256 18.01.2013 Professor Sarah Gravett ,dean of education at University of Johannesburg Soweto Campus, speaking to The Star about the importance of early childhood development and pre-school education. Picture: Sharon Seretlo

Johannesburg - The first few years of life and schooling lay the foundation of the success of every child. This is what Professor Sarah Gravett believes.

If there are no good early childhood development (ECD) practices and education available to young children, they will struggle to keep up.

“If we improve early schooling it will have a knock-on effect on education,” she said.

Gravett is the Dean of Education at the University of Johannesburg.

Key factors that will lead to the improvement of ECD must include knowledgeable and competent teachers.

“We need to start to understand the importance of ECD teachers because their roles are so important,” she said.

In countries such as Singapore and Finland, where education was excellent, foundation phase teachers were held in high regard, and this was a crucial message, she said.

She said all schools would eventually have Grade R classes, but if teachers were not qualified to teach the children, their education would remain a struggle.

“There is a need for support and development programmes to enable them,” she said.

The university has started to address the problem, having introduced the teacher education foundation phase degree programme.

Teaching students learn hands-on how to engage young minds through practicals and observation at the university’s first-ever primary school, Funda Ujabule. The school is not a fully fledged primary school yet, but will eventually become one.

The four-year-old school started off with just two Grade R classes and now has classes up to Grade 3. The school also serves as a teaching school and research centre.

“The students love it. Their involvement in the school is the most significant element of the programme,” she said.

She believes the integration of theory and practice is an excellent model.

“The students have structured tasks linked to the curriculum. This is why it’s so enriching,” she said.

The students move grade by grade with a group of children and see their development.

“Our teaching students do practicals from their first year because we want them to have a sound understanding of child development,” she said.

A second factor for improvement includes facility upgrades and family and nutritional support.

“Don’t underestimate the influence of facilities,” she said.

ECD centre accessibility in many parts of the country was hard to come by, especially in rural areas, she said.

“Some places are better equipped. In rural areas there aren’t many ECD classes.”

Gravett said child minders were not to blame because they worked hard even though they usually had no background in ECD training, much like pre-schools.

Classes tended to be overcrowded and the practitioners lacked qualifications and background in ECD.

“However despite the lack of resources some teachers are able to prevail so we can’t always use it as an excuse,” she said.

Programmes for parents would also help ECD, she said.

“Parents need to be able to read with their children at home,” said Gravett.

She said the university was starting a similar teacher programme to Funda Ujabule, in Mpumalanga.

Overall, Gravett was pleased with the focus that had been given to ECD in the past few years.

She said investment in ECD would only improve education in the long term. - The Star