Gauteng MEC for Finance and e-Government Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko announced in her maiden budget speech on Thursday that a hefty R2.5-billion would be allocated to ensuring that all learners, regardless of their socio-economic status, go through Early Childhood Development.
To give one an idea of the magnitude of this, the department will spend less than one percent of this amount (R155 million) on improving literacy and numeracy across all grades.
But while the principle behind the decision to spend on ECD is sound, the tools that provincial leadership have chosen to implement it could be misguided.
The R2.5 billion, earmarked to be spent in the province over the medium term, will be used to “complete the Universalisation of Grade R and preparing and piloting the introduction of Grade RR in public schools,” said Nkomo-Ralehoko.
This follows a statement by Gauteng Premier David Makhura in his recent State of the Province address.
“Most of the problems of our basic education system derive from the weaknesses of the foundation phases and primary schools,” said Makhura.
“It is for this reason … that over the next decade more attention will also be given to the strengthening of the foundation phases.”
He went on to undertake that the provincial government will support 700,000 children aged 0-4 years in early childhood development centres across the province, by providing funding, curriculum development and training of teachers.
“We want all crèches operating in Gauteng to comply with the ECD norms and standards and follow the approved curriculum so that they can offer our children a proper foundation,” said Makhura.
“Universal access to Grade R for all children aged 4-6 remains our goal during this decade.” This goal “constitutes a major step in giving our children a strong foundation,” said the Premier.
However, Professor Ursula Hoadley at the University of Cape Town’s School of Education, suggests that the quality of Grade R education is of more concern than increasing the number of learners enrolled in it.
“In 2011, about 40% of five-year-olds had access to grade R in schools; 11% were enrolled in primary schools and approximately 32% were attending a less formal preschool, such as a crèche,” says Hoadley in a 2013 academic essay, citing figures from the Department of Education.
In fact, only about 17% of five-year-olds were not enrolled in any form of schooling or preschool.
Enrolment in grade R more than doubled in the poorer provinces of Limpopo, Northern Cape and North West between 2002 and 2011.
Using data from the General Household Survey, the Department of Basic Education reported that, in 2011, 88% of grade ones had received formal grade R the previous year, she noted.
“Participation in early formal education is thus high, and expanding, especially in poorer provinces,” observes Hoadley.
“The question however is what children have access to in grades R – 3.”
More important than an extra year of schooling, Hoadley argues, is the quality of the education being offered to children.
“Infrastructure, resources, support, inspection and management all play a role in the quality of children’s learning. But research confirms that, amongst school factors, it is what happens in the classroom that makes the greatest difference to children’s learning outcomes,” she says.
The weaknesses in current classroom learning are vast-ranging. In summary, she says, “there is an emphasis on oral discourse, with limited opportunities for reading and writing. Classes are often large, with inappropriate teacher–learner ratios for early learning activities. Dominant forms of student participation involve chorusing rather than individual response in the classroom. Assessment and feedback to learners from teachers is weak, and there is very little direct or explicit instruction. The level of cognitive demand made on children in classrooms is low, and textbooks and other guiding materials are under-utilised.”
Five economists at the Department of Economics at the University of Stellenbosch, compiled recommendations on improving education quality in South Africa for the National Planning Commission in 2011.
In their report, among other things, they recommended focusing on improving the quality of Early Childhood Development facilities.
“All South African children should have access to ECD facilities that are closely monitored and well supported ensuring a high quality so as to give children a better foundation for learning upon entering primary school,” said the researchers.
This research once again underpins the argument that quality is the real buzzword for improving ECD outcomes: ensuring that better education in Grade R is provided, rather than more learners enrolled in Grade R.
Research conducted by Stellenbosch University and published in the 2015 African Evaluation Journal found that the Grade R programme has expanded dramatically, to the point where participation is nearly universal.
However, the report found that, although a substantial literature points to large potential benefits from pre-school educational opportunities, the impact evaluation reported on in this article demonstrated that the Grade R programme, as implemented until 2011 in South Africa, “had a limited impact on later educational outcomes”.
Hoadley told Inside Education: “In other words, adding a year to primary school had no effect on later schooling outcomes. The reason: the quality of Grade R.”
In light of these findings, Hoadley said that there was little value in the government’s aim of piloting Grade RR.
“There is no point rolling out Grade RR unless there is some sense of how quality can be ensured,” she said.