by Greg Penfold


Wanted: healthy roots


The battle for the future of South Africa – for an innovative, prosperous nation – is taking place on many fronts, but the most important battleground is one that is all too frequently overlooked: the kindergartens and nursery schools of the nation, otherwise known as early childhood development centres (ECDs)

Although early childhood development (ECD) is universally recognised as playing a decisive and foundational role in the success and wellbeing of the youths and adults that children will become, for various reasons, the majority of South Africa’s pre-school learners are not having their needs met. The results are catastrophic: children fall through the cracks of the education system and join the ranks of the unemployed and unemployable, exacerbating our country’s already serious social divisions. In the words of Jonathan Jansen: “We lose half a million kids from grade one to matric. Early education is vital.”

V.C. Mentor, director of the Early Childhood Development Institute, has summed up the stakes. In a letter addressed to educators in Gauteng, but whose observations are valid across the board, Mentor wrote, “Early childhood is a crucial time in our lives. It is a time when, ideally, children are nurtured physically, mentally and spiritually. Their experiences in each of these dimensions shape their lives. A child whose health, wellbeing and intellect are protected and stimulated has a strong platform for a happy, successful and balanced life.

“Many parents in our province, rich and poor alike are able to provide such a platform for their children. We all know parents with little education whose love and care give their children the strength to succeed at school and beyond. But the reality is that poverty is a powerful inhibiting factor for many.

“The struggle to survive in an economy that is still in transformation makes it difficult for many to give their children the care they need, and many families in our province do not have adults at their head to take on this crucial responsibility. The background research that underpins the Gauteng ECD Strategy shows that enduring poverty from our apartheid legacy makes access to early childhood development services difficult, and in particular access to quality provision is negatively affected in environments in which poverty and unemployment are highest.”

This opinion is supported by a report by Academic Dynamics, commissioned by World Vision, on the status of ECDs in Orange Farm, Gauteng. “A substantial body of evidence from around the world indicates considerable benefits in providing preschool-aged children with structured and quality early childhood development (ECD) services and programmes. The provision of appropriate cognitive stimulation, nutrition, care and health services during this critical developmental period yields positive results such as increased primary school enrolment, enhanced school performance, lower repetition and drop-out rates, reductions in juvenile crime rates, reduced remedial education costs and improved economic and social productivity in adulthood. These benefits produce significant social, education and economic returns to society far outweighing the returns on other forms of human capital investment.”

Weighing in on Mandela Day, National Council of Provinces (NCOP) Chairperson Thandi Modise declared, “If you are serious about development, if you want to be true to developmental state, you need to worry about capacity. The capacity you are going to find in youngsters. You need to start there to do everything you can to identify the potential to exploit, to ensure that into the future you have capable men and women who can run this country.”

This echoes Jansen’s previously stated view that “Nothing could be more important than solid academic foundations in the early years.”

“Policy in this regard has been big on promises but lacking in the commitments that turn early childhood development into a well-funded intervention with qualified pre-school teachers who are well paid inside quality infrastructures.”

But what exactly are the shortfalls? The Orange Farm report identifies infrastructure, nutrition, and the capacity of teachers to teach as among the larger stumbling blocks.

Infrastructure refers to the physical environment provided by ECDs – the space in which pre-school learners are educated – and has been identified by the Human Science Research Council as “the country’s biggest ECD provisioning challenge”.

It appears that most ECDs, in Orange Farm as in other townships across the country, are structures that are not fit for purpose.

The report continues: “Many ECD facilities function without basic infrastructure such as running water, access to electricity or suitable sanitation. About 8% of all ECD centres have none of these basic infrastructure requirements.

“In Orange Farm, financial constraints prohibit ECD centres from building the brick-and-mortar infrastructure required by the Department of Health. This has become a serious compliance issue for ECD centres with the Department of Health. Because of this setback, ECD centres cannot progress to become registered centres with the Department of Social Development which, as a result, means that they cannot apply for funding. They are trapped in a vicious circle.”

If proper buildings are important for early childhood development, proper food is even more so. That’s why the importance of nutrition in early childhood development has been passionately advocated by the likes of Bill Gates and Graça Machel. As Gates himself said in his recent Nelson Mandela address, “Nearly one third of the continent’s children suffer from malnutrition that stunts their growth and development and robs them of their physical and cognitive potential. Millions more suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. These are impacts that last a lifetime and impact whole generations of Africa’s youth.”

Gates added, “African Development Bank President Akin Adesina put it best when he said recently that the greatest contributor to Africa’s economic growth is not physical infrastructure, but “gray matter infrastructure” – people’s brainpower. The best way to build that infrastructure is with proper nutrition.”

In her role as Chief Patron of Stop Hunger Now SA, which provides food packs to hundreds of schools throughout Africa, Graça Machel recently stated, “I’ve witnessed hundreds and thousands of times people who die of hunger, people who cannot grow, and children who cannot grow because of hunger. In this continent 43% of kids are stunted, which means they will never reach their full potential because they didn’t have the right food, the right nutrients. This is the reality which moves me to support this initiative.”

As things stand, it seems clear that the majority of South African pre-schoolers are not getting the nutrients they deserve. As the Orange Farm report indicates, “In our own assessment we have discovered alarmingly low levels of nutrition at ECD centres. Although the children are at a critical stage of development and require the very best nutrition, they survive on a staple diet of non-nutritious pap and meat; in some cases, sausages, tin fish or pasta. Fruit and vegetables are on the menu but not provided, primarily because funding is lacking and parents are unable to afford these commodities. Once priority expenses such as salaries and essential operating costs are paid, ECD centres often have little left over for proper nutritious meals. The consequences for early childhood development are severe: something urgently needs to be done.”

Equally important is the human factor: teaching. Effective early development cannot possibly take place without quality teaching and learning. Good teachers can transform the most unpromising environment into a space for holistic learning and development. Unfortunately, it appears that here, too, the reality falls short of what it could be.

According to the Orange Farm report, “Only one in 20 ECD centres has three or more qualified practitioners. Typically, only the owner of the centre is in – or has attended – some training. Teachers or practitioners are either untrained or training is planned for them. The reason, predictably, is financial constraints. An additional reason is that employees are always looking for greener pastures. Once trained, they leave and find more lucrative employment. This makes owners reluctant to invest in newly appointed employees in terms of training. ECD centres simply do not have the financial resources to employ trained employees.”

Lack of trained staff has dire consequences for the children: “Untrained practitioners do not know how to interact with children in a psychologically appropriate manner. Unable to manage children effectively, untrained practitioners are frequently reduced to asserting authority by shouting.

Nor do these practitioners know how to do the observation milestones as stipulated in the Children’s Act – a very sad state of affairs because different developmental areas (such as motor skills, cognitive skills, emotional intelligence, etc.) are neglected. In addition, children are often confined to one room for the whole day, especially when it’s cold or rainy. Practitioners are ignorant of suitable indoor developmental activities.”

These findings are unsurprising when one takes into account that some 50% of South Africa’s grade R teachers are unqualified or underqualified – primarily because the Department of Basic Education is employing teachers who in many cases don’t even have matric certificates, thanks to a perception that teaching five-year-olds is child’s play. According to an audit released by the department in 2015, more than 12 000 grade R teachers don’t have the diploma required to teach grade R.

It seems the department had adopted a quantity-before-quality approach, in an effort to ensure maximum school attendance. As departmental spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga has stated, “In 2002, there were 300 000 kids in early childhood development centres. Now the number is 800 000-plus, which means the demand far exceeds teacher supply … Now, as you know, we are focusing on quality of teachers, hence these matters come into sharp focus.”

The fact is that far from being a glorified baby-sitting service, teaching grade R takes just as much knowledge and skill as any other foundational phase teaching. Elizabeth Henning, the director of the Centre for Education Practice Research at the University of Johannesburg, told the Mail & Guardian, “They have to know about early childhood development … and especially that difficult time between four and six years old when children learn to learn though symbols of language and others such as the Arabic system of number symbols.

“They have to know about all the social and psychological things that make children tick during this liminal phase. They have to be on the look-out for kids who have specific language impairments, hearing problems, vision problems, behavioural problems.”

Henning added that more black researchers are needed. “We want to develop African language, black researchers to do this work, but they don’t study full-time. Our future is black researchers who can understand Zulu and Sotho.”

The bottom line, of course, is money.

“You have to give people enough money that will equal their salary so they can study full-time. To study full-time in a PhD in education you get very little to live on in comparison to a salary of a teacher.

“Teaching is seen as a lowly job. When you look at the hierarchy right up to CEOs, teachers are at the bottom. We can only draw them if we give them nice incentives. What Finland did right is to make teaching attractive and pay it quite well. The unions in Finland are very strong, so the unions have to be there because they protect teachers and children,” concluded Henning.

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