Early Childhood Development

ECD chaos: ‘Inequality is being exacerbated because of petty officialdom’ as children starve

By Terry Bell 29 June 2020

The two ministries responsible for ECD centres continue to flounder about with pre-school still seen as the continual ‘Cinderella’ of the education sector, says the writer. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Nelius Rademan)

Chaos and confusion continue to reign in South Africa’s early childhood development sector, with some 2.5 million children under the age of six shut out of 32,000 ECD centres by the Covid-19 lockdown.

Young children are not only without a structured environment during the Covid-19 lockdown — they have missed out for three months on the one nutritious meal most of them relied on every day.

And, according to Professor Eric Atmore, director of Cape Town’s Centre for Early Childhood Development (CECD), the situation is getting progressively worse. Much of the confusion arises from the fact that early childhood development (ECD) centres linked to schools fall under the purview of the department of basic education (DBE), while others are the responsibility of the department of social development (DSD).

This confusion was summed up during May 2020 when the education department announced that ECD centres would reopen on 6 July 2020. On the same day, DSD director-general Linton Mchunu declared flatly that such centres “shall remain closed”.  The result of this, says Atmore, is that: “Inequality is being exacerbated because of petty officialdom.” (See:  Daily Maverick article)

It is a view shared by other educationalists, who point out that earlier in the same month, the DSD had proposed — in line with the planned reopening of schools — a phased return for ECD centres, starting at either “Level 2 or Level 1” of the lockdown. They also point out that the DSD, by its own admission, seems ignorant of the extent of its own ECD responsibilities, only launching on 2 June 2020, a drive to obtain data about unregistered ECD centres.

Recent surveys have shown that such centres, often based in informal settlements and operated by unqualified although perhaps well-meaning mother figures, cater for perhaps 1.5 million children. It is also estimated that there are nearly 1 million children under the age of six, many of whom are left in the care of older siblings when parents are at work. 

… government, at least in principle, has agreed with educationalists around the world that the first six or seven years are the most crucial in the lives of children; that without a solid grounding, the bulk of young humanity is destined to be crippled in one way or another, emotionally, intellectually and, all too often, physically.  

Although the government has stressed the importance of pre-school education, neither the DBE nor the DSD seem aware of the distinction between a crèche, a nursery school and Grade R. And a confusing array of training schemes is available for those involved in ECD centres, some offering an ECD qualification in a matter of weeks. Many also concentrate on the administrative aspects of running an ECD business.

Atmore agrees that this seems to place the entire pre-school system in a worse position than existed even 80 years ago. Then, with the formation of a national Nursery School Association, it was accepted that a crèche cared for infants from one month to two years that, from about two to six was the nursery school age. It was also acknowledged that specialist training was essential at both crèche and nursery levels. 

The first comprehensive, three-year nursery school training course was established in 1936 in Sophiatown and the first graduates were black women. Within three years, there were similar courses offered in Cape Town, Pretoria and central Johannesburg with the nursery school association setting and monitoring standards.

These developments sprang from even earlier concerns about the welfare and wellbeing of young children. In 1908, on the basis that “no distinction was to be made as regards race, colour or creed”, a Society for the Protection of Child Life was established in Cape Town, the precursor of the national Child Welfare Society.

Although much of this history may have been forgotten, government, at least in principle, has agreed with educationalists around the world that the first six or seven years are the most crucial in the lives of children; that without a solid grounding, the bulk of young humanity is destined to be crippled in one way or another, emotionally, intellectually and, all too often, physically.  

At the same time, the two ministries responsible for ECD centres continue to flounder about with pre-school still seen as the continual “Cinderella” of the sector – known to be crucial, but largely ignored.  The hope is that some clear decisions about the future, including when ECD centres may open, will soon be announced.

In the meantime, the CEDC and other educationalists are hoping for a favourable response from the government to a petition, backed by thousands of signatures, that calls for a one-off grant of R20,000 to ECD centres and a doubling of existing subsidies. The total cost is put at R1.6-billion: “Less than is being offered [as aid] for taxis,” says Atmore. DM

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