Early Childhood Development (ECD) has been recognised and identified as a critical nodal point for the country’s social and economic transformation and development. In keeping with international policy standards, ECD is defined as the period from pre-natal development to eight years of age. The early childhood period is considered to be the most important developmental phase throughout the lifespan.
Healthy early childhood development — which includes the physical, social/emotional, and language/cognitive domains of development, each equally important — strongly influences wellbeing, confidence, obesity/stunting, mental health, heart disease, competence in literacy and numeracy, criminality, and economic participation throughout life. What happens to the child in the early years is critical for the child’s developmental trajectory and life course.
There is an on-going crisis in South African education, and the current system is failing the majority of South Africa’s youth and creating a great divide between the “haves” and “have-nots”. Independently conducted assessments of pupil achievement reports that, with the exception of a wealthy minority, most South African pupils cannot read, write and compute at grade-appropriate levels, with large proportions being functionally illiterate and innumerate.
The concurrent existence of low quality, high inequality, and deep segregation in South African schooling has serious implications for justice. Particularly alarming is the tendency of these three properties to work together to reinforce societal injustice, creating what is effectively a self-reinforcing poverty trap, ensuring that the most disadvantaged members of society have few ways to improve their situation. Quality training of ECD teachers in disadvantaged areas would perhaps level the playing field and equalise the opportunities for young children in South Africa.
The National Developmental Plan recognises ECD as a priority, evidenced by the implementation of the Draft Policy on Minimum Requirements for Programmes Leading to Qualifications In Higher Education for Practitioners and Educators in Early Childhood Care and Education.
This policy aligns qualifications for early childhood care and education — birth to four years — (ECCE) and has been developed in consultation with key role players in the field.
It describes minimum standards for different types of higher education qualifications for ECCE educators in accordance with their purpose and level. It also provides clear guidelines for higher education institutions (HEIs) to design learning programmes for the professional preparation of ECCE practitioners, and clearly describes the basic competences required of them.
The policy addresses the diminished view of professionalism regarding teachers and practitioners of ECD, and how this compromises high quality ECD. If research, collaboration and development of high quality ECD programmes for teachers are designed, developed and implemented by HEIs in a way that upholds children’s rights and interests, it would emancipate early childhood teachers from technical, de-professionalising constraints.
Professionalism in ECD settings, therefore, should become positioned as technical, standardised applications of top-down “expert” knowledge that meets objective accountability measures for the purpose of attaining optimal developmental outcomes for children. We believe that there is a need to move rapidly to develop capacity in universities for the education and development of ECCE educators and practitioners, if they are to be able to make a significant contribution to the inter-sectoral ECD policy and programme.
ECD – the great equaliser
High quality childcare has a positive influence on children’s development and school readiness by providing valuable educational and social experiences. High quality childcare is characterised as having well qualified, well-paid, stable staff, low child-adult ratios, and efficient management. The training of quality teachers for quality childcare covers all aspects of a child development — physical, motor, emotional, social, language and cognitive.
Research shows that only such high quality provision can deliver wellbeing and appropriate development to young children. As an increasing number of mothers are in the workforce and most children aged three and older now attend a childcare facility on a regular basis, it has become critical that young children from all backgrounds have access to high quality childcare and early education.
High quality childcare in the first three years for disadvantaged children can produce benefits for cognitive, language and social development. Low quality childcare produces either no benefit or negative effects. With regard to provision from birth to four years, disadvantaged children benefit particularly from high quality daycare provision. Children also benefit more in socially mixed groups rather than in homogenously disadvantaged groups. Quality early childhood interventions do boost children’s confidence and social skills, which provides a better foundation for success at school and subsequently in the workplace.
Reviews of research infer that it is the social skills and improved motivation that leads to lower rates of school failure and higher educational achievement in children exposed to ECD programmes. Studies on adulthood indicate that this educational success is followed by increased success in employment, social integration and often reduced criminality.
The seven-point dream plan for ECCE centres in South Africa should comprise:
• Teacher-child interaction that is responsive, affectionate and readily available;
• Well-trained teachers/practitioners who are patient, caring and have intense concern for the welfare, safety and development of young children;
• Facilities available in all socioeconomic areas that are safe, hygienic and accessible to parents;
• Ratios and group sizes that allow staff to interact appropriately with children;
• Supervision that maintains consistency and fairness;
• Staff development that ensures continuity, stability and quality improvement; and
• A developmentally appropriate and contextualised curriculum with an educational content.
Research with the purpose of developing high quality early childhood development and care in education requires collaboration. Top-down “expert” knowledge that meets objective accountability in the form of the South African Research Association for Early Childhood Education (SARAECE), which promotes research and research development in the field of early ECD — including teacher education and development for ECD — has been established. SARAECE has resulted in the collaboration and infusion of the departments of social development, education and health, and presents an opportunity for research that presents contextual data for the sector.
It is a research association with three distinctive areas, namely, a vested interest in research development; reporting and analysis providing improved teacher education and training in higher education institutions; and providing mentorship, support and guidance to teachers and practitioners in the field. SARAECE has established a research journal, the South African Journal of Childhood Education, with the intention of foregrounding ECD in South Africa.
In collaboration with SARAECE, the department of higher education and other universities, the ECCE team at University of Pretoria will develop a Bachelor of Education in Early Childhood Education and Care (0-4). Over the next three years, we envisage designing and offering qualifications that will afford professional status and recognition to educators and practitioners working in Early Childhood Care and Education, and standardising the training, qualifications and career pathway for educators and professionals working in ECCE.
It will also involve developing quality programmes to equip practitioners and educators in ECCE with information and knowledge on how to ensure that children’s early experiences in institutionalised forms of care and education are developmentally appropriate. This is in response to the Draft Policy on Minimum Requirements for Programmes Leading to Qualifications in Higher Education for Practitioners and Educators in Early Childhood Care and Education.
As ECCE has been neglected over the years, quality ECCE teachers will be sought to improve and transform the South African economic and social landscape, so a career in ECCE will become desirable. By 2019, matriculants will be able to apply for this new qualification, which could be the great equaliser for social injustice in South Africa.
Dr Keshni Bipath and Professor Ina Joubert are based at the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria