Rebecca Hickman

The government’s commitment to giving every child a Grade R place has attracted wide support. So, what are we to make of the recent research by Stellenbosch University, which found that Grade R actually increases inequality? (“Grade R Widens Inequality,” Cape Times, July 25).

The problem with complex research like this is that usually a variety of themes emerge, which are not necessarily amenable to easy summary. Sometimes the most eye-catching extract is not the one that offers the greatest insight, or that points us towards useful policy solutions.

The Stellenbosch University team looked at what effect the introduction of Grade R had on learning outcomes. Their findings were both disappointing and encouraging.

Disappointing because too many children are still not receiving the full benefits of Grade R, which means there is minimal impact on their later achievement in maths and home language. Encouraging because for some children, Grade R does indeed appear to make a difference by boosting later achievement.

It is unsurprising that children who secure the greater benefits from this vital pre-school year tend to attend wealthier schools. These schools are likely to have better-resourced Grade R classes with more highly trained teachers.

The fact that this can be cast as “increasing inequality” (because the advantages accrue to children who are already better off) should not distract us from the more important message – that high-quality Grade R can and does make a difference to later school success.

The Stellenbosch researchers reinforced this point with their important finding that children attending Grade R in poorer schools in provinces with “well-functioning education systems”, saw the same boost to their maths progress as children attending the wealthiest schools in poor-performing provinces.

This supports the results of studies from around the world which show that while access is crucial, it is the quality of provision that is the key to unlocking the learning potential of all children. The challenge is how to extend this kind of quality to all schools in South Africa – and, above all, to ensure that poverty does not act as a barrier.

Quality in Grade R is multi-faceted. It requires teachers who understand how children learn at this young age, and who are skilled at supporting different kinds of learning – whether child-initiated or mediated. Introducing formal teaching methods to Grade R classrooms is unlikely to yield the results we want to see. Young children learn best when they are allowed to be children – exploring their world, and building new language and understanding through play, interaction and story-telling.

Quality also requires a shared understanding of what children need to learn in Grade R. This year is a crucial period for developing skills for learning. These include attention, persistence, motivation, self-control and problem-solving. Research suggests that children who develop these skills at a young age achieve higher literacy scores, do better at school and are even more likely to get a degree.

The evidence also shows that children who have more developed language and literacy capabilities when they start Grade 1, go on to become better readers and writers. In particular, in Grade R, children need to have opportunities to build their competence and understanding in two key areas – language skills (such as vocabulary and comprehension) and code-related skills (such as letter-sound knowledge).

Appropriate learning materials, in particular storybooks, matter too. These are the practical tools which help Grade R teachers to deliver curriculum requirements and create a fun and stimulating learning environment. And, of course, quality provision requires decent classrooms, clean toilets, good nutrition and safe spaces to play inside and out.

The urgent question then is how can we rapidly upskill and resource our Grade R teachers to deliver this kind of quality? The Stellar programme (Strengthening Teaching of Early Language and Literacy in Grade R) has been developed by non-profit organisation Wordworks with precisely this challenge in mind.

Stellar provides training and materials to Grade R teachers to help them better support early language and literacy learning. In-service training is provided for Grade R teachers over a period of six months, to ensure that new teaching methods and practices become embedded in the classroom. A pack of user-friendly materials is provided to enable year-on-year delivery of the programme.

Progression through the carefully designed, story-based programme helps children to become confident listeners and speakers, to build their knowledge of letters and sounds, to become aware of print and to begin to express their ideas through drawing and emergent writing.

Repetition is key, helping children to consolidate their learning before moving on to new areas.

On completion of the course, one teacher from Grassy Park said: “This programme has been so insightful and has made me as a teacher much more confident working with Grade Rs. I have learnt so much and home language became a breeze to teach.

“The children enjoyed each and every activity provided and became ecstatic to learn new concepts. I feel that the group going to progress to Grade 1 is one strong group and is going to make things so much easier for their teacher.”

Since 2011, over 250 Grade R teachers in the Western Cape have participated in Stellar training. The programme has now attracted funding from the School Capacity and Innovation Programme (jointly funded by USAid, the ELMA Foundation and JP Morgan), allowing it to be rolled out to other provinces next year. The aim is to provide training to education district officials and non-profit organisations, so that they can deliver Stellar training independently, enabling a rapid scale-up that can reach far more children.

USAid is also funding a significant research study to look closely at the impacts of Stellar. This will help to further enhance understanding of what effective Grade R provision looks like in the field of early language and literacy. In particular, it is hoped that the findings will furnish the government with new evidence around which kinds of interventions to invest in, in order to ensure that Grade R acts decisively to close the attainment gap.

In this sense, perhaps the question worth focusing on is not whether Grade R can boost the learning outcomes – and therefore life chances – of all children, but how to direct efforts and resources to achieve this. The answer, like the challenge, is multi-layered. It requires support for evidence-based interventions like Stellar alongside improved initial teacher training, higher pay and status for Grade R teachers, and more funding for appropriate teaching and learning materials.

The government is on the right track and hopefully the latest report from Stellenbosch University will motivate it to go further and faster.

l Hickman is a policy and advocacy consultant who specialises in education. Wordworks is a non-profit organisation that works with parents, teachers, volunteers and home visitors to strengthen early language and literacy learning. Visit www.wordworks.org.za to find out more about the Stellar programme.