Children acquire basic numeracy and problem-solving skills, but the quality of this is influenced by what parents can afford in terms of pre-schooling. Caregivers in creches and and pre-school teachers are not given the recognition they require.

Psychologist Judith Ancer paid tribute to pre-school teachers as the unsung heroes of education in a recent article in the Sunday Times.

She cited a longitudinal study conducted by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and others that tracked the academic and career paths of 12 000 children from their pre-school years to their early thirties.

They found that children who attended pre-school in their early years were earning more and had a decent job, were less likely to be single parents, were saving more, and were much less likely to be involved in crime.

This research shows the long-term benefits of young children attending and participating in good pre-school programmes where the pre-school teacher will lay the foundation for children’s future development.

During the formative years, basic numeracy and problem-solving skills are acquired, and children learn confidence and the ability to cope with disappointment.

All of this is reinforced in the pre-school and, through play and make-believe, the teachers nurture and water the seeds that will eventually become good and productive citizens.

In her article, Ancer also highlights the Stats SA figure that about 30 percent of under-four-year-old children have access to early childhood development programmes.

The reality in our communities is that quality ECD provision is subject to where children live and what their parents can afford. Therefore, the majority of children in poor communities find themselves in informal crèches, or what Ancer terms “toddler warehousing”.

ECD specialists like Professor Eric Atmore at the UCT School of Social Work and Linda Biersteker also conducted local research on the long-term benefits of pre-school and ECD exposure for young children and for years have been advocating that more needs to be invested in the pre-school years in order for more pupils to enter the “era of hope”.

International economists also acknowledge that for every dollar invested in ECD, the future return on their investment will be more than $17. Currently, imprisoning criminals costs the government about R200 a day, while the ECD investment is only about R15 a child a day.

Pre-school provision will remain a challenge and we cannot shift from the “toddler warehousing” in poor communities, owing to the growing poverty and unemployment experienced by families.

Many practitioners who are providing services do so with massive personal sacrifices in trying to provide care, stimulation and nutrition to young children. These are the real heroes in education. The willingness to turn part of your home into a place of care, to use your own money to feed others’ children and to serve as secondary caregivers while mothers go to work, make preschool teachers and practitioners a special breed.

It is, however, sad that formally trained pre-school teachers do not get the recognition they deserve.

It is ironic that the pre-school teachers who are responsible for laying the foundation for our children’s future are less valued than farm labourers and domestic workers, who are protected by legislation. The minimum wage for a domestic worker in an urban area is R1 506 a month and in non-urban areas R1 256. Many pre-school teachers are dreaming of earning R1 500.

The South African Domestic Workers’ Act sets out minimum wages for workers and specifies working conditions such as hours of work, overtime pay, salary increases, deductions, and annual and sick leave – while the sectoral determination for the farming sector ensures that labourers who work at least 45 hours a week can expect to earn about R1 200 a month.

In contrast, we find that practitioners with a level-four or five qualification have to accept what the pre-school can raise through fees and parent contributions.

Untold stories of practitioners working without any income for months can be heard in many ECD forum meetings.

It is therefore not difficult to understand why well-qualified teachers and practitioners refuse to work in the townships or communities where they live, and opt to work in the leafy suburbs where parents can afford to pay them a decent wage. Improved qualifications also do not translate into better services for young children in the “toddler warehouses” because the good teachers commute.

In terms of the long-term benefits of ECD, it is no surprise that matriculants in the wealthier suburbs pass with eight and nine distinctions.

The ECD sector and pre-school teachers and practitioners therefore need to organise and mobilise themselves for this group of “invisible workers” to get the necessary recognition.

When pre-school teachers and practitioners are recognised and their contribution acknowledged, it will hopefully motivate them to improve their services and strive to do even better. Formal recognition, protection and basic service conditions for the ECD sector might just be the spark that is needed to turn things around for young children in our country.

On one hand we have to support and acknowledge that teachers and practitioners need a better deal, and on the other we have to encourage the teachers to improve their services. On June 1 – International Children’s Day – more than 2 000 pre-school teachers from nine provinces, marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to demand better service conditions.

According to Leonard Saul, the CEO of the South African Congress of Early Childhood Development, people made the sacrifice to travel to Pretoria to voice their concern (Mail & Guardian, June 10). Despite handing a memorandum to the Presidency’s representative, Eugene Mthetwa, the sector is still waiting on a formal response.

In the Western Cape, NGOs and the Department of Social Development are working together to improve quality ECD provision for all young children. Over the past few months, an audit of about 2 000 unregistered ECD sites was conducted. In line with the requirements of the Children’s Act, any person providing services to children must become registered. In terms of the act, the person applying for registration must have at least three years’ experience in the ECD field. NGOs are encouraging service providers to become registered and compliant with the requirements of the act.

All service providers are also expected to register their ECD learning programme with the Department of Social Development.

This is a further attempt at improving the overall quality that we want for our children.

Moving away from the “toddler warehouses” and poor quality services, NGOs and training organisations are working towards a framework for an affordable, adaptable and age-appropriate learning programme that is in line with the national early learning and development standards for children up to four years old.

Using this framework, the desired results are to ensure that children learn how to think critically, solve problems and form concepts; become more aware of themselves as individuals, develop a positive self-image and learn how to manage their behaviour; demonstrate growing awareness of diversity and the need to respect and care for others; learn to communicate effectively and use language confidently; learn about mathematical concepts, and begin to demonstrate physical and motor abilities and understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

Thousands of children are still entering the mainstream school system in Grade R and Grade 1 without the benefit of a good early childhood development programme, and we hope that the collaboration between NGOs and the departments of Social Development and Education will lead to young children being better prepared for the challenges of the formal education system.

Early childhood development and pre-schools, in particular, can play a big role in addressing the social circumstances our children find themselves in.

Pre-school centres are important resources in poor communities that should serve as hubs for social and welfare services. All pre-school centres should become feeding points or nutrition centres to ensure that more young children have access to a decent meal.

Pre-school centres and struggling home-based programmes could become partners not only in sharing in the food, but also sharing in the learning environment and equipment. ECD service providers and forums should encourage closer working relations and partnerships between the formal and non-formal service providers, to encourage a culture of learning and teaching and sharing in the interest of young children.

Part of our anti-poverty strategies should also involve parents and caregivers who can help with cooking, cleaning, feeding and general maintenance. This type of involvement might encourage caregivers to transport the positive energy of the pre-school into the home environment where homes become centres of learning.

Research and experience show that investment in early childhood development guarantees better school results.

l Riedewhaan Allie is the director of the Western Cape Foundation for Community Work.