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Durban - The move to drop the age of schoolchildren entering the pre-education system by two years has been met with mixed reactions from teaching unions.

Basic education minister, Angie Motshekga, in her 2014/15 budget vote address before the National Assembly, confirmed that the department would be taking a legislative review to make schooling from Grade R level, from the age of five to 15, compulsory.

“In respect of Early Childhood Development, the National Development Plan underlines the need for access for all children to at least two years of pre-school education. The Department has made significant progress in increasing access to Grade R… 16 909 of the 18 475 public primary schools have Grade R classes with an enrolment of 779 370 learners.”

She added that the National Curriculum Framework for children under four years old would also be rolled out from January next year.

Basil Manuel, president of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, said the union welcomed the increased access to Grade R, as well as the commitment to making two years of pre-school education compulsory.

The union, however, believed that early childhood development educators needed to be professionally qualified.

“We endorse the sentiment that the initial years of schooling are critical for future learning, hence, early childhood development needs individuals who are properly qualified and trained. Presently a large percentage of ‘teachers’ employed in the sector are essentially caregivers.”

National Teachers Union deputy president, Allen Thompson, echoed these sentiments, and added that qualified educators were “vital” in ensuring that young children received the foundation they needed.

“Research has shown that children who receive quality education at a Grade R level, as well as a pre-Grade R level, excel once they come to Grade 1.”

Changing the age limits, while a good start, needed to be coupled with a focus on the teaching environment.

“Some of these Grade R ‘teachers’ are child minders who earn less than R2 000. This amounts to exploitation and needs to be curbed, as this affects the quality of the care they give.”

While commending Motshekga on her commitment and positive vision for the future of education, Manuel warned that it would only be through the effective utilisation of the budgeted resources and assured implementation of programmes across provinces that quality education would be achieved.

Motshekga also addressed the issue of the department’s schools nutrition programme, saying that it fed more than 9 million pupils.

The schools health programme and the possible inclusion of history as a compulsory subject were also discussed.

Textbooks, a controversial subject since last year’s Limpopo delivery debacle, were also mentioned.

“Millions of textbooks and workbooks have been delivered to schools; the focus now will be to continue to monitor utilisation to improve learning outcomes and impact. Parents, educators and officials have an important role to play to ensure that the tax payers’ investment in the future of our children is not wasted.”

Daily News