/ 15 July 2023

The forgotten women in education

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The work of early childhood development (ECD) practitioners is one of the major sources of income for black women. But, much like domestic workers, ECD practitioners constitute a forgotten generation of women who work, wait and sow endlessly on the pathways of life, yet never get an opportunity to earn, progress and reap. 

The limited research on ECD practitioners and their learning pathways is testament to just how neglected these women are.

I am referring to the aunties and mamas who clean snotty noses and teach the ABCs, the 123s and whatever else keeps the children learning while we are at work. 

Do you know that ECD practitioners, well qualified and well experienced, could earn as little as R1 000 a month? Sometimes they earn R2 000 a month, for starting work at 6am and knocking off at 6pm. This is generally the going rate, but they may earn anything or nothing at all, because of no policy and administrative support in this area. 

ECD practitioners form the backbone of many of the poor and impoverished areas in the Western Cape and elsewhere in the country. Some practitioners set up small businesses that begin with just taking care of children whose parents work away from home. They feed and teach children, often starting out with little knowledge and experience in teaching. 

Just take a drive in Khayelitsha, Philippi in Mitchells Plain or Hanover Park and you will see the signs: Funda Daycare Centre, Mandy’s Daycare; Abantawana ECD Centre. They are everywhere.

Access to higher education is crucial for poor black women who choose this pathway to step out of poverty and widen their life chances and choices. Research in South Africa shows that this is near impossible for black women working as ECD practitioners. 

Higher education would not only reinforce the stronghold of black women against poverty but also empower them as members of marginalised neighbourhoods. Black, adult women seek higher education for empowerment, progress, and potential upward mobility. 

They do it not only for themselves but for their families, neighbourhoods —and the children.

I first learned about the valuable role ECD practitioners play in poor and marginalised areas during a six-year period where I worked and earned a living as an ECD facilitator. I met and taught women who were participating in ECD Level 1, ECD Level 4 and ECD Level 5 programmes at Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges to enhance their work as practitioners. 

As black, adult women, they had been bruised by the inequalities that permeate our country’s social and economic landscape. They had been marginalised from social and economic growth. 

But they had a fire burning within them, which ignited a deep desire to gain an education. These women wanted to study toward a Bachelor of Education degree to teach in primary schools. 

As ECD practitioners, they are overworked and underpaid. For them, access to higher education to get a degree meant acquiring permanent positions in schools. I wanted to help the practitioners in my reach grow in their own learning and knowledge, to ensure deeper stimulation and more effective change at the levels of teaching and learning in their neighbourhoods. I also wanted to help them go to university.

As such, I supported them as a mentor to research points of entry into universities where they could study towards a degree in education, especially because they were working toward ECD qualifications obtained at TVET college. 

What we found in the research was astonishing. Universities do not accept ECD qualifications successfully completed at TVET colleges. 

There is only one route into higher education for ECD practitioners. This is through the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) programme. The way this programme functions varies across higher education institutions and only one institution in the Western Cape clearly stipulated the requirements for acceptance into the BEd degree through the RPL. Information regarding the RPL is hard to come by and is often shared only through word of mouth.

Take Surreya, for example, a 46-year-old mother and breadwinner in her home. After completing her schooling and ECD Level 4 certificate, she applied for university entrance for four years without any response or feedback from the institution. 

It was the same story with Jenna, a 44-year-old mother, who is primarily responsible for her children’s education. Jenna applied at three universities over a period of three years, with no feedback from any of them. 

Both practitioners heard about the RPL after applying for undergraduate studies. 

Surreya was accepted after a battle within the RPL application process, and Jenna is continuing her RPL application process. What a long, long road to acceptance.

International research on adult women shows that as students, they are determined to succeed and achieve their goals to obtain degrees and pursue their careers. They are career-orientated and are more determined than other participants in higher education. 

They are self-confident and often succeed against the risks that participating in higher education bring. Some of these risks are not fitting in to student life, not being able to work and provide for their families during studying and the risk of failure. 

With this mind, why would ECD practitioners have such limited access to higher education? Why prevent them from accessing a route out of poverty?

On a global scale, and specifically in Africa, poverty is feminised. ECD practitioners most assuredly fall into this group. Many of them lead female-headed homes, provide for children and extended families and are located in the marginalised group of minimum-wage or unpaid workers. Surely, accessing higher education could change this. 

Why limit their access to one route of the RPL?

During the Covid-19 pandemic, ECD practitioners were refused access to consistent employment and remuneration. Although guidance was given to teachers at schools on what to do during the lockdown periods and teachers in basic education continued to be remunerated, ECD practitioners received no initial direction on what to do to continue operating during business hours, nor was it communicated to them how processes could be followed. 

They also received no remuneration during this period. Come vaccination time, teachers at schools were once again given first preference. ECD practitioners were given none. 

No wonder they strive for higher education to obtain degrees and to teach at schools. 

This article was a finalist of Canon Collins Trust’s annual Lead with Your Mind: Troubling Power essay competition. Kaylianne Aploon 

Kaylianne Aploon-Zokufa is a lecturer in the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape in the faculty of education.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.