South Africa’s education system, and the departments involved, have long been criticised for their seeming preoccupation with matric results. Critics point to the failure in results — and wider societal problems — and say more attention needs to be paid to children at different levels in the system. This is particularly true for learners in the foundation phase, in the first years of their lives.
Research consistently shows that investing in early childhood development is crucial, because it is early in life when the brain has the maximum capacity to develop. Investment here also reaps rewards throughout a learner’s life — more so than interventions as late as in matric.
In its 2016 South African Early Childhood Review, Ilifa labantwana (an early childhood development programme), said investments in primary and secondary education will not see the intended returns if young children do not enter school with the foundational skills needed to learn: “Investment in early childhood development is critical to ensure better performance in formal schooling which will result in improved levels of employment.”
This is in line with the proposal by the National Development Plan that by 2024 the country introduces two years of compulsory early childhood development for all children before they enter grade one. The plan says that 75% of four- to five-year-olds should participate in formal early childhood education.
Driven by this conclusion, government has said that it will introduce compulsory pre-grade R — or grade RR as it is known — starting in four years’ time.
Some provinces have started announcing their rough plans for the eventuality. This is despite provinces still lagging behind in the full implementation of grade R, which was launched countrywide 18 years ago.
Education MECs in different provinces have used their recent budget speeches to flesh out the elements that money will be spent on getting the education system ready. This responsibility used to fall under the social development department — which is nominally in charge of all things early childhood development — but there is a process to migrate it to basic education as was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in February.
In his budget speech, Free State MEC for education Tate Makgoe, said the department has set aside just over R1-million this financial year to train 1 218 practitioners on the national curriculum framework for early childhood development for grade RR. It will also train 100 pre-grade R practitioners to national qualifications framework (NQF) level.
In the Eastern Cape, education MEC Fundile Gade said the province had already trained 190 pre-school practitioners from three districts on the national curriculum framework. He also said that the province has set aside just over R600-million for this financial year to resource grade R teaching and learning.
Panyaza Lesufi, the MEC for education in Gauteng, said in his budget speech that less than 30% of the children under the age of four in Gauteng were enrolled in a pre-school programme.
Lesufi said the introduction of pre-grade R will be introduced in all public schools. To get there, he said that 900 grade R and grade RR practitioners will be identified for training towards an appropriate qualification.
He said that, to do this, his department will be spending R133-million.
Limpopo’s education MEC, Polly Boshielo, said that the province plans to train 221 pre-grade R practitioners from community learning centres in this financial year to acquire an NQF level four qualification.
Put together, these budget announcements show that provinces are working towards making pre-grade R a reality. This could be a huge change in how education works in South Africa.
In a 2015 study, titled: Can pre-grade R be the stepping stone to social equality in South Africa? Janeli Kotze said the introduction of grade RR could have a significant effect on the future development of children, but only if the provision is of high quality, especially among the poor.
According to the study, the current landscape in which the early childhood development sector operates does not “lend itself to the implementation of a high-quality service”.
Some of the quality issues the study raised included inadequate drinking water, electricity supply and ablution facilities at early childhood development centres.
The study made several policy recommendations. These include: extensive investment in infrastructure; learning and teaching support material; teacher training; the establishment of policy in the sector with proper leadership and authority; and sufficient staffing and early childhood development expertise that will ensure the proper implementation of a pre-grade R curriculum.
With just four years to go, budgets for training are just a starting point. The next step will to be ensure that all the other proposals on how early childhood development will work are implemented.