Reggio Emilia: A Triumph of Maternalism

Updated: Apr 28

Maternalism in the Present

I reached one of those sad watersheds in my life a few weeks ago: my mother died. She didn’t have COVID; she had Alzheimers for nearly a decade, she was ninety-two, and her passing was not unexpected. But as always, such events give rise to reflection. In 2010 as she first began to decline into her final illness, I dedicated my book ‘The Early Years Professional’s Complete Companion’ to her, commenting

‘My mother was born two days after British women finally achieved the franchise on the same basis as men: what a long way both you, and we have travelled in your lifetime.’

Optimistic words. But how far have we really travelled, as women, particularly in our role as mothers?

This is something I explored in one of my chapters in ‘Everyday Social Justice’ in 2019, from the perspective that while women engaging in paid work outside the home gradually became more normalised by socio-political changes in the last quarter of the twentieth century, they still faced a formidable level of social control, particularly in their role as mothers, feeling squeezed between the demands of paid work and family labour, whilst being relentlessly evaluated in both roles; an issue that has grown with the advent of mass online media and social media.

In 2019, Yinka Olusoga and I questioned:

‘A culture of performativity and compliance... make[ing] teachers, children and parents alike feel that they are compelled to comply with its demands...broadcast[ing], in the manner of Star Trek’s Borg collective, ‘Resistance is futile’ – a message designed to ensure mass capitulation.’

McRobbie writes of a “mediated” maternalism which has resulted in ‘previous historical affiliations between social democracy and feminism which aimed to support women as mothers [being] dismantled and discredited’ (McRobbie 2013, p.128).

“Maternalism” (Koven 1993) is a communal alliance between those who work together (including men) to support the well-being of young children, particularly those from socio-economically deprived backgrounds. Its origins track back into history; but at one point in the past, it briefly burned brightly on the national stage, before sinking back into near oblivion in the wake of the Great Depression.

Maternalism in the Past

During the early 1920s, as the rights of women were being hotly debated in Parliament, Inverness-born Margaret McMillan, the founder and manager of an internationally celebrated nursery school, brought together an alliance of apparently powerful women- stiff, aristocratic Queen Mary (1867-1963) and the first two women to serve as MPs in the House of Commons, wealthy socialite Conservative Nancy (Lady) Astor (1879-1964) and serious, committed feminist Liberal Margaret Winteringham (1879-1955) to put the case for state-funded nursery schools on the national agenda (Jarvis and Liebovich 2016).

But despite the apparently high status of this alliance, the venture proved to be perilous, and forms the basis for the insecure status that many early years settings endure in the present. McMillan’s efforts to re-create her practice in a national network of nursery schools did not meet with success due to lack of funding forthcoming from the government, and her sense of failure blighted the final years of her life (Jarvis and Liebovich 2016)

The year after McMillan’s death, her ex-student, Miriam Lord, Superintendent (head teacher) of Lilycroft Nursery in Bradford in 1932, led a protest against Bradford Education Authority’s decision to impose a limit of one-third of a pint of milk a day upon children in their nursery schools. Lord’s nursery was located in an area of great socio-economic deprivation, and for several years she had been allocating one pint per day to each child.

She appealed to Nancy Astor, to put her case to Parliament. Astor obliged, but was over-ruled by the government when the Conservative chairman of the Bradford Elementary Schools sub-committee appealed to the wholly male leadership team of the Conservative government. Lord’s biographer, Ruth Murray (1993, p.12) commented ‘on reading through Hansard one can practically hear the groans of dismay... whenever [Astor] raised the topic of nursery education’.

Miriam Lord was subsequently left to the mercy of Bradford politicians, who demoted her from superintendent of a nursery school to assistant mistress of a nursery class located within an infant school, a post in which she remained until her retirement in 1944 (Jarvis 2016; Murray 1993).

So, has maternalism ever won any resounding victories? For this we have to look to a different historical era, to an education system that arose from the ashes of World War II, conceived and actioned by female activists in Northern Italy, seeking a better future for their young children.

In the aftermath of war: the triumph of maternalism

Five days after the Nazi surrender in 1945, the women of Reggio Emilia determined to build a school for their young children between the ages of three and seven. They were members of two organised associations of women, the Union of Italian Women (UDI), an anti-fascist association founded in 1944, and the Catholic Italian Women’s Centre, created in 1945 (de Haan et al 2013).

Together with young teacher Loris Malaguzzi, the mothers of Reggio Emilia formulated a plan to create their own early years education system in which their children were not required to passively and obediently regurgitate ‘lessons;’ but to develop self-awareness, intolerance of injustice, a sense of equality and the confidence to stand up to an overbearing state or religious institution (Wortham 2013). In this way, they proposed, Italians would never be subjugated and led into disaster as they had been by Mussolini’s fascist regime.

Over several years, the mothers and teachers of Reggio Emilia worked together to produce a model of a child as strong, powerful and competent, confident to develop and explore original ideas and theories in collaboration with others, under the guidance of adults. Children aged between three and seven brought their own original questions into the classroom, from which teachers launched a programme of research around a topic agreed by the group. For example, a question like ‘how does the water get into the tap?’ would result in a range of discovery activities around plumbing, rainfall, water treatment centres and a study of the history of sanitation, amongst other potential lines of investigation.

The Reggio Emilia early years framework, which endures and has spread around the world, has no standardised testing system or fixed curriculum; teachers work by researching topics and learning about them alongside the children. The children are fully aware that adults don’t know everything, but that their greater experience enables them to act as lead researchers in project work.

Teachers’ professional evaluation is conducted on the basis of portfolios produced on the topics that they have researched with the children, which includes examples of children’s work. Adults work collegiately within the Reggio Emilia system, with additional input from parents and local communities, who are welcomed into the classroom to share existing expertise.

What now for Maternalism?

As a contributor to Scotland Upstart’s ‘Play is the Way’ manifesto and an emerging fiction writer currently in the process of publishing a novel rooted in my Scottish ancestry, I am now increasingly hopeful that a similar early years revolution may be emerging in Scotland, rising from the ashes of Brexit and Covid and fuelled by the movement towards Scottish independence.

Scotland has made plans to adopt the UNCRC into their policy for children and families, which has sadly but predictably been challenged by the UK Government, which has sadly lost the leading role it played in children’s rights in the post World War II period.

A United Nations challenge to the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities report stands to have a heavy, negative impact on equality and diversity policies for children. There are also plans afoot for September 2021 to introduce an entry SAT for all England’s four-year-olds:

Baseline’ a flawed data-gathering exercise, which will negatively impact on the youngest pupils in a year when families will still be recovering from the ravages of a pandemic. Sadly, the Westminster government has lost its way.

Scotland by contrast has already explored the Reggio Emilia framework and how it might be applied to a new nursery education phase for three to seven year olds. It is possible that Scotland will provide a beacon in the British Isles, rekindling the flames that were previously extinguished by "malestream" politics? I would like to think that, that as my mother passes out of this world, that the journey begun for women, and for their young children, at the time of her birth is still alive in the land of our ancestors and will continue to shine the light that shows the way.

By Dr Pam Jarvis


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