Innovative pioneers of early learning

'Richard van der Ross made an extraordinary contribution to the field of early childhood development in South Africa,' says the writer

'Richard van der Ross made an extraordinary contribution to the field of early childhood development in South Africa,' says the writer

The Early Learning Resource Unit (ELRU), which works mainly in disadvantaged communities to help young children to reach their full potential, is celebrating its 40th year.

To kick off this milestone, we are paying tribute to one of the founders: author, former teacher, anti-apartheid activist and freeman of the City of Cape Town, Professor Richard van der Ross, who died on December 13 last year at the age of 96.

He was widely known as an academic because of his leadership at the University of the Western Cape for more than two decades and as an author and prolific writer. He published several books that are now collector’s items. But he also made an extraordinary contribution to the field of early childhood development in South Africa.

World-renowned economist and Nobel Prize laureate Professor James Heckman has argued that investment in early childhood development has a future return of more than 7%. His research shows that children who are exposed to quality early childhood development programmes are more likely to complete formal schooling and become gainfully employed in their adult years.

Van der Ross had this vision for children in the late 1960s.

The ELRU had its beginnings in 1972 when a team of people started the Athlone Early Learning Centre in Kewtown, one of the oldest subeconomic townships created under the Group Areas Act for coloured people in Cape Town.

Initially attached to the Eoan Group, which envisaged a preschool as part of its establishment, the centre was funded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation in the Netherlands. This educational project, based on the United States programme Operation Head Start, was born with 120 children from Athlone, a township that was established as a result of forced removals and displacement of families from District Six.

The focus was on children in economically marginalised townships that had been created because of separatist and racist policies. These policies, by their very nature, denied and thwarted the potential of people living there.

The Athlone centre set out to expose young children to programmes that would stimulate their cognitive ability and ease their transition to learning in formal school.

Van der Ross reflected in one of his books on the significant differences noted in the statistics on school pass rates in the late 1960s relating to children of farmworkers in the Philippi area and those from more affluent suburbs. This was during his time with the department of education as an education planner.

It was evident that the department did not generally recognise that there was a correlation between the effects of poor environments on children’s ability to profit from formal schooling. Their response at the time to poor pass rates was to institute remedial support to teachers by school inspectors, whose visits to identified teachers were few and far between.

The centre presented an exciting opportunity to explore how children learn and to support teachers to facilitate learning. Van der Ross wrote that the team that was gathered for the project shared his excitement about “trying to determine the main areas in which such children were disadvantaged with regard to more privileged children”.

With that developed the team’s insistence on a child-centred approach, being sensitive to context and culture.

The centre’s approach was a departure from the traditional thinking in the department. In the early days, Ann Short presented a paper on the work at an education department conference and was asked by one of the inspectors: “What has all that got to do with education?”

The centre was thus innovative and pioneering. With expertise drawn from architecture, pedagogy, psychology, sociology and paediatrics, a well-designed environment was created in which to develop relevant, replicable programmes for children between the ages of three months and six years. The centre became the model for replicating similar early childhood development centres in other provinces by the Bernard van Leer Foundation.

Van der Ross, as a circuit inspector of the education department, was seconded to the centre, where he held the position of principal from 1971 to 1974 before his appointment as rector of the University of the Western Cape.

During his time at the centre he initiated a community work organisation, known as Babs (Build a Better Society), that would work alongside the centre to strengthen family and community support for children, as well as providing leadership for realising the aspirations of local people.

Van der Ross was fortunate to have the likes of George Gibbs and Freda Brock (Van der Ross’s daughter) working with him. They were young social work graduates who realised the need for a different community development approach to conventional social work practice.

The pioneering work of the centre gained recognition throughout South Africa as an educational institution. The programmes implemented at the centre formed the basis of materials development and training programmes, which the ELRU later went on to further develop and disseminate countrywide and beyond.

These included the Nursery School Programme, which focused on the social, emotional, physical and intellectual needs of children, who learnt through play, art, music and stories. Although the emphasis was on cognitive and language development, the programme did not teach academic skills such as reading, writing or arithmetic. The emphasis was to develop
independent thinking and problem-solving skills, creativity and curiosity, and the ability to use language as a tool for thought and communication.

The Home-School Programme was established to share with parents how they could reinforce what their children were being taught at school. The Teacher-Aid Programme, introduced in 1972, was to involve mothers more directly in the education of their children. Twenty women completed the course by the end of 1974 and, by 1975, another 15 were in the programme.

Similarly, the Home Early Learning Programme (Help) was introduced to assist mothers and caregivers who had preschool aged children (nine months to two years) at home to provide a more adequate and stimulating learning environment within the home. These programmes became the forerunners of many programmes currently implemented by the ELRU, the Foundation for Community Work and many early childhood development organisations in South Africa.

The ELRU had its beginnings in Lansdowne in 1978 when seven staff members broke away from the Athlone centre with funding from the Bernard van Leer Foundation.

Short, formerly head of research at the Athlone centre, became the centre’s director. Under her leadership, the unit grew to become a fairly large organisation, nationally and internationally acclaimed as a leading research and development organisation in early childhood development. In 1994, Brock joined the unit as director and followed in the footsteps of her father.

Today, the ELRU has three key programmes:

  •  The Family and Community Home Visiting Programme, aimed at the first 1 000 days (conception to two years), ensures that the primary caregiver is supported and equipped with tools and skills to support the growth and development of young children;
  •  The Playgroup Programme supports children aged 2.2 years to six years and is organised in the homes of unemployed mothers. It brings six hours of play a week to children whose families are unable to afford early childhood development centre care; and
  •  The Whole Centre Development Programme, which focuses on infrastructure, practitioner training, the Site Learning Programme, institutional capacity, leadership and governance. Capacity building and resource provision covers training, mentoring, materials development and is shaped by monitoring and evaluation, which underpins all the above programmes to show not only the progress and development of the model but also its effect on the holistic development of the child.

Last year, programmes in the Western Cape, Northern Cape and North West reached 9 391 children, 632 fieldworkers and 75 early childhood development centres.

The ELRU remains a pioneer in the development of learning programmes and materials, and many of the organisation’s resources can be downloaded free of charge from its website elru.co.za/free-resources

The unit’s work of 40 years is a tribute and a testament to Van der Ross’s unwavering dedication to education and his vision for our youngest children to develop to their full potential.

Tracy van der Heyde is the director of the Early Learning Resource Centre

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