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Suffer, little children

Freshly painted in yellow and blue, Kamohelo Preschool in the township of Rammolutse at Viljoenskroon in the Free State, stands out from the row of shacks that surrounds it. This early childhood development (ECD) centre is, like so many dotted around South Africa, struggling to provide an education foundation to preschoolers in the bleak terrain of dire poverty.

Kamohelo creatively overcomes such limits by using objects ordinarily destined for the rubbish bin for educational purposes. Just about every conceivable container — from empty toothpaste tubes to washing-powder boxes — is transformed into useful parts of the ECD environment.

‘We find this to be cost-effective as we can’t afford to buy new teaching equipment,” says Maria Leraisa, who runs the facility. Her centre scrapes through on the R35 she charges monthly for each of the 15 children aged between three and six — although the high unemployment rate means parents don’t always pay. ‘I do understand their situation, but I also need money to survive,” she says. ‘I just lost a helper because she was not getting paid.”

Every iota of space in Kamohelo features recycled materials put together to resemble the world outside. There is a ‘home” where kids play out real-life home scenarios and a ‘shop” stocked with a variety of ‘products” where the children learn product identification, the various denominations of money, and the mathematics of working out change.

There is overwhelming evidence that children exposed to this sort of learning environment early in their lives are likely to perform better when they start formal schooling.

But despite this, a report by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) released in December last year stresses again that government underfunding is one of the most serious barriers to the adequate provision of ECD. The report says there is a ‘paucity” of funding committed to the ECD sector, with the result that many of the centres are forced to close.

The report also points out: ‘Nationally, the average per capita spending on ECD in 2003/04 was approximately R309, while the per capita spending in the public school budget was approximately R4 243.”

This means per capita spending on public schooling is more or less 11 times higher than for ECD.

ECD centres such as Kamohelo do not qualify for the Department of Social Welfare and Population Development grant, because they do not meet the requirements, such as having toilets, a kitchen, a fence, a management committee, a constitution, and a certificate to prove that it is a non-profit outfit and that it operates a bank account.

A nearby ECD centre, Boiteko, does receive the grant.

For each of the 63 children at the centre (charged R45-a-month school fees), Boiteka receives R6 per child per month, 60% of which has to pay for food, and 40% for learning and teaching materials.

The lack of full support and involvement by other government institutions also impact negatively on the capacity of some ECD centres to achieve some measure of success. Despite providing the land on which Boiteko is based, the local municipality has still not provided the centre with basic necessities, such as electricity and water. Boiteko has to pay R50 per month to a neighbour who gives it water.

But even for these grant-supported centres, survival is difficult. Pulane Smit, who runs Boiteko, says by the time it has paid its monthly bills, there is little left for her and her two colleagues to take home as salaries.

A further issue that affects both Kamohelo and Boiteko is that of training. All the ECD practitioners at these two centres received training from an non-governmental organisation (NGO), Ntataise. Their experience is confirmation of an audit on the levels of training for ECD practitioners in selected provinces conducted by Idasa in 200. Most ECD practitioners are poorly trained and a large percentage of the few with training rely on NGOs.

Another issue impeding ECD delivery identified in the report is that of provincial control over budgeting and provision. ‘The fragmentation of provincial ECD service delivery is a serious indictment on the ability of a national policy framework to impose a uniform vision … it has made the monitoring of national policy problematic, because there is no one national standard against which to measure progress or failure,” says the report.

Although the government’s White Paper on Early Childhood Education extols the value of ECD education, it is hardly backed up by its actions. ECD centres such asKamohelo and Boiteko have their work cut out for them to avoid falling into the cracks before the ECD terrain firms up — apparently at some time in the distant future.

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Thabo Mohlala
Guest Author

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