/ 27 February 2006

Rethink the early childhood development policy

Results of the education department’s literacy and numeracy survey reveals that Grade 3 pupils are not up to scratch. Some are not even at Grade 1 level, and many pupils are falling far short of what is required at school. That this situation is untenable is not disputed. What is disputed is the solution. Fortunately, a proven programme and sustainable solution is at hand. This involves expanding the provision of early childhood development (ECD) programmes for young children.

ECD refers to the physical, emotional, social and cognitive development of children aged birth to nine years. While our government has done more than any previous government for young children, efforts still fall far short of what is needed to provide young children with an optimal start to lifelong learning.

International research, corroborated by a number of South African studies, shows empirical evidence that good quality early childhood development experiences produce significant social, economic and develop-mental benefits to children, families and communities. A child who attends a good quality early childhood learning programme enters formal schooling:

– More confident;

– More likely to proceed through school without repeating a grade;

– Less likely to need remedial education;

– Less likely to be involved in crime; and

– More likely to find paid employment as an adult

In addition, young girls who attend early learning programmes are less likely to become pregnant while in their teens.

American researchers David Weikart and Larry Schweinhart quantified these benefits in dollar terms. They calculated that each dollar spent on ECD produces a cost saving to society of R104. This return on investment is remarkable, and holds for developing countries too.

Yet our national and provincial education authorities, while doing much more than any pre-1994 government, nevertheless continue to limit young children’s access to ECD programmes through inadequate policy, strategy and practice.

A nationwide ECD survey in 2000, led by the Centre for Early Childhood Development, found that 23 482 early learning sites provided services for 1 030 473 young children, of which more than 90% was provided by community groups. This represents 17% of the birth to six-year-old population, and means that 83% of children under the age of six years — 5,3million children — do not benefit from a structured early learning programme in a positive learning environment.

Some young children grow up in environ-ments and circumstances where parents are able to devote considerable time to their children’s early education needs. In these homes, books, magazines and newspapers are readily available and are read to children. Counting games and pre-numeracy activities also take place, which encourages the development of numeracy skills.

But for families where poverty abounds, the situation is very different. Stretched for time and resources, these parents are not able to provide their children with an optimal environment for the development of literacy and numeracy.

If less than half of all children aged birth to six years need a structured learning environment away from the home during the day, it is estimated that some 2,7million of our poorest children are not being provided with the essential head start to formal education.

As a result, most of these children enter Grade 1 not having experienced even one year of a structured learning programme.

Government’s Grade R programme is an attempt to meet this deficit, but it is too little, too late. Education White Paper number 5, released in 2001, plans to ensure that every child will receive at least one year of Grade R education prior to entering Grade 1 by 2010. But intervention is needed even before children reach Grade R.

Government policy only allows for government-assisted provision with minimal financial support. Less than 1% of the education budget is allocated to ECD, and the National Treasury medium-term expenditure framework figures suggest further real decline in the years ahead.

The draft Norms and Standards for Grade R Funding, published in 2005, does little to improve the situation. Under this proposal, poor children will still receive substantially less than what is required to sustain a good quality early learning environment. Grade R educators are still treated as second-class citizens and are paid up to seven times less than their colleagues teaching higher grades.

The resulting poor performance of learners in Grade 3 and beyond is a concern for all. It is a direct result of inadequate ECD policy, systems, resourcing and implementation plans. The policy is also flawed. The system does little to increase access to or improve the quality of ECD programmes. Resources provided are minimal and provincial implementation plans, where they exist, are flawed.

The pervasive problems of poverty are not easily eradicated. But some of the issues alluded to in the literacy and numeracy survey are a direct result of the present inadequate ECD policy.

The worst literacy and numeracy results are found in the most disadvantaged schools, where resources are non-existent, where class size substantially exceeds what is acceptable and where the educator is minimally trained and earns between nothing (in some rural communities) and R1 500 (usually in urban areas) a month.

Opportunities for the development of literacy and numeracy skills of learners are limited as teachers most often do not have the skills, resources, materials or time to work on this with young children.

A radical rethink of ECD policy, strategy and practice is needed at a national level. Non-government organisations with many years of experience and much expertise can add value here. Our organisations are willing and able to make a huge contribution to meeting the needs of our youngest children.

To assist Minister of Education Naledi Pandor in the huge challenges ahead, we offer two suggestions. First, establish a national task team, consisting of competent and innovative ECD educators to advise on policy, strategy and practice. Second, make a much greater investment in education at the level that produces the greatest social and economic return — the early years.

Eric Atmore is the director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development and national director of the National Early Childhood Development Alliance