/ 31 May 2011

‘Cinderellas’ take on presidency

The South African Congress of Early Childhood Development (SACECD), with a membership of 10 000, has planned a national march to the Presidency next month to highlight its concerns around the struggle of early childhood development (ECD) practitioners.

The majority of SACECD centres are located in previously disadvantaged communities and have no access to training, finance and proper buildings. Leonard Saul, the congress’s president, said the aim of the march was to raise grievances relating to the government’s late payment of the R12 a child a day subsidies to ECD centres, a threat by social workers to shut down home-based centres if they are not rezoned as businesses and a lack of funding for the training ECD practitioners.

“We decided to march to the highest office in the land after our attempts to raise our concerns with relevant government departments bore no fruits. We have, for the umpteenth time, met with and written to social workers, provincial MECs and ministers of social development and children, women and people with disabilities,” said Saul.

ECD practitioners teach learners from birth to the age of six. Some centres operate formally whereas others work from backyards. The practitioners consider themselves the “Cinderellas” of the teaching profession because they do not enjoy the government’s basic benefits such as pension, medical and housing allowances, sick, study and annual leave.

Saul believes that early childhood “is the period during which children develop socially, emotionally, physically, psychologically and spiritually faster than in any subsequent development period”. He said “children who attend ECD classes have a better grasp of socialising with others”.

The challenging conditions practitioners work under make it difficult to fulfil the sector’s primary objective of laying a solid learning foundation for children before they start formal schooling. This leads to low morale, with a large number of practitioners leaving the sector to teach mostly in adult basic education and training projects, which seem to enjoy better funding.

“The result of this is that thousands of children in the communities are left without proper care and are exposed to all forms of abuse. This is a worrying development that should not be allowed to get out of hand,” said Saul.

Practitioners find it difficult to fulfil the social workers’ requirement that compels home-based centres to be rezoned. The process is both complex and expensive because rezoning costs R2 000, which “most of our members can hardly afford,” he said. “A vast number of our centres fall in this category and our members cannot raise this amount simply because most parents are unable to pay the mandatory monthly fees that practitioners rely on to run their centres.”

Saul said practitioners are disappointed that the government does not provide them with financial support to upgrade their qualifications. Of the 160 000 practitioners only 20% are qualified. It costs R20 000 for 18 months’ to two years’ training from level one to six or diploma level.

Saul said SACECD wants the government to offer bursaries to ECD practitioners as it does to university students. Although the government provides subsidies for children, it “should make more finance and facilities available for the ECD sector”. In other countries, such as France, Sweden and Israel, the government pays the salaries of teachers and builds good facilities for children.

He said the inconsistent payment of subsidies by the department of social welfare has a negative impact on ECD centres. The congress is waiting for the finalisation of “norms and standards” on ECD, which it is hoped will reconfigure the sector, taking on board issues around career-pathing as well the improvement of conditions of service for the practitioners.

Responding to concerns raised by the SACECD, the department of social development’s Abram Phahlamohlaka said their role is limited to regulating the establishment, registration and monitoring or inspection of ECD centres and that subsidies are paid through their provincial offices.

Phahlamohlaka said payment of subsidies is “dependent on the availability of budget” and that the department is trying to address the challenge of a lack of a standardised subsidy amount. Some provinces pay a minimum of R12 and some R15 maximum.

On the rezoning of ECD centres, Phahlamohlaka said it is a legal and legislative requirement for communities to “establish their centres in the demarcated areas rather than within their premises”.