Much work appears to have gone into the draft preschool curriculum framework the department of basic education recently published for comment. But unfortunately it misses the mark on a number of levels.
Government officials are currently reviewing responses with a view to publishing the final framework by the end of the year. Meanwhile, many in the early childhood development (ECD) sector are urging them to spend more time reflecting and consulting in order to ensure the final product makes a real difference for children.
The draft document is 140 pages long, dense and complicated — unusable as a practical resource for most of the thousands of carers in crèches and preschools around the country. In addition, not enough specialists in the different ECD fields were involved in the drafting process, and consultation with those at the coalface of delivery was inadequate.
One of the consequences is that the document pays insufficient attention to questions about how young children learn and develop, while being far too prescriptive about what they should learn.
Another consequence is that some of the subject content itself is problematic. Early language development is at the heart of childhood learning and central to young children's wellbeing and development. But the guidelines on early language and literacy learning are not in line with prevailing best practice, and are often confusing and contradictory.
In South Africa, we are only just beginning to grasp the transformative potential of quality ECD services. We are behind the curve. Other countries recognised long ago that ECD is an investment in the wellbeing of individual children that becomes an investment in the wellbeing of our whole society.
Gaining the most
Research shows that children who benefit from high-quality ECD programmes are less likely to repeat grades or need special educational support, and are more likely to finish high school and continue their studies. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds gain most.
And the benefits last. Researchers in the United States found that children who enrolled in a quality preschool programme ultimately earned significantly more than those who had not and were also less likely to be involved in crime.
Because of these long-term advantages, according to economists, spending on high-quality ECD programmes gives more value for money than the equivalent spending on primary and later stages of education. In other words, it generates greater social returns, such as less crime, and greater economic returns, such as lower spending on health and welfare.
Crucially, however, the significant positive impacts of ECD programmes do not hold true for all programmes. Many have been shown to have no lasting impact on children's development and learning — or worse still, a detrimental impact. Quality is key.
Yet, in South Africa, the question of quality has been overshadowed by a spotlight on infrastructure and access. Although these are important, there is little point in working hard to increase participation in ECD services if these services are not actually improving outcomes for children.
So what are the ingredients of quality? The evidence suggests that the most effective early years programmes have clear curriculum guidelines and learning goals, use teaching methods that are based on what we know about how children learn, use age-appropriate resources and are delivered by skilled practitioners. Significantly, they also engage and support parents in meaningful ways.
In addition, language-rich environments that support early literacy are an important feature of effective programmes, and help to build the foundations for later academic success. Many children from disadvantaged communities start school already behind, precisely because they have missed out on these vital opportunities. The result is that the achievement gap becomes entrenched from the earliest years, and the education system creaks beneath the strain of teachers struggling to make up for lost time.
Part of the problem is that for many years in South Africa there has been a widespread and mistaken belief that learning to read and write begins in school. The truth is that the process starts at birth. An infant's brain is very impressionable and it is much easier to learn some skills, including language, during the early years. What's more, learning is cumulative; early skills provide the building blocks for the acquisition of new skills and so on throughout a child's life.
Despite a vast body of evidence showing that early literacy development is a process that happens over time, the draft curriculum reinforces the myth that it is the grade one teacher who will teach children to read and write. In this sense it diminishes the potential role of caregivers and quality ECD programmes in breaking cycles of underachievement and disadvantage.
Given the right knowledge and resources, parents and ECD practitioners have a crucial role to play in supporting early literacy — but not through formal teaching. Learning at this age happens across activities and experiences as children seek to make sense of their world. Playing, talking, doing, singing, exploring, interacting and sharing stories and books are the main learning tools of the young child. These types of activities also help children to develop other important skills for learning, such as self-regulation and motivation.
Seventeen ECD organisations, academics and professionals have made a joint submission to the formal consultation on the draft curriculum. Their central message to the government? Spend more time on getting this right; be clear about the practical purpose and end uses of the document; and speak to the experts to ensure that the final product really does improve outcomes.
Failure to do so will mean another missed opportunity to raise the quality of all ECD programmes — another missed opportunity to ensure that all young children have the foundations in place to achieve their fullest potential.
High-quality ECD programmes can play a central role in breaking the cycle of poverty and wasted potential in South Africa and creating a society that is better for everyone. Although the new curriculum framework will ultimately only be as good as the training and resources that accompany it, if we can get ECD right, it could change all our futures.
Rebecca Hickman is a policy and advocacy consultant, with a special interest in education and ECD. Shelley O'Carroll is the founder and director of Wordworks, a non-profit organisation that works with parents, teachers, community volunteers and home visitors to strengthen early language and literacy learning. Their recent series of briefings on supporting early language and literacy learning can be downloaded from the Wordworks website: www.wordworks.org.za