Investment in quality early learning is desperately needed, but questions are being asked about whether the government is ready to implement it properly. Picture: Antoine de Ras

Durban - South Africa is not ready to roll out high-quality pre-Grade R (Grade RR) education for all children. The potential of this early learning investment by the government - to narrow the gap between impoverished and affluent children - can be realised only if pre-Grade R education is of high quality, newly released research cautions.

The research investigated whether the education system was prepared to respond to the call of the National Development Plan (NDP), for two years of quality pre-school enrolment for 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds to be introduced before Grade 1.

One in five early childhood development (ECD) centres is battling an inadequate drinking-water supply, one in four has an inadequate electricity supply and one quarter don’t have adequate toilet facilities.

Just one out of every 10 ECD practitioners has a qualification above matric, and only one quarter have received some training in early childhood development.

“Implementing an additional year of early childhood care and education will not have the expected (and much-needed) impact if it will only be of the same quality as current Grade R provision,” says the research, by Janeli Kotze of the Research on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP) unit at Stellenbosch University.

A study released last year, also by the ReSEP unit, revealed that instead of reducing inequalities in education, Grade R had further widened the gap between children from impoverished and affluent schools, because of problems such as teacher quality.

The NDP calls early childhood development a “top priority” among the measures to improve education quality and the long-term prospects of future generations.

The past decade has seen the rapid national expansion of providing Grade R. Enrolment has grown from 300 000 in 2003, to nearly 780 000 in 2013.

The NDP proposes the introduction of a universally accessible pre-Grade R, so that at least 75% of 4- and 5-year-olds can participate in formal early childhood care and education by 2024.

Kotze’s analysis explored the demand for ECD, the policy space in which pre-Grade R would function, the quality and quantity of infrastructure already in place and the qualifications and expertise.

Among the data sources she used was the 2013 audit of ECD centres by the Social Development Department.

Given that many children enter formal schooling with their developmental potential significantly compromised, investment in early childhood development was arguably the most cost-efficient fiscal expenditure to affect equality gaps.

But pre-schools often lacked the human and infrastructural resources to stimulate children - deeming them child-minding facilities. Indicators of quality included physical resources, curriculum choices, school ethos, and school management. Most vital were teachers, who needed to appreciate that what children learnt was as important as how children learnt.

One in every two coloured 4-year-olds and one in every three black 4-year-olds are not attending ECD centres. But the same is true for only one in every 10 white 4-year-olds.

Up until 2013, the minimum requirement for an ECD practitioner was a Basic Certificate in ECD (replaced by the Further Education and Training Certificate in ECD, equivalent to Grade 12).

Regardless of qualification or salary, the average monthly salary ranged between R1 400 and R2 000.

Kotze made the following five policy recommendations:

* Extensive investment in infrastructure, and learning and teaching support material will be needed regardless of whether pre-Grade R will be implemented in primary schools or in ECD centres.

* Sufficient staffing and ECD expertise are required at national, provincial and district levels to ensure that ECD centres and practitioners receive the necessary professional support in implementing a pre-Grade R curriculum.

* An entire teaching force will need to be trained.

* Significant additional funding to pay practitioners.

Year-and-a-half gap in learning

By September of the Grade 1 year, the performance gap between children attending quintile five schools (the most affluent), and children attending quintile one to three schools (quintile one the poorest) in the annual national assessments (both maths and literacy) was about equal to a gap of about a year and a half’s learning

Stimulation critical for development

Research in the fields of nutrition, health, neuroscience, psychology, cognition and education unequivocally agrees that cognitive stimulation in early life is critical to the development of a person’s full potential.

Lack of investment in the early years can result in the need for remedial help later in life, which is costlier and less effective.

What the Basic Education Department is doing:

The department is committed to the next phase of early childhood development implementation being characterised by improved quality and efficiency.

Asked what the deadline was for making pre-Grade R compulsory for 5-year-olds, department spokesman Elijah Mhlanga said there was no deadline, because the department was still considering the implications of implementing the policy.

Asked whether the department agreed that the country was not ready for the roll-out of pre-Grade R, Mhlanga said this was an “unhelpful” argument.

“We go through a rigorous process of consultation as part of the policy-making process. We expect stakeholders to give us their input on how to getting around some of the difficult issues we face. We will never be ready until we start somewhere.”

Asked if the department envisioned that when pre-Grade R was introduced,it would be located at primary schools (rather than ECD centres), Mhlanga said this would be dealt with once a comprehensive study was done.

The Mercury