Unsung and underpaid

The quality of early childhood development (ECD) programmes depends heavily on the knowledge and skills of those who work with young children. It follows that ECD practitioners require continual opportunities for high-quality training.

Despite this, little has changed since the government’s nationwide ECD audit in 2000 revealed that the vast majority of practitioners were underqualified (58%) or untrained (23%).

The 1994 ANC policy framework noted that “improving the quality of ECD provisioning will depend on improving the quality of ECD staff and curricula”. The policy noted that all ECD teachers should have access to a defined career path with accredited training programmes linked to nationally recognised certificates.

Before 1994 the care and education of young children was the responsibility of communities, civil society organisations, parents and welfare organisations.
After apartheid, and following the establishment of the South African Qualifications Authority (Saqa), ECD qualifications were given special attention, highlighting redress and access.

As part of this process Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) became a key priority, but very little has actually been done to make redress and access a reality for those who continue to be the unsung heroes of ECD provision: mainly black African women.

There is international consensus on the need for specialised training for ECD practitioners, but a career path for such practitioners remains elusive in South Africa. ECD continues to be facilitated largely by black women who are not professionally recognised, whose work is undervalued and who are not remunerated fairly and equitably in comparison with mainstream educators. ECD practitioners are among the most vulnerable workers in the economy and the ECD sector itself remains marginalised and fragmented.

The first attempt at developing a career path for ECD practitioners resulted in ECD-specific qualifications being registered by Saqa in 2001. These were defined at different levels and included a basic certificate (which has expired), a national certificate (later replaced by the further education and training certificate) and a national diploma. Changes to these qualifications since then have been complex and detailed, but we can generalise by noting Saqa’s and the then department of education’s rationale that such changes attempted to raise ECD standards and professionalise the field.

In spite of these developments government’s focus is too narrowly on the reception year (grade R for five- to six-year-olds). Training and support for practitioners working with our youngest and most vulnerable children between birth and four years still receives inadequate attention. Some training support has been provided for this group of practitioners through government’s expanded public works programme, but not at the scale required.

Moreover, there are still ECD practitioners who do not meet the new qualifications criteria. But because there has been no national ECD audit since 2000, and in spite of Saqa’s attempt at provincial consultation, we do not know how many practitioners still require training at the lower levels of qualification. And many ECD practitioners are not even aware of the changes to qualifications since 2001.

Although the further education and training certificate in ECD is intended to provide the basis for continuous learning and to enable practitioners to progress to higher education and training, a number of constraints hamper this. For instance, each university has its own entrance requirements recognising some but not other ECD qualifications, meaning that many already in the field do not qualify for admission.

Bearing in mind also that ECD practitioners generally earn between R500 and R2 500 a month and that some take home only whatever parent committees manage to pay them, universities are prohibitively expensive for them, costing about R100 000 for four years of tuition alone, excluding textbooks. Some practitioners need six to 10 years part-time training to upgrade their qualifications.

The reality is that NGOs remain the largest provider of education and training in the ECD sector and that qualifications that were introduced to provide access and redress for previously disadvantaged ECD practitioners still fail to do so.

If the ECD sector is to grow, it must become more attractive as a career option. Here are some suggestions about where to go from here:


  • Improve the learning pathway for ECD qualification while considering the reality on the ground. For instance, there are many adult learners who have progressed through an ECD occupational route and who are not mainstream grade 12 learners;

  • The learning pathways must take into account the different age cohorts within the internationally accepted definition of ECD—that is, from zero to nine years old—so that the variety of ECD provisioning and contexts (such as centre-based versus home-based models) is recognised;

  • Universities must work with the education, development and training Seta to ensure that training providers (including NGOs) address both career pathing (including that of trainers) and the standardisation of training curricula;

  • Many NGOs have years of experience in training ECD practitioners and universities need to recognise their Saqa-registered qualifications at level four so that practitioners do not start from the beginning;

  • The conditions of service and especially the remuneration of ECD practitioners cries out for attention;

  • Scholarships, loans and learnership options available to mainstream educators should be made available to ECD practitioners;

  • The professionalisation of ECD is long overdue. We need a statutory body to regulate the field, develop norms and standards and advocate on behalf of ECD practitioners; and

  • Government must update the findings of the 2000 ECD national audit and facilitate discussion with all ECD players.

Patsy Pillay is the director of New Beginnings, an early childhood development and training organisation in KwaZulu-Natal. She was recently appointed the South ­African national representative for the World Forum on Early Care and Education

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