/ 9 November 2021

Early childhood development practitioners – important for the future of our society and yet overlooked

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

We recently celebrated World Teachers’ Day to commemorate the anniversary of the recommendation made in 1966 by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), which sets benchmarks regarding the rights and responsibilities of teachers, from employment and recruitment to teaching and learning conditions. 

Over the years, we have learned that teachers play a critical role in shaping a child’s future, by providing them with a solid educational foundation and the encouragement they need to attain their future goals. While we continue to celebrate our heroes and heroines, we acknowledge that early learning plays a critical role in a child’s development, as it deeply affects their future physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development.

Apart from the learning experience that children receive from their primary caregivers/parents, Early childhood development (ECD) facilities are a foundation phase for a child’s development. According to a 2020 survey, South Africa’s access to early learning centers has continued to increase over the years. 

The survey also revealed that in 2018 about 70% of children up to the age of four years were attending ECD centers, and, as many as 3.8-million children aged up to six years old were enrolled in ECD programmes. Apart from ECD facilities providing a safe and nurturing environment for children, ECD facilities play a significant role in preparing a child to thrive in primary and higher education. 

During the survey in October 2020, it was further revealed that many ECD facilities have been closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, limiting children’s access to ECD programmes. To further understand why those centres were closed, the survey revealed that 48% of respondents said they could no longer afford to pay ECD fees primarily due to their socioeconomic status. 

The high rates of dropout and non-payments have a direct implication on the ECD practitioners whose income is heavily reliant on parents/caregivers paying fees. For ECD programmes to improve and be sustainable, there is a need for wider and deeper public financing, along with an improvement on parents and caregiver socioeconomic status. 

While the government shows some sort of commitment to assist the ECD sector, ECD practitioners continue to be sidelined or excluded. For instance, when the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines was opened for front-line workers and teachers, ECD practitioners were excluded. Given the limited support the ECD sector receives, ECD programmes like Seriti´s aRe Bapaleng are instrumental in helping communities meet the growing demand. 

The aRe Bapaleng ECD programme provides caregivers and parents with the necessary knowledge, tools and resources to better play their role in their facilities and communities at large. While not specifically targeted at them, ECD practitioners, ECD assistants and day mothers have also benefited from the programme as they are not getting this kind of support elsewhere. 

Since this programme’s inception in 2020, over 100 ECD practitioners, ECD assistants and day mothers have been trained across Gauteng through active learning workshops. Each practitioner has undergone a free five-day training workshop where they are exposed to different activities that stimulate learning through play, such as book sharing and using Lego bricks to facilitate numeracy and literacy, to name but a few. 

During these workshops, the programme participants share the challenges they face in this sector and the main challenge cited is poor support from government institutions. There is a lack of training and capacity-building programmes provided for ECD practitioners especially in vulnerable communities, where training is most needed to enable them to run their facilities effectively. Through the aRe Bapaleng programme, we at the Seriti Institute want to continue working with ECD practitioners as we understand the role they play in the education sector and communities at large. 

Our objective in the medium to long term is to ensure that a stronger community caregiver ecosystem is in place resulting in an increased number of children having access to higher-quality ECD support. The key is that more disadvantaged children have greater access to high quality ECD support. Caregivers across the board are key in this respect, from parents to ECDPs and day mothers. 

We believe that this will contribute towards realising the National Development Plan 2030 objectives as well as the overall goal of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 on quality education. Overall, our ECD practitioners and day mothers have found the programme to have played a significant role in their ECD centers. Through their participation in aRe Bapeleng they have learned new ways of fostering learning using fun activities, and they have also become more confident and organised in how they approach their time with their children. 

However, one of their biggest challenges is getting parents to support ECD practitioners and day mothers and get more involved in their children’s development. ECD practitioners and day mothers also call for more training around educational games, as well as dealing with issues such as trauma and hyperactivity.