Dyer, Mary A. (2018) What does it mean to be an early years practitioner: an investigation into the professional identity of graduate early years practitioners. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

This study explores the impact of government-driven change (DfEE, 198; DfES, 2006, DCSF, 2008; DfE, 2017b), within a sector largely comprising privately owned and managed organisations, on how individual practitioners understand their role and their professional identity. Workforce reform strategies included the introduction of sector-endorsed degrees to promote the use of critical reflection to raise the quality of practice, a skill understood to develop confidence, autonomy and agency in practitioners (Moss, 2006; Osgood, 2010), for which a personal vision of practice (Dyer and Taylor, 2012) is required. This raises a potential tension between the empowering nature of reflection, and expectations of compliance with government-led standards and practice guidance.

This study explores how this shapes graduate practitioners’ understanding and articulation of professional identity, and their understanding of their professional status and agency. 23 semi-structured interviews were conducted, within which participants shared narratives of their practice experience, discussing what they considered to be strong and weak practice, and how they prioritised the different aspects of their role. These were analysed using the Listening Guide (Doucet and Mauthner, 2008), an approach selected for its effectiveness in drawing attention to the voice and the stories of narrators, to understand how they perceive their world and themselves within it. The data analysis draws on literature exploring the nature of early years practice, power relations within the sector, and the formation of professions.

This study shows that these participants understand professionalism and their role in terms of the relationships they form within their own organisations, privileging interpersonal skills over abstract, high level knowledge, and presenting these as personal values rather than professional ethics. By using Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; 1986), this study identifies that these participants engage with their sector largely within the micro-and meso-systems of early years practice, limiting their agency as a professional workforce. It is isolation, rather than lack of knowledge, that restricts their agency, from other practitioners within the workforce, from the politics that drive change within the sector, and also from the research community that produces the knowledge they use to underpin their practice.

This study concludes with curricular and pedagogic implications for professional educators within the sector, and also identifies how the workforce itself might more closely engage with the wider systems that impact on their sector.

Mary Dyer FINAL THESIS.PDF - Accepted Version
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