/ 16 November 2014

State robs children of best chance

State Robs Children Of Best Chance
South Africa does not even have 60 child and adolescent psychiatry specialists and only 20 are in the public sector. (Illustrations: John McCann)

Public investment in education in South Africa is one of the highest in the world. Yet government funding for early childhood development (ECD) is one of the lowest, with only 2% of public funds being invested in children up to the age of five.  

Only 32% (about 1.5-million) of children in the zero-to-four-year-old age group attended ECD centres, a 2012 South African Institute for Race Relations survey showed. And the August 2013 national audit of ECD provision found that 91% of the centres were not following a standardised national curriculum.  

This audit also discovered that teachers did not have the necessary qualifications, equipment and supplies were inadequate, as were health and safety measures, and grade R provision was found wanting. 

The ECD service is geared more towards childminding than a comprehensive preparation for learning programme.  The 2011 National Development Plan vision for 2030 identified ECD as a priority and is committed to improving service provision in this area.  

The department for basic education is to become solely responsible for the implementation of the ECD programme, according to the plan. 

Currently, ECD falls under the auspices of the department for social development, which has, so far, proved ineffectual in ensuring the key aspects of early childhood development are provided. 

The scale of what is required to overhaul the ECD service is beyond the scope and capacity of what social development can provide, and hence the proposal that it be transferred to the basic education department, which has the capacity to transform this programme.  

Of great concern is the continued failure of the social development and basic education departments to recognise and implement the stipulations of the National Development Plan. 

Millions of rands have already been wasted on ill-planned and ineffectual government implementation of education services.  It is probable that more resources and investment in the current management of ECD will meet the same fate if this situation is not remedied.  

Unless the fundamentals are put in place a reshaping of the system will prove untenable.  There are several main areas that need to be addressed to improve the service. 

This entails restructuring the ECD programme, providing the necessary training for teachers, management and governing bodies, ensuring the timely provision of age appropriate learning materials and equipment, and mother tongue education with English introduced as a second language.  

This is essential given the fact that zero-to-four are the most crucial years for a child’s brain development and even more so if the child is vulnerable and exposed to poverty indicators such as malnutrition, conflict and other forms of toxic stress. 

The fundamentals that children lack in these critical early years will put them at a disadvantage later on when they struggle to catch up to their wealthier counterparts who have acquired the necessary basics to negotiate subsequent higher levels of learning successfully.  

Research has shown that a child’s brain experiences its most dynamic and rapid period of growth in these early years and is in need of a stable and supportive environment in which to flourish.  

This includes healthy nutrition, adequate stimulation, security and nurturance without which strong physical and cognitive development and the ability to learn later in life will be severely compromised. 

Hence intervention at this time of growth and development is most effective and vital.  According to Anthony Lake, the United Nations Children’s Fund executive director, and Dr Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organisation, interventions, especially in cases where children are exposed to toxic stress, should be intersectoral.  

This entails focusing on brain development but including other elements in the child’s environment such as nutrition and health.  Providing prenatal care is an important factor, as well as supporting the mother during the child’s early years through to adolescence (when brain development and neural connections are consolidated) to encourage bonding and optimum caregiving.  

It is extremely difficult and costly to offset the negative impact of early childhood deprivation on the brain. This is why an investment in robust and well-planned, community-driven early childhood development programmes is needed to facilitate a healthier quality of life and social, emotional, cognitive and physical wellbeing.  

The benefits of quality early childhood provision will manifest in increased school enrolment and reduced dropout rates, lower levels of antisocial behaviour and, most importantly, fewer 18- to 24-year-olds who are “neets” (not in education, employment or training). With further education and employment comes higher earning power, which will bring about great social and economic benefits to this country. 

The Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa is addressing these issues in court, because of the recalcitrance of the government. We believe that litigating is the best way to ensure that the duly accepted and adopted national policy on ECD (among other areas) is enforced. 

There is no well-directed political will in place.  The delay of the two ministries in acknowledging the shortcomings of the current system and their failure to take action is committing yet another cohort of young people to a life of frustrated attempts at learning, limited opportunities, unemployment or poor earning potential and anger at the lack of investment in their future, all of which will be felt in the failure of the economy to thrive with such an unskilled workforce.  

The sad state of education has long been a core political issue. The uprising of June 16 1976 and the subsequent annual Youth Day national holiday is a key reminder of the struggle for access to equal and adequate education. 

With South Africa’s transition from resistance to governance 20 years ago came new hope that the stark inequalities and poverty would be remedied through our renowned Constitution and Bill of Rights.  

Yet 20 years on this country is failing to provide adequate education for our youth, with many of them dropping out of school early or still illiterate by the time they reach matric. 

This renders them unskilled and ill-equipped to move on to further education, to tackle the job market effectively and to end the cycle of inequality and poverty. Section C29 (1) of the Bill of Rights states that all children (and adults) have a right to basic education — and that includes ECD. 

Education is a basic right that should be granted to all children with immediate effect because it is not based on the availability of resources.  Through effective early childhood provision we are empowering communities, reducing inequality and enabling children and their families to move out of poverty and to break the cycle that plagues the majority of people.  

The government must be held accountable for its poor efforts in this regard as we have entrusted these leaders to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.  

Blaming the apartheid era for the current nondelivery of the fundamentals of early childhood development will not do.  

It is time for the social development and basic education departments to take responsibility and to make the necessary changes with immediate effect to ensure that effective, well-planned and well-resourced ECD is provided to our children.  

Gail Washkansky, a psychologist, is operations officer at the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa