Is it possible to have relevant curriculum in an unequal society? This was the fundamental question posed recently at the University of the Free State by Professor Helen Penn, co-director of the International Centre for the Study of Mixed Economy in Childcare in the United Kingdom. For Penn, the broader context of early childhood in which a curriculum is located must be understood before considering curriculum design and delivery.
She was speaking at a seminar hosted by the University of the Free State’s early childhood and foundation phase department in September. The seminar launched the department’s vision, “Shaping Strong Foundations for Young Children”, and focused on the curriculum for birth to four years, developed in the Free State by a partnership involving the Flemish government, the provincial department of education and the university, a collaboration that includes materials development and practitioner training.
In the three days preceding the seminar a mixed group of international early childhood experts, academics, practitioners, government and non-governmental organisations visited early childhood centres in varying socioeconomic contexts in different parts of the Free State. To stimulate thought on curriculum in the early years, international experts presented papers on world views, inequality, indigenous curriculum perspectives and child participation.
During our visits to early childhood centres throughout the Free State the contexts of inequality that Penn raised were especially evident in relation to problems deriving from unequal provision and distribution of resources. We visited centres where parents were paying R40 a month. At these sites provision was questionable, with poor infrastructure and resources, large adult-child ratios and untrained staff. The opposite was clear at centres where parents were paying R1?000 a month.
Creating a sense of belonging
Such variable conditions are bound to affect young children’s lives and chances very differently. And, within such inequality, issues of social justice and children’s rights will override a focus on curriculum.
However, when the curriculum for the early years is considered, world views and context cannot be ignored. The curriculum should take into account the parents’ needs and countries’ priorities and aspirational goals, among other things. Dr Vanessa Paki’s presentation on New Zealand’s curriculum for Maori children showed how specific curriculum choices were made to create a sense of belonging in an indigenous group of people. But in South Africa the curriculum for the early years draws heavily on imported models. This results in tension between the different stakeholders about the expectations, the goals and the content of early education.
A good curriculum has to operate within a functional policy framework. In conversations during the week it was evident that many frustrations were experienced because of the division or fragmentation of responsibilities for driving the early-years’ curriculum. Because care and education are integrated in the early childhood curriculum, it would make sense for the government departments of education, health and social development to foster strong ties with one another for a shared response. But it was clear that the structural arrangements for birth to four years make communication and co-ordination difficult for an integrated curriculum response. The seminar accordingly worked towards producing a plan of action and three top priorities for action to build strong foundations for the curriculum and beyond emerged:
First, there has to be a proper audit of where early childhood is situated in policy, plans, strategies and, more importantly, in practical realities. This assessment would assist to identify assets and gaps;
Second, a vision needs to be clarified and promoted through strong advocacy. It is critical to ask questions such as: What does high-quality early childhood care and education mean to South Africa? What do the various stakeholders and role-players in the field want for young children, now and for the future? What role does curriculum play in shaping strong foundations for our goals and priorities? How should the curriculum be designed and implemented for quality early care and education?
Third, an agenda must be set for action towards that vision. This will entail paying attention to structural adjustments for integrated action, partnerships to create equal conditions, attention to women’s contribution to the economy and childcare provision, strong leadership, rigorous research to provide evidence for action, quality teacher training and, finally, action with a strong monitoring and evaluation component.
The focus on poor and vulnerable children should be the highest priority.
Hasina Ebrahim is an associate professor in the University of the Free State’s education faculty, where she is discipline leader of early childhood and foundation phase education. She is deputy president of the South African Research Association for Early Childhood Education.