Covid-19 lockdown: Government’s failure to lead the ECD sector needs to be addressed
From the day that school closures in relation to Covid-19 were announced, the utter disregard for the Early Childhood Development (ECD) sector has been a bizarre situation to behold, and as a preschool owner, to be a part of. I have come to think that the sector seems like an irritating cousin for the government, one that they do not have the capacity or interest to deal with, so they have just pretended it doesn't exist. This is very worrying for society, considering the vital role that the sector plays, and needs to be addressed.
The critical importance of ECD
1. The early years play a critical role in health, success and happiness in later life
More and more research is coming out across the world to show the importance of ECD in the long-term health, success and happiness of people. The brain grows most rapidly before the age of 5 and the optimum periods of growth for many core developmental areas such as social, emotional and language development, and the sensory-motor system, happen before the age of 5.
2. Social and emotional intelligence is key for success
Critically, the basis for social and emotional intelligence is developed in the early years, with both of these being highlighted as vitally important in individuals’ personal and professional growth. This is particularly relevant in the context of the fourth industrial revolution. These skills are developed through interactions with and guidance from teachers and peers.
3. Routine and camaraderie plays a huge role in stability and behaviour
Children thrive in routine. Unlike adults they have no control over their day, so routine gives them a framework within which to understand their daily lives. In addition, when little ones are with their peers on a regular basis, we often find that they become more confident, independent and develop self-care skills like potty training, eating and napping more easily.
4. Caregivers are for the most part unable to stimulate and care for their little ones appropriately throughout the day
As we can all understand, being a caregiver of a little one is demanding. In the current circumstance, it is almost impossible for most, and impossible for many. Caregivers of little ones form a large part of the workforce and thus, need to work. In addition, even if they are able to work from home, having their little one at home is extremely challenging.
This results in stressed out and anxious parents and little ones, with caregivers unable to work effectively and little ones possibly regressing in terms of behaviour and other developmental areas.
The ECD sector: the irritating cousin that nobody seems to want to deal with
Since the lockdown has happened we have heard the President and other Ministers refer to industries across the board several times. Each time a speech would happen, the ECD sector would wait in anticipation for their turn, yet it would not come; not the President, not the Minister of Education, and not the Minister of Social Development.
It is common knowledge for practitioners that the ECD sector is in the process of moving from the Department of Social Development (DSD) to the Department of Basic Education (DBE). The result it seems, is that the DBE does not yet have the capacity to deal with it, and so sees it as a nuisance, and DSD has long since given up its duty to support it effectively, and so sees it as an embarrassing family member they just want to get rid of.
So where does it sit now? In No Man’s Land. It seems to be a nuisance and frustration for both departments, with neither having the capacity or energy to deal with it.
Confusion at play: A sector in No Man’s Land
A perfect example of the above mentioned issue is the following:
* When school closures were announced on the 15th March, there was no mention of ECD centres. When ECD centres scrambled to find out if this included them, the Minister of DSD explained that all ECD centres should fall in line with the directives from the DBE as they are schools.
* When the DBE finally addressed ECD centres and gazetted the opening date of the 6th July, ECD owners immediately started preparations for opening. After much back and forth with very little official communication, the Minister of DSD then stated that private ECD centres do not fall under the DBE, so must wait for a directive from DSD for a date. Almost a month later, this date has not come.
Confused and frustrated in No Man’s Land, ECD centres and their little ones’ families are at a loss, particularly considering the message from relevant specialists that the ECD sector should be open.
The message from researchers is clear: open the ECD sector
The frustration of being in No Man’s Land has been exacerbated by the fact that top paediatricians and educational researchers have called for the opening of the sector with crystal clear recommendations: South African Paediatric Association webinar: should children return to school? ; Policy brief: who should go back to school first in South Africa?
The significant lack of leadership in a sector that is critical for our little ones and much of the core workforce, in contrast to the recommendations from the relevant specialists, cannot be taken lightly.
The lack of leadership in the ECD sector should have society worried
Of course the vacuum of leadership is worrying in a whole range of ways, including an inability for many in the sector to survive, and resulting permanent ECD centre closures across the country, but my biggest worry is that it shows where ECD stands on the government’s priority list and what this means for society as a whole.
Simply put, when we are under pressure, we prioritise things that we think are important. When the economy has pretty much opened, to the point that the service and entertainment industry is in operation, yet ECDs have still barely been considered or addressed, we should all be extremely worried about what this tells us about our society, socially, and our future, socially and economically.
What should be done to assist with the plight of the ECD sector and the little ones left behind?
The sector had been eagerly anticipating a court case with DSD scheduled on the 23rd June, which demanded clarity on an opening date for ALL ECD centres. However, this was postponed by a week, yet another massive blow in the waiting game for the sector still holding out hope to open in less than two weeks. Although there seems to be movement from the Department in preparation for opening through circulars issued on the 21st and 23rd June, it is too little, too late, and with the limited resources that ECD centres have, very little can be done without a gazetted opening date.
We need society at large to listen to the recommendations of the relevant researchers, take responsibility for the well-being of our little ones, and support the call on the government to allow ALL ECD centres to open on the 6th July and more importantly provide better leadership to a sector stuck in No Man’s Land.
* Andy Bassingthwaighte is a passionate ECD practitioner and principal, committed to the overall improvement of the ECD sector through an increase in evidence-based practice.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.