Over past decades, the face of Australian early childhood education and care (ECEC)has changed substantially. It has been shaped by two dominant policy discourses: the discourse of market theory, and, more recently, the discourse of parent and community participation. The intertwining of these two seemingly opposing\ud \ud discourses has led to the positioning of parents both as consumers of ECEC and as participants in ECEC. Each of these perspectives promotes a particular way of fulfilling the role of parent in ECEC. Reflecting general marketing principles, the primary role of parent as consumer is seen as selecting the right service for their child and family. In contrast, while arguably more ambiguous in meaning, the role of\ud \ud parent as participant promotes a partnership approach, and, increasingly, parental\ud \ud involvement in decision making at both service and public policy levels. Each of\ud \ud these roles has been constructed for parents by governments and policymakers, with\ud \ud little reference to the views and experiences of parents using ECEC.\ud \ud \ud \ud Seeking to address this gap in the ECEC knowledge base, the present study investigated the qualitatively different ways in which parents constitute their role in Australian ECEC. The study focused on two related aspects of the role of parents: (1) the role of parents in using ECEC services; and (2) the role of parents in shaping ECEC public policy. To describe these roles, as viewed and experienced by parents, and to reveal possible variation therein, the study engaged a phenomenographic\ud \ud research approach (Bowden & Walsh, 2000; Marton & Booth, 1997).\ud \ud \ud \ud Twenty-six parents participated in the study. Data were gathered through semistructured\ud \ud interviews with individual parents and subjected to a rigorous process of phenomenographic analysis. The study results are presented in two parts. With respect to the role of parents using ECEC, the study led to the construction of five\ud \ud categories of description, denoting five distinctly different ways of seeing and\ud \ud experiencing this role. The role of parents was seen as: (1) selecting and using the\ud \ud best service for their child (the service user conception); (2) knowing what's happening for their child in the service (the informed user conception); (3) paying for a service, and, thereby, enacting certain consumer rights (the consumer conception); (4) supporting their selected service and having some say in what happens for their child at the service (the partnership conception); and (5) working as a member of the service community for the benefit of all concerned, which includes participating in\ud \ud decision making (the member of a service community conception). Taking a broader\ud \ud perspective, the study again revealed variation in how parents constituted their role in\ud \ud shaping ECEC policy, leading to the construction of four categories of description.\ud \ud The role of parents was seen as: (1) no role in shaping ECEC public policy (the no\ud \ud role conception); (2) being informed about policy that affects their child and family,\ud \ud raising any concerns and/or seeking a change to current or proposed policy (the\ud \ud raising concerns conception); (3) having some say in policy matters that affect their\ud \ud child and family (the having some say conception); and (4) participating in policy\ud \ud decision making, particularly where this is likely to affect their child and family (the\ud \ud participating in policy decision making conception).\ud \ud \ud \ud The study highlights variation in how these roles are constituted by parents, inclusive\ud \ud of the basic concepts of parent as consumer and parent as participant. In addition, the\ud \ud study offers an insider perspective on these two "dominant common-sense understandings" (Vincent & Martin, 2000, p. 2) of the role of parents, prompting questions about their future in ECEC policy. As an example of "developmental\ud \ud phenomenography" (Bowden, 2000b, p. 3), the study also identifies factors perceived\ud \ud by parents as influencing their participation at various levels, and discusses implications for both policy and practice. Finally, the study extends the general phenomenographic area of interest, from education to public policy research. Within this area, phenomenography is seen to offer a useful and pragmatic research tool, facilitating the identification and consideration of different constituent views and\ud \ud experiences, and, thereby, signifying more possible options for action
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