improve quality in ECEC. The IELS assessment tools are presented as a solution to this problem: “Through careful development, testing and analysis, any cultural or other biases are minimised so that countries can have confidence that the results are comparable across countries” (p. 96). In other words, the organisation is working actively to exclude any idiosyncrasies in the participating countries’ social structures and ECEC pedagogy traditions. The only contextual information requested by IELS is the children’s socio-economic status and home learning environment, which is deemed universally predictive of how children will perform on the different assessments.


Fotnote: socio-economic status

Socio-economic status is defined as parental occupation parents’ level of education and income, immigration background, and whether the child lives with both their parents and has siblings. The home learning environment includes activities offered by the parents such as reading aloud and conversation as well as access to and use of digital devices (OECD, 2020a, p. 34).

ECEC for school performance and later success in life

Alongside the development of the OECD’s quality indicators, the ECEC portfolio is becoming more explicitly focused on what the organisation calls child outcomes. Starting Strong 2017 explains this by saying that governments are “increasingly looking to international comparisons of ECEC’s opportunities and outcomes as they develop policies to mobilise resources to meet rising demands” (OECD, 2017b, p. 3). Amongst other things, it points out how the difference between pupils who had attended ECEC for less than a year “averaged 41 score points in the PISA 2015 science assessment, with one year of formal schooling equivalent to around 30 score points” (p. 149). The OECD also claims that “[t]he higher enrolment rates in formal childcare for children under the age of 3 in 2005, the lower the proportion of boys and girls who were overweight or obese at age 11 in 2014” (p. 147).

Those who have attended ECEC are thus claimed to be outperforming those who have not.
Children’s outcomes later in life are also used as an argument to boost ECEC quality when the OECD states that “strong early learning also positively predicts well-being across a range of indicators in adulthood” (OECD, 2018b, p. 4). IELS elaborates on this theme by pointing out that “[c]hildren’s early learning is a strong determinant of their later success in life, across a range of outcomes, [such as] later educational achievement and attainment, employment and earnings, mental and physical health, citizenship, well-being and life satisfaction” (OECD, 2020a, p. 30). This leads to the obvious conclusion that children who lack the right “balance of skills will struggle to do well in school and in other areas of their lives” (p. 3). On that basis the OECD declares that the “evidence is overwhelming. Starting behind means staying behind. When children’s early learning is not strong before they start school […], the outlook for these children is bleak” (p. 26).

This interpretation is used to assert that the “most effective investment governments can make to enhance success in education and later life outcomes is to provide a strong start in children’s early years” (OECD, 2020a, p. 11). Or as the OECD puts it in TALIS Starting Strong: this survey “reminds us that children’s early years are the foundation of their lives as students, adults and citizens. […] For children’s learning, development and well-being, every year counts” (OECD, 2019g, p. 4). Quality in ECEC is thus defined as giving all children a strong start in the form of learning outcomes that minimise each child’s risk of bleak prospects.

One common language and framework for quality development

As a framework for Starting Strong 2017, TALIS Starting Strong and IELS, the OECD has also launched the project Policy Review on Quality in ECEC (Quality Beyond Regulations). The policy review is intended to culminate in the organisation’s sixth Starting Strong report some time in 2021. Quality Beyond Regulations includes “a conceptual model of the links between policy levers and structural and process quality in ECEC, in support of child development, learning and well-being” (OECD, 2019c).

The express goal of the project is to “support jurisdictions to better understand the different dimensions of quality in ECEC […]” (ibid.), and the plan is for the OECD to present what the organisation calls a “multi-dimensional matrix/ framework for quality in ECEC” by the end of 2020 (OECD, 2019d). There is much to suggest that this framework will be based on a consolidation of recent OECD surveys so that the indicators for structural quality, process quality and child outcomes can be consolidated.

The organisation explicitly states that Quality Beyond Regulations will inform TALIS Starting Strong in particular, and the “OECD will ensure synergies […] as the two projects have been developed with a careful alignment of goals, resources, conceptual and analytical coherence, and data-collection strategies” (OECD, 2019b, p. 18). Similarly, the plan is also to link TALIS Starting Strong and IELS, as manifested in the OECD’s lament over the lack of response to the two surveys: “Given the lack of overlap in participating countries, datasets of this study [IELS] cannot be linked to TALIS Starting Strong Survey data in this cycle, but conceptual alignment has been sought” (p. 10). The surveys are thus intended to be repeated, and the organisation designed them with an aim to connect the results.

As the OECD stated in Starting Strong 2017, the organisation’s aim is to “show what is possible in children’s early learning in various socio-emotional and cognitive domains and will help countries monitor progress at a system level” (OECD, 2017b, p. 4). This is sought to be achieved through a long-term data development strategy, which is designed to “provid[e] countries with a common language and framework, encompassing the collection of robust empirical information and in-depth insights on children’s learning development at a critical age” (OECD, 2018a, p. 14). The benefit of participating in OECD surveys is thus that the participating countries can “[l]earn from each other by developing a common language and framework” (OECD, 2019e).

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6. From international inspiration to global uniformity?

As we have demonstrated in the previous three chapters, the OECD’s ECEC portfolio has changed character since it was first launched, and it can be said that the organisation has “moved a long way from the in-depth and nuanced approach of the initial Starting Strong study” (Moss, et al., 2016, p. 345). What started out as culture-sensitive surveys to provide international inspiration through experience-based knowledge-sharing has over time turned into a kind of indicator-driven and globally uniform approach to policy design for quality in ECEC.

However, the earlier rejection of comparisons, rankings and a global standardised ECEC model shows that the OECD’s original intention was not the global uniformity evident in the ECEC portfolio today. In the following we will therefore discuss how this shift was still allowed to happen – first by looking at the general consequences of translation and the specific significance of the English language, then by examining changes in the way the OECD has organised its work on the ECEC portfolio.

The uniforming power of translation

The communication around international surveys obviously requires translation from the different participating countries’ languages into a common language. The very thing that makes international communication possible therefore carries with it an inherent challenge because the contextual characteristics of the different countries easily get lost in translation. “Understanding the concepts, values and practices of a place is intimately bound up with the native language, for language bears culture and meaning” (Moss, 2010, p. 432). Therefore, culture-specific concepts are difficult to translate. They become less accessible and consequently also less meaningful. This way, translation can be understood as a fundamental challenge since all communication across linguistic and cultural contexts will itself lead to greater uniformity.

As well as the general problem of translation, there is also a more specific challenge concerning the position of the English language as the lingua franca of the OECD’s ECEC portfolio. The problem is that the English-speaking world, and especially the UK and the US, not only shares English as its native language but “it also shares to a considerable extent certain ways of thinking about the world and certain ways of structuring its societies” (Moss, 2010, p. 433). As we have pointed out, language is accompanied by cultural ideas, traditions and values, and despite the fact that the ECEC systems in the UK and the US did not appear to have been particularly well developed when the OECD established its ECEC portfolio, the two countries have gained considerable influence in the international ECEC discourse.

This has been achieved through the impact of research and truth claims emerging from a very particular anglophone context, and spread, through the medium of English, by academic journals, conferences and global institutions. The dominance of English has been matched by the dominance of a way of thinking about early childhood education: positivistic, instrumental, reductionist and technical, averse to context, diversity and complexity (Moss, 2010, p. 433).

Despite the OECD’s initial warning of Anglo-American “schoolification” and the resistance against creating a single global ECEC model, uniformity still seems to be a natural consequence of the organisation’s efforts to promote quality in ECEC internationally. Because “although the commonality of English provides a common language to enable various cultures and contexts to be engaged in comparative dialogues, it also eliminates many meanings that can only make sense in a particular language” (Lee, Napier and Manzon, 2014, p. 149). Perhaps, therefore, it would be more accurate to describe the potential “OECD-fication” of ECEC as “Anglification”?

The uniforming power of the ECEC portfolio structure

When the OECD created its ECEC portfolio it brought in external ECEC advocates. John Bennett and Peter Moss with backgrounds from UNESCO and the European Commission’s Childcare Network respectively, became leaders of the process. They had played a part in drawing up the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and shared a view of children as participants and an understanding of childhood as culture- and context-dependent. Thus, in the process leading up to the first two Starting Strong reports it was logical for the OECD to design culture-sensitive surveys that emphasised the ECEC experiences and solutions of the participating countries.

The OECD’s ECEC network was established when Starting Strong II was launched. This was crucial to the design of the next three Starting Strong reports, which emphasised more evidence-based policy development. The ECEC network, whose delegates are predominantly ECEC and/or school bureaucrats from the participating countries, tasked education economists to develop parts of the OECD’s knowledge base and recommendations on ECEC. As we have seen, the result was increased harmonisation because cultural differences – both between countries and between ECEC and school as pedagogical institutions – are of little interest in this research tradition.


Fotnote: The OECD’s ECEC network

After its launch in 2006 the network operated independently of the OECD, but in spring 2008 it was incorporated into the OECD organisational structure (Mahon, 2010).

Alongside the new results-based comparisons there has been yet another change in how the work on the ECEC portfolio is organised. The OECD’s Directorate for Education and Skills is now more actively involved. This is evident in the forewords of the organisation’s latest ECEC publications, written by Andreas Schleicher, the Director for the Directorate for Education and Skills. The question is whether the OECD bureaucracy is about to take over much of the control that the ECEC network has had since 2006 and whether ECEC perspectives are thus becoming increasingly removed from the experiences and needs of individual member countries. Is it possible that the member countries’ interests are becoming less important and consequently that the Directorate for Education and Skills can be said to be “OECD-ifying” the OECD as a member organisation?

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7. Conclusion

The increasing uniformity that permeates the ECEC portfolio appears to be running in parallel to the dwindling response to the organisation’s surveys. This could mean that the OECD is about to fall out of step with the member countries’ interests, and we would therefore claim that the organisation is at a crossroads. To maintain its position as an international actor in the field of ECEC, the OECD must recruit more countries to participate in TALIS Starting Strong and IELS. Alternatively, the nature of the ECEC portfolio needs to change.

If the organisation succeeds in recruiting more participants, global uniformity may be consolidated and thus result in a democratic deficit in the development of ECEC provision in each country. If so, it would have an impact on Norway’s position and continued involvement in the work on the ECEC portfolio. Will Norway be able to influence the OECD to better protect its member countries’ interests by promoting a more democratic development of the ECEC sector?

A crossroads for the OECD’s ECEC portfolio

Ever since the creation of the ECEC portfolio – when Starting Strong I and II recruited 20 participating countries – there has been declining interest in the OECD’s surveys. TALIS Starting Strong only recruited nine participants, and only three countries have so far agreed to test the early learning skills of their five-year-olds by participating in IELS. This is despite the OECD’s describing the study as “one of the most ambitious international efforts to develop a comprehensive set of metrics around children’s learning” (OECD, 2019f, p. 17). Although the number of member countries has increased in the past 20 years, participation in the organisation’s ECEC studies has dwindled.

In other words, the OECD’s long-term data development strategy does not appear to generate much enthusiasm. Rather, the ECEC portfolio is being met with growing criticism. The criticism is especially directed at IELS, which is often referred to as “baby PISA” by its critics. The objections voiced by an international research community are met with neither interest nor arguments, because “the OECD deals with criticism by simply ignoring it” (Moss and Urban, 2020, p. 3). Instead, the organisation’s Directorate for Education and Skills responds with what appears to be PR-type materials.


Fotnote: by its critics

Peter Moss is a key figure in this criticism, but many other researchers from around the world are also expressing their concerns regarding the OECD’s most recent ECEC study. For examples of the critics’ perspectives, see: Moss et al. (2016), Carr, Mitchell and Rameka (2016), Pence (2016), Urban and Swadener (2016), Moss and Urban (2017), Moss and Urban (2019), Diaz-Diaz, Semenec and Moss (2019), Delaune (2019), Auld and Morris (2019) and Moss and Urban (2020).

Using large text boxes, it is claimed that “Children enjoyed participating in the field trial”, “The study was well received in the field”, “The digital design worked well” and “The field trial produced robust, valuable information” (OECD, 2018c, p. 1). In the report Helping our Youngest to Learn and Grow. Policies for Early Learning the Education and Skills director, Andreas Schleicher, also claims that “teachers and centre staff support an international focus on children’s development at this age” (OECD, 2019f, p. 17). In an attempt to recruit more participants, he also emphasises the value of IELS to the three countries that have chosen to participate: “Having reliable, valid and comparable outcome data is helping these countries to have confidence they are improving outcomes for all children” (OECD, 2018a, p. 5). Non-participating countries are thus at risk of pursuing ECEC policies that do not yield the right kind of results.


Fotnote: Helping our Youngest to Learn and Grow. Policies for Early Learning

The report was authored for the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, a collaborative forum in which the OECD and Education International invite education ministers and union leaders to discuss education policy. The forum has met annually since 2011, but it was not until 2019 that it first highlighted the ECEC sector.

Attempts to convince the world that IELS is not only wanted but also necessary for countries to be able to deliver high-quality ECEC show that the OECD needs to recruit more participants to ensure continuity of the long-term data development strategy and maintain its position as an international actor in the field of ECEC.

The democratic deficit of uniformity

Pettersson, Prøitz and Forsberg (2017) point out that “interactions between the national and the international have become less of a choice and more of a fact, which means that it is no longer possible to discuss national education policy just as a national matter” (p. 722). Results-based comparative studies therefore carry with them a potential risk. Because “if we are not careful, comparative education can be used to become an external standardization […], that will, instead of appreciating and tapping the richness of cultural and contextual diversities, become an imperial imposition on the recipients, albeit well intended” (Lee, Napier and Manzon, 2014, p. 150). A globally uniform approach to ECEC quality based on “best practice” and “what works” would thus have an impact on future ECEC policy development in all countries.

As we have demonstrated, this impact was warned against in Starting Strong II, in which the OECD warned that the terminologies of dominant language groups and the organisation’s analytical framework could become too influential. Potential consequences had been conveyed as far back as 2001, when Peter Moss at the launch of Starting Strong I expressed his fear that “cross-national studies of early childhood can lose sight of the child” (Moss, 2001, p. 1). Of the "Anglification” of international ECEC discourse he said:

It seems to me that the early childhood field is increasingly dominated by one particularly strong narrative: an Anglo-American narrative spoken in the English language [that] offers a particular construction of childhood, and generates particular problems, questions and methods. It is, if you will, a regime of truth about early childhood education and care as a technology for social stability and economic progress, the young child as a redemptive vehicle to be programmed to become a solution to certain problems (Moss, 2001, p. 13).

His point was that the child and childhood are at risk of being forgotten amidst political goals for social stability and economic growth. Yet childhood can be understood as a cultural phenomenon, and ECEC should not be investigated and developed independently of the social context in which it exists. Participating in resource-intensive international surveys to promote a globally uniform idea of ECEC quality therefore gives little meaning, something which probably also explains the OECD’s difficulties in recruiting participants for IELS. The fact that two of the three participating countries are the US and England is thus unlikely to be a coincidence. These countries already share the language as well as the cultural interpretation of the “readiness for school” model on which the study can be said to be based.

Accordingly, there is reason to ask whether uniformity – as a result of the aforementioned “Anglification” of the ECEC portfolio and the “OECD-fication” of the OECD as a member organisation – also brings with it a kind of democratic deficit. As we have shown, the open method of co-ordination relies on consensus between the member countries, which results in “peer pressure” to adjust to the prevailing discourse. When the discourse is based on one common language and framework in the form of quality indicators and benchmarks from which all countries must interpret their ECEC systems, each country will find it increasingly difficult to promote their own ideas and solutions to the challenges specific to their respective ECEC sectors.

Norway’s position and the significance of culture-sensitive studies

In order to continue the organisation’s long-term data development strategy, the OECD needs more countries to participate in its surveys. Thus, the organisation makes it look like all countries need its help to be able to satisfactorily fulfil their political responsibilities for quality development in their respective ECEC sectors. This means we can spot a potential shift in Norway’s role in the OECD’s work on the ECEC portfolio – a shift that is perhaps best described by borrowing the title of an article discussing school development: From role models to nations in need of advice: Norway and Sweden under the OECD’s magnifying glass. From being an international role model by virtue of our universal kindergarten provision based on the Nordic social pedagogy tradition, Norway is now being treated like all other countries: we need the OECD’s ECEC portfolio whose advice and recommendations are based on one common global language and framework for ECEC.


Fotnote: From role models to nations in need of advice: Norway and Sweden under the OECD’s magnifying glass.

Pettersson, Prøitz and Forsberg, 2017

At the same time, IELS is the first of the OECD’s ECEC projects that Norway has declined to participate in. When Norway’s education minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen in 2016 was confronted with the fact that Norway had contributed to the preparations for the study, his answer to the question of whether we would also participate was clear: “It never has been, and never will be, an option for Norway to participate in an international PISA study on kindergarten children. These types of tests are inappropriate for kindergartens and does not fit the Nordic kindergarten tradition” (Fladberg, 2016). In fact, his response was entirely in line with what the OECD stated in Starting Strong II ten years earlier: “Moving the focus on early learning towards a staircase of pre-specified cognitive skills runs counter to the insights of the founders of early childhood methodology and to the strong social pedagogy tradition that exists in Nordic and Central Europe” (OECD, 2006, p. 138). Norway has thus clearly stated that it wants to maintain a kindergarten tradition and pedagogical approach that deviate from the “readiness for school” model that the OECD previously warned against.

Yet there is also reason to ask whether just declining to take part in IELS is enough. This is not just about preserving the Norwegian kindergarten tradition and its idiosyncrasies. Rather, it is about taking responsibility for maintaining a diversity of perspectives, ideas and solutions and thereby helping to ensure more experience-based knowledge-sharing as a basis for each country’s democratic development of their ECEC sector. The ECEC portfolio should therefore better reflect the actual interests of the OECD’s member countries as they are perceived at a national level.

With this in mind, it is important that Norway does not stand on the sideline of individual studies but rather seeks to maintain its position as a role model, and in so doing, be a proactive advocate for more culture-sensitive studies. Not just for our own sake but because we would all do well to embrace alternatives to an “Anglified” “readiness for school” model that promotes “schoolified” ECEC practices. Every country that wishes to develop its ECEC sector, based on its own terms, values and cultural traditions, would benefit from this.
Thus, it is neither a case of being fearful of looking to other countries for inspiration, nor refraining from all participation in international studies. The point is that such participation should adopt as its premise the perspective of the OECD’s first Starting Strong reports: a culture-sensitive perspective designed to inspire critical reflection and further development of each county’s ECEC system in accordance with its own professional traditions and political priorities. If instead the OECD were to “OECD-ify” itself away from the member countries’ interests through an increasingly uniform ECEC portfolio, the cultural characteristics and values of each country will become subordinate to the organisation’s long-term data development strategy.

With a single standard according to which everyone is measured, the result would be a single global idea of what the very purpose of ECEC should be. This would close the door on learning from each other because discovering our differences is what allows us to reflect on our own practices. Continued democratic development of the ECEC sector therefore depends on international surveys which, rather than promote a globally uniform understanding of ECEC, enable us to discuss our values and cultural preferences for how we want to create the structures needed to promote good childhoods.

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