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Taming Tension in Early Childhood Education: An Ethnographic Account of Local Translation of National Policy


Academic year: 2022

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Danish University Colleges

Taming Tension in Early Childhood Education

An Ethnographic Account of Local Translation of National Policy

Koumaditis, Lise Jönsson; Buus, Anne Mette

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Koumaditis, L. J., & Buus, A. M. (2021). Taming Tension in Early Childhood Education: An Ethnographic Account of Local Translation of National Policy. Abstract from ECER 2021, Geneva, Switzerland.

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Taming Tension in Early Childhood Education

– An Ethnographic Account of Local Translation of National Policy

Lise Jönsson Koumaditis, VIA University College, lhjo@via.dk Anne-Mette Buus, VIA University College, amb@via.dk

Research questions, objectives and theoretical framework

When Danish parliament in 2018 agreed to an amendment to the Act on Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC), the main goal was to strengthen the pedagogical curriculum by providing a pedagogical foundation to family daycares (0-2-year-olds), day nurseries (0-2-year-olds) and kindergartens (2-5-year- olds). A foundation that rests on key elements such as play, children’s perspectives and establishing pedagogical learning environments throughout the day (Ministry of Children and Education, 2020).

The pedagogical foundation reflects a return to Danish ECEC traditions and, thus, welcomed by most municipalities, practice, unions and other ECEC stakeholders (Togsverd, 2018). However, tension quickly rose amongst them since the foundation also provided a battlefield of interpretation. The foundation’s somewhat vague clauses regarding e.g. children’s continuity to school, how to understand play and learning and how to establish learning environments (see Ministry of Children and Education, 2020) left

stakeholders with very different agendas when working towards implementation of the full curriculum by March 1st 2021.

This research addresses the implementation of the pedagogical foundation in Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark. With an ethnographic approach, the study uses anthropology of policy and Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and shows that there is no direct implementation of the pedagogical foundation into practice.

Rather there are many unforeseen and even surprising acts and endeavors (cf. Sutton & Levinson, 2001), when a national Act moves from design to Danish parliament to local government, unions and leadership to practitioners, parents and children.

The research is part of an extended study that explores the whole chain of translation in which actors transform, interpret and modify the pedagogical foundation (cf. Latour, 2005). However, this paper focuses on the translation of a national pedagogical foundation to a local version. A translation of national values, which is customary in other areas of politics, but unique to a Danish ECEC context where other

municipalities have taken on the national pedagogical foundation as it is.

The translation process was set off by a group of prominent people in Aarhus ECEC, i.e. the head of the daycare association, the pedagogues’ and the assistants’ unions, the local administration (municipality) and the mayor of Children and Youth. The research explores how these competing actors embrace the values put forward in the national pedagogical foundation and are able to come together and establish a strong

“we” (Jenkins, 2014). A perception of unity that stabilizes the network and enables them to translate the national pedagogical foundation into an Aarhus version with the aid from local politics and strategies.

The research addresses the following research questions: How does the national pedagogical foundation translate from national level to a local administrative level? How do actors whose relationships are imbued with tension and conflict cooperate? And why are they keen to do so?


Addressing the above, the research adds to the current dialogue on policy processes and local

implementation of national and European laws and strategies. By using anthropology of policy and ANT, we argue for an approach that advocates a broad analytical perspective, which includes inquiries into the relationship between documents, tools and technologies and the connection to what people say, think and do.


The research rests on the anthropology of policy and ANT. This entails that we put the local pedagogical foundation in the center of a network - and that this network is the focal point of attention in order to understand how and why the local pedagogical foundation is given power and status. Hence, is able to emerge.

First step was to identify the network and limit the scope of study. For this, we studied logs and minutes from meetings and carried out five semi-structured interviews with the members of the group who wrote the local pedagogical foundation. This included the head of the daycare association in Aarhus, the two unions (one for pedagogues; one for assistants), the local administration (municipality) and the mayor of Children and Youth in Aarhus. From these documents and interviews, we limited our research to an Aarhus context and were able to identify further actors in the network. ‘Previous collaboration’ emerged as a key element in the network and data encouraged us to carry out investigations online and follow-up interviews so as to capture how the group had worked together on other occasions and in other fora. Furthermore, several national and local documents appeared as strong actors. The Act on Early Childhood Education and Care (including the national pedagogical foundation) (Ministry of Children and Education, 2020) held a strong position as the main national document and the group’s starting point. Also local documents such as Aarhus ‘Child and Youth politics’ (Aarhus Kommune, 2015) and Children and Youth strategies (e.g. Aarhus Kommune, n.d.) were significant contributors to the network. Thus, all of these documents became part of our data set.

In Actor-Network theory, actors are tied and connected to an almost endlessly amount of actors. During our study, it so followed that actors within the above network connect to further actors who influence them and so contribute to the network too. However, it is peril to limit the scope of research in order to capture the transformation processes of a national pedagogical foundation to a local one. If not, the study becomes unmanageable and is not able to pin point any clear conclusions. On the same token, we are aware of this scope’s limitations and the risk of neglecting actors that may play a significant role. We will address this limitation when we carry out further investigations of the chain of translation - from local administrative level to practice.


The research shows how a network of actors translate the national pedagogical foundation into a local one.

Firstly, it illustrates the profound tension and different agendas and reasons behind writing the local pedagogical foundation. The pedagogues’ union is taken by the local pedagogical foundation’s possibility to apply ‘sound pedagogics’ to practice; the assistants’ union is eager for the foundation to justify a work culture that acknowledges their members’ workforce. The head of the daycare association sees the foundation as a managerial tool that provides heads of ECECs with ways to improve ECEC quality; the local administration (municipality) uses the foundation to establish coherence and so to avoid any discrepancy


between acts, local politics, strategies and initiatives that could spark frustration and dissatisfaction amongst practitioners. And finally, the mayor of Children and Youth uses the foundation to set off political agendas and to put his party and politics on the map.

Secondly, it shows how tension and conflicting interests are tamed and how the head of the daycare association, unions, the local administration (municipality) and the mayor of Children and Youth join forces for the common good of Aarhus. It shows how previous collaboration is a strong actor in the network, one that is able to inform the network with a strong “we” imbued with equality and consensus-seeking

behavior. This taming allows full attention to a local pedagogical foundation that becomes a symbol of unity between them - and one that sets Aarhus apart.

Overall, the research contributes with insights into the intensified political governance in Europe – and, thus, how laws, acts and strategies in education may call for local interpretations. The outcomes and results add to current debates about links between policy and education.


Aarhus, K. (n.d.). Børn og unge på vej mod ’ stærkere fællesskaber ’.

Aarhus, K. (2015). Børn og unge politikken.

Education, M. of C. and. (2020). The strengthened pedagogical curriculum.

Jenkins, R. (2014). Social identity (4th ed.). Oxfordshire, England ; Routledge.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.

Sutton, M., & Levinson, B. (2001). Policy as Practice: Toward a Comparative Sociocultural Analysis of Educational Policy. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Togsverd, L. (2018). Læreplaner på et pædagogisk grundlag. In T. H. Mortensen, & T. Næsby (red.), Den styrkede pædagogiske læreplan: Grundbog til dagtilbudspædagogik (p. 19-34). Dafolo.



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