Thousands of children will continue to lose out on a year of pre-schooling because of the lack of political will and the failure of provincial departments to implement a goal set in 2001, according to education experts.
In documents in possession of the Mail & Guardian the education department concedes that a lack of capacity at district and provincial levels, a shortage of classrooms and budget cuts are among the reasons why it cannot meet its 2010 target of providing all children with a year of pre-schooling, known as grade R, or the reception year.
In his June 3 state of the nation address President Jacob Zuma shifted the goalposts by announcing that the provision of grade R to all children will be attained by 2014.
Education experts see grade R as critical preparation for formal schooling as it centres on developing perceptual skills and self-confidence and lays the foundations for ongoing learning. It has been argued that children who attend grade R are likely to complete 12 years of formal schooling.
In its 2001 Education White Paper Five on Early Childhood Development, the department said: ”Our policy target is that by 2010 all learners who enter grade one should have participated in an accredited reception year programme.” The target was to have 990 500 learners in grade R by 2010.
Former finance minister Trevor Manuel said in his February 2008 budget speech: ”This budget prioritises school building, early childhood education, school books and educator remuneration … The expansion of early childhood education to about 600 000 more children will put basic pre-school education within reach of even the poorest households.”
However, in documents circulated to the provinces, the department said that ”… due to limited resources such as limited budgets, limited physical space and human resource constraints, the target for universal grade R by 2010 will in many instances not be met”. Only the Western Cape and Gauteng indicated that they could meet the target.
Other problems include irregular payment of teachers and the supply and retention of grade R staff because of low stipends.
The department said that grade R is a sector priority and should be treated accordingly. ”Within the restrictions of available funding it is critical to ensure that funding which is made available is planned for and is spent effectively to ensure optimum delivery.”
Eric Atmore, who heads Cape Town’s Centre for Early Childhood Development, said the consequences are that ”a vast number of learners will go into grade R unprepared. They will struggle with literacy, numeracy and life skills. They are more likely to drop out before the end of grade nine and enter a cycle of poverty like their parents and their parents’ parents.” Others could keep failing grades and may require remedial education.
”With the correct political will and resources there can be universal grade R by 2010,” he said, pointing out that there was no budget, implementation plan or performance measurements for the programme.
”It was doomed from the start. I’ve told this to the last two education ministers,” he said.
Atmore said that less than 1% of the education budget goes into grade R. ”It costs R140 per capita to keep a man in prison a day. It costs between R3 and R6 a day to keep a grade R child in school for 195 school days … If the president says double the budget for grade R, it will happen.”