South Africa


Early childhood development: More data on learners with disabilities needed

Early childhood development plays a critical role in preparing a child to thrive in primary and secondary school, says Sonja Giese from Innovation Edge, a company that provides funding to nonprofits in the childhood development field. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

As the Department of Basic Education prepares to take over early childhood development from Social Development, a number of gaps have surfaced in the provision of care for children with disabilities.

Scant data exists on early childhood development (ECD) for learners with disabilities, according to the Department of Basic Education (DBE). 

The department’s parliamentary committee held a joint meeting with the Committee for Social Development on 3 March, to discuss the migration of early childhood development from the Department of Social Development to the Department of Basic Education.

The transfer was announced in last year’s State of the Nation Address in February.

The DBE’s head of Curriculum Policy, Support and Monitoring, Julia Mamiki Maboya, said existing data does not differentiate between children with or without disabilities.

“Going forward with the pieces of research that we are going to conduct, we will definitely have to disaggregate, so that we know where these learners are, and how many they are,” Maboya told Daily Maverick.

She said the DBE’s takeover of early childhood development was the perfect opportunity to fix any issues, which includes getting more comprehensive data on the sector. 

Part of the plan is to conduct a national census in 2020/21 to map all early learning programmes by tracking the number of ECD centres, and an ECD audit in April 2020 to get detailed information such as learners’ health and nutrition.

The DBE said the last national ECD audit was conducted in 2013 by Social Development.

The joint committee was presented with the DBE’s Draft National Framework on Learners with Disabilities which has a three-step plan that includes early detection, intervention and mainstreaming to ensure learners are able to integrate into the education system; an additional subsidy for learners with disabilities, over and above the R1,860 monthly grant; and needs-based support and referrals through appropriately trained practitioners.

Maboya said the department plans to implement the existing Screening, Identification, Assessment and Support (SIAS) policy for children under four years old, to detect disabilities in children early and refer them, where necessary, to specialised programmes.

“Those who don’t need referral, we’d have to have a package of support for them, like giving them assistive devices and differentiated teaching, so that you don’t just teach as if you are teaching a homogenous group but teach in a differentiated manner.”

According to the National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy (from 2015) approximately 23% of children aged below nine years in low- and middle-income countries are at risk of disabilities. Children with disabilities are, in addition, at risk of low access to early childhood development services and at an increased risk of poor quality care. 

Vanessa Japhta, the advocacy manager at the Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability, said access to ECD centres for children with intellectual disability in the Western Cape was often dependent on location and whether the parent could afford the service.

“DSD funds inclusive education training and programmes for ECD centres. Wealthier parents in urban areas are often able to access well-resourced ECD centres with appropriately trained staff. In the Western Cape, special care centres (SCCs) often enrol learners with intellectual disability (mild through to severe to profound) from about six months to the age of 21 (in some cases over 30 years of age).”

According to Sonja Giese from Innovation Edge, a company that provides funding to nonprofits in the childhood development space, parents may feel embarrassed or anxious about enrolling their differently-abled child in an ECD programme.

“We really need to be thinking about how we conscientise parents differently around that and we need to be thinking about how we support ECD practices and ECD practitioners to accommodate children with special needs,” said Giese.

She feels the stigma about disability needs to be addressed by making services for differently-abled children part and parcel of mainstream ECD programmes.

Early childhood development plays a critical role in preparing a child to thrive in primary and secondary school by ensuring their holistic development from conception to age six when they enter formal schooling.

During her presentation to the committee, Giese said ECD includes an “essential packages of services”: maternal and health services; nutritional support for pregnant women, mothers and children; support for primary caregivers; social services and stimulation for early learning.

She highlighted that there needs to be a focus-shift from matric results to outcomes in early childhood development, which has an impact on whether a child completes secondary schooling and their potential to find a job in their adult years. DM