The department of education is dragging its feet in tackling the massive backlog in the early childhood development (ECD) field which was inherited from the apartheid government, according to experts and practitioners in the sector.
This inaction is demoralising for thousands of ECD practitioners who are keen to be integrated into the mainstream teaching profession.
The ECD practitioners hope this move will improve their conditions of service by giving them access to state benefits and put an end to the late or irregular payment of salaries.
At present ECD practitioners are excluded from enjoying state benefits such as medical aid, housing allowances and sick, study and maternity leave, among others.
But the problems crippling the sector are more wide-ranging than practitioners’ conditions of service.
Topping the list of priorities is the persistent under-funding of the sector, such as an inadequate resource provision to ECD facilities and the limited training for unqualified and under-qualified teachers.
Yet, ECD is a critical phase for children. Studies by the education department have found that there is a relationship between a high failure rate in schools and learners’ exposure to a learning environment prior to grade one.
“The battle for matric is lost in grade R,” says Elsie Calitz of the Association for the Education and Care of Young Children.
She blames some of the problems in the sector on the decision by the department to abolish the registration of ECD facilities 10 years ago, which led to widespread confusion as some of the ECD facilities operated without being linked to primary schools.
Ideally, ECD outfits should be attached to schools to get access to the schools’ existing infrastructure and benefit from a range of state services. The education department would also be in a position to monitor their operations and provide in-service training to the facilitators>
But the abolition of registration of ECD facilities led to unregistered outfits mushrooming with little or no regard for basic operating rules and standards. This has happened at the expense of children, says Calitz.
She adds that there are committed ECD practitioners, but they have to be empowered and paid a decent salary.
Eric Atmore, director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development in Cape Town, agrees. “Practitioners are paid ‘poverty salaries’ and are undervalued,” he says.
“The result is that we cannot attract quality educators to the ECD sector. It is also the least protected sector in the country and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act is ignored by most employers.”
Atmore believes there is no single defined strategy in place to cover children up to six years of age.
“It is still fragmented between the departments of education and social development, with (the) health (department) playing a minimal role.”
The Institute for Democracy in South Africa’s education specialist, Russell Wildman, says the the problem has says the problem has to
do with the existing school funding norms policy.
“The effect of this is that the extension of ECD to public schools is run on a shoestring budget and provinces baulk at channeling funds towards ECD programmes because of the high wage bill. Instead, they use the money to address other competing social needs.”
He says the danger is that the quality of ECD education is compromised because no funds are committed for either ECD teacher training or the provision of suitable learning facilities.
In its reaction, the department expressed confidence in the “strides that have been made in the ECD sector”.
Says Palesa Tyobeka, deputy director general of general education and training: “There is significant progress, particularly in the five-year-old age group. The recently released Community Survey reflects that whereas in 1996 only 22,5% of the five-year-old population attended an educational institution, in 2007 this figure rose to 80,9%.”
Commenting specifically on the contentious salary issue, Tyobeka says: “Currently, plans are under way to develop national guidelines for the conditions of service for grade R teachers and the department of social development is developing norms and standards for the registration of ECD sites.”