ECD results far more important than matric pass rates

Steep slope: Many of South Africa's 24 000 ECD centres lack the capacity to prepare learners for school. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

Steep slope: Many of South Africa's 24 000 ECD centres lack the capacity to prepare learners for school. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

The country’s focus ought to be on the early childhood development (ECD) phase, rather than the current narrow obsession with the matric pass rate. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga were to announce literacy and numeracy outcomes for the first three years of schooling and, in the process, expose it to the same level of public scrutiny as the misleading and superficial indicator that is the matric pass rate?

The road to a quality education and to performing well in matric begins in grade R. It is in these classrooms that many learners experience poor infrastructure, teacher shortages and a lack of teaching and learning resources. And if they are fortunate enough to even reach grade 12, they then realise that they are not as well-prepared as their counterparts from middle-class families who were enrolled in well-resourced foundation phase or ECD facilities.

Inequality is the hallmark of the South African education system. The Statistics South Africa General Household Survey of 2009 revealed that 61% of children live below the poverty line, while 36% live in homes where no adults are employed. With such high levels of poverty conspiring against children, one wonders what their first few years of schooling are like. There are 24 000 ECD centres in South Africa — almost the same number as primary and high schools. Of these ECD centres, 18 000 are registered; half of these are funded by private individuals. At least 60 000 women are employed in these centres.

What do these numbers mean? Tragically, the commendable access to grade R in South Africa has not had the desired impact, precisely because of problems that include teacher capacity, funding, and the provision of well-resourced classrooms. Motshekga’s commitment to formalise grade R and provide appropriately qualified and experienced ECD practitioners is a step in the right direction. In the meantime, thousands of ECD practitioners (mostly women who are running under-resourced ECD centres in townships and in rural areas) continue to fill the gap. 

In an audit conducted by the department of basic education in 2000, of the 23 482 sites audited, only 11 420 had electricity, water and toilets, while 1 669 had no water, electricity or sanitation facilities.

It then comes as no surprise that most learners enrolled in schools with no water, sanitation or electricity, after having started their education in an ECD centre with similar challenges, see such conditions as the norm for the learning years ahead. We now know for certain that most learners who are enrolled in poverty-stricken township and rural schools remain three years behind compared to their counterparts, who are English mother tongue speakers and are enrolled in well-resourced ECD centres.

Equal Education is concerned about the number of learners who attend poorly resourced schools in township and rural areas, who remain the casualties of an unequal education system that begins from the day they enrol in grade R. We are concerned about the number of learners who drop out of the system because of poverty and the lack of investment in their early years of schooling. It should be in grade R where the true meaning of education is realised by the poor — not when they are about to enter the world of work or become jobless.

All is not lost though. Let us support and encourage those women in township and rural areas who have taken the lead in setting up ECD centres in their living rooms and garages, in the hope of providing children with some level of socialisation and learning.

Tshepo Motsepe is the general secretary of Equal Education, a community- and membership-based organisation that advocates for quality and equality in the South African education system