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Prioritising Early Childhood Development would improve pass rates

Refiloe Ntsekhe is the DA National Spokesperson and Deputy Federal Chairperson. She also serves as Gauteng Social Development Shadow MEC. and is the constituency head for Kempton Park and Tembisa. @refiloentsekhe

Early childhood development (ECD) appears to be one of the topics that most of us ignore, when it should be our primary focus. We are caught up with matric results and how that would affect or shape the future for millions of South Africans writing this crucial national examination.

In early childhood you may lay the foundation of poverty or riches, industry of idleness, good or evil, by the habits to which you train your children. Teach them right habits then, and their future life is safe.’ – Lydia Sigourney

According to the latest StatsSA Community Survey 2016 indicates that our current population stands at 55.6-million South Africans of which 21.1-million or 36.2% make up the total youth population (15-34 years of age); 91.3% of the youth fall in the category of unskilled, unemployed and unemployable; 3-million of the 21.1-million youth, are single moms heading up households across the country and only a mere 309,133 South Africans are enrolled in pre-primary school.

Early childhood development (ECD) appears to be one of the topics that most of us ignore, when it should be our primary focus. We are caught up with matric results and how that would affect or shape the future for millions of South Africans writing this crucial national examination.

Indeed, studies have shown that the most important period of life for educational development is not the age of university studies or completing secondary school, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six.

As a nation and as a people, we have neglected early childhood development. We have lost focus on what is important in raising our children and we must accept this fact and start doing something about it.

uTata Madiba once said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” These words should forever echo in the minds of parents, educators and society.

I am a mother of three handsome boys who I challenge daily to think, to reason and to question the world around them. I encourage them to use the tools which they are provided with at school to empower themselves and to allow themselves to dream.

It is unfortunate that our primary school intake starts late, at the age of seven. By this time, childhood psychology tells us that most values have been cemented, most habits have been formed and most importantly, at this age, futures have already been shaped. This may certainly change over long period of time; however, the most crucial, are the formative years of a child’s life, and this starts before primary school.

The Nigerian Proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” should remind us of how many interventions and interactions a child deserves before it enters official government structures ie primary, high school, TVET colleges or university.

Currently, ECD Centres which are placed under the auspices of the National and Provincial departments of Social Development, shows that early educational intervention is not taken seriously in our country. The spotlight on these centres have only shone due to inadequate output (matric results).

Research and Education Expert at Stellenbosch University, Nic Spaull, says that providing at least one year of quality ECD education to all students is likely to improve student performance. This is especially true for poorer students who would otherwise start primary school at a disadvantage. Improving the quality of preschool education offered to the poor is also necessary if the full benefit of this policy intervention is to be felt.

Access to reading textbooks: Pupils from low-income households are less likely to have direct access to textbooks. Since there is a strong positive correlation between reading textbook access and reading performance, targeting policies and funds towards reading-textbook provision will have an impact on student performance. This is especially true for pupils from a disadvantaged socio-economic background.

Literacy statistics are shocking in our country. According to research released in December 2017 by the University of Pretoria‚ eight out of 10 Grade 4 pupils still cannot read at an appropriate level.

South Africa was placed last out of 50 countries in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) which included nearly 320‚000 children globally.

The ability to read in Grade 4 is regarded as crucial by many education experts around the globe, this is because as of Grades 1 to 3 you learn to read‚ and from grades 4 to 12 you read to learn.

Once again, Education Expert Nic Spaull said in an article by TimesLive, an inability to read properly meant that “many learners never get a firm grasp on the first rung of the academic ladder and fall further and further behind”.

There are far too many young children in poor communities whose developmental needs are not being met. Almost 4-million children in South Africa do not have access to any form of ECD, and almost 3-million of these children do not receive their daily nutritional requirements.

To level the playing field and bridge the gap between rich and poor, the have’s and have not’s and that of the disadvantaged and the advantaged, we must look to developing our children’s cognitive, physical and emotional abilities at a young age.

ECD centres must become a priority to give every child a fair chance for success at school.

The reality, however painful to accept, is that we are failing our children dismally. According to the Department of Social Development’s Audit Report of ECD centres in the country, 51.7% of children aged 0-4 have no access to any form of ECD, while 13% of 5-year-olds have no access either.

Further to this, the Audit Report, found that 70% of ECD centres are not suited to providing necessary services to our young children. This is alarming to say the least.

A recent study by the University of KwaZulu-Natal found that many ECD facilities, especially in informal settlements, are not registered and fail to comply with basic requirements and standards set by the Department of Social Development.

Some of the contributing factors that are controlled by environmental health within municipalities are requirements for certain types of sanitation, facilities for preparations of food and others.

In many cases, these strict requirements can never be met. In addition, if an informal settlement is not formalised then an ECD facility will never comply with the requirements to open its doors to the public. The unfortunate reality is many informal settlements in South Africa are not formalised.

The journey of our children’s lives through the education system must be followed attentively.

The DA offers some solutions to ensure that a child’s education is a priority. These involve changing interventions and shifting focus from merely chasing after matric pass rate percentages to ensuring that educating every child is a major priority. These are radical changes which the DA in government will make to systemically change our education system to work for all South Africans.

The state must be the net which catches all children from birth to adulthood, especially when there is no safety net to catch struggling mothers and their children, or orphans who fall through the cracks. A caring and responsible government would not allow anyone to fall through the cracks without having to reach out and extend services to ensure their needs are met and that they are treated equally and have access to opportunities.

To do this requires total change and a paradigm shift which will see government Departments of Health, Social Development and Education work together in ensuring no child is left behind.

The paradigm shift necessary is to rethink child support grants which increase and include an allowance to ensure children’s nutritional needs for optimal learning.

Basic Education should formalise the integration of two years for Grade R in primary schools, which would cover children aged 5-6.

Together with the Department of Social Development, Basic Education should collaborate with community-based and non-governmental organisations to develop a network of ECD centres that would reach children aged 0-4.

It remains a tragedy that access to quality education remains skewed according to income level, that in turn correlates with race. As part of the DA, I will commit myself to changing the structural inequalities that divide our people.

The ultimate solution lies in taking those already working and running existing ECD’s, empowering them with the skills of running such a facility, and training them on how and what to teach children.

No child should be left behind. This is the new beginning needed for children in their first years of schooling and foundation phase lifelong learning – the kind of beginning that will also ensure school readiness, and better results for when we next count the percentages for pass rates in matric. DM



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