Durban - Instead of reducing inequalities in education, Grade R has further widened the gap between children from impoverished and affluent schools, according to newly released research using data from 18 102 South African schools.
The potential of the government’s early learning investment, to see children overcome the disadvantages of a poor home environment, has been negated by problems, including teacher capacity.
Between 2001 and 2012, the number of Grade R places in public and independent schools more than tripled, from 242 000 to 768 000. More than 90 percent of Grade R pupils are in public schools and 89 percent of public primary schools offer Grade R.
The research, commissioned by the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency, and the Department of Basic Education, measured the effect of the introduction of Grade R on a child’s learning later on in life.
Conducted by the Research on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP) unit at Stellenbosch University, it found there was “virtually no measurable impact” in ‘the poorest schools (quintiles one to three).
The full report was released on to the ReSEP website on Thursday. It has also been published on the website of the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation.
The results were better in schools which generally performed well, in schools in quintiles four and five, and in Gauteng, the Northern Cape and the Western Cape.
The researchers, led by Professor Servaas van der Berg, said they were able to precisely measure the effect of Grade R on the test performance of pupils in maths and home language from Grades 1 to 6.
Grade R would improve results in the wealthiest quintile by about half-a-year’s learning, but with almost no benefits for lower quintiles.
On average, the effect of Grade R translated to a child gaining just 12 days’ worth of learning in maths, and 50 days in home language (for a school year of 200 days) compared to a child who was not enrolled in Grade R.
“Though Grade R cannot overcome deeply rooted economic problems and social pathologies, a quality programme can be a powerful equaliser to reduce disadvantages,” the study states.
“Importantly, the evidence stresses that good quality early childhood development produces good outcomes; however, weak provision could foster worrying outcomes such as aggressive behaviour and poor language development. Quality is key.”
However, the researchers hailed the government’s progress in increasing the number of children who had access to Grade R as “remarkable”.
While many factors influenced the quality of pre-school or Grade R provision, research suggested two key aspects of quality: teacher training and the curriculum.
The quality of teachers and the support they received from their school and the department was critical, as was their knowledge of how children learn and how they could facilitate learning through structured play.
In interviews of numerous Grade R teachers, an earlier study found that few could articulate a deep understanding of how to maximise children’s learning through a play-based approach.
The second key aspect which required attention was the curriculum. More specifically, practical curriculum guidelines and standards, and ongoing and structured curriculum support for teachers.
Van der Berg and his fellow researchers also recommended that resources and funding be provided to support the “significant” role of the home environment in a child’s learning.
Awareness needed to be created among parents and caregivers, and culturally relevant storybooks in all languages should be made more widely available through libraries.
In her budget speech recently, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced that she intended amending the South African Schools Act to make the compulsory schoolgoing age 5 instead of 7, so that children could benefit from pre-Grade 1 education.
But her department was unable to confirm the date when Grade R would be made compulsory, because this formed part of an ongoing policy review by a ministerial team.