The Nelson Mandela Foundation has over the past month facilitated several training sessions for provincial officials of the Department of Basic Education. These training sessions were conducted with our partners Data Innovators and ImpandeSA. So far, the Foundation has conducted these training sessions in five provinces: the Northern Cape, Free State, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Eastern Cape. Plans are in place to conduct these training sessions in the remaining four provinces.
The core of these training sessions is centred around capacitating officials on the Vangasali campaign, its aims, gains, progress thus far and the role each of the stakeholders (government and civil society) can play in ensuring that registration of early childhood development (ECD) centres gets massified. More information on the Vangasali campaign can be found here.
I attended one such training a few weeks back in the Eastern Cape and I remember sitting there and just listening to officials speak of the challenges they were facing in reaching some of the centres they were meant to register. These included a lack of transport, limited working equipment, inefficient bureaucracies, and a host of other problems that would certainly make the prospect of going to work each day difficult. Yet in the same fashion, they spoke of the strides they were making, often achieved at their own cost with a singular aim to improve the learning outcomes of young children even in places that were almost impossible to reach due to their remote nature and state of roads in accessing them.
As I sat there listening to these stories I reflected on my own childhood, growing up in rural Ngqamakwe in the Eastern Cape. A young boy full of hope and promise, long before I was able to contend with the difficulties of the environment I grew up in. I reflected on how my village was probably one of these hard-to-reach areas, where the state of roads meant that even the slightest amount of drizzle rendered them unusable, cutting off people’s access to town and nearby villages, with movement only resuming once the roads dried again.
As I sat there, I realised that it’s no wonder no one attempted to even monitor our early learning programmes. Who knows, it might even be a case of no one even knowing our early learning centre existed? As such, we the children were at the mercy of “educators” who, through their own goodwill, thought it best to deliver an educational service to the best of their abilities, yet this service was probably not measured against any other educational outcomes. It was just an educational program that existed with the sole purpose to keep us busy while our grandparents worked the fields to ensure we didn’t go to bed on an empty stomach. Thus, it was not surprising that many of us figured out how to count along the way later than the age we were supposed to, struggled to write in line, or couldn’t read with meaning until we encountered formal learning in grade 1.
Even this process of formal learning didn’t come without its pains. A few of our classmates dropped out along the way not because they were lazy or didn’t want to go to school, but because they lacked a strong foundation at the early-learning level meant even grasping the most basic literacy and numeracy concepts was a mammoth task. And instead of repeating the same grade a multitude of times, many saw it best to not give formal education a shot. Even from those who barely scraped through without dropping out (myself included), only a few got to fully experience what our educational system offered until maybe later in high school when interventions like extra classes and student-centric learning became the norm. Sadly, even in these situations, we were so behind the rest of our peers that even teachers themselves probably dreaded our attendance in their classes.
My situation, though different, is not unique. It’s a common occurrence for many children in rural areas, townships, and informal settlements in South Africa. The systemic nature of our past governance systems has ensured that many children from these areas are afforded limited and often poor foundational learning. What we have inherited is a system intentionally engineered to provide two early childhood development systems that run in parallel. One for the elite and another for everyone else. The unfortunate reality is that kids from both systems must compete for spots at the tertiary level, for increasingly limited jobs, for promotions at work - and we all know that fortune continues to favour the fortunate in South Africa. And even these opportunities come for only a select few who aren’t children of the elite, the rest barely make it past primary school education. Now, how many of these young children do we lose every single year without really addressing the struggles at foundation-level meritoriously?
We have watched our government invest in several educational interventions aimed at reducing the drop-out rate or improving results at High School level with matric being the primary focus, yet children are still not thriving by the age of five. A range of interventions exist aimed at improving the skills of teachers in what many deem the formal schooling system, yet in villages like my own, early learning teachers are still not certified, Early Learning Programs not registered, and children still struggle with basic motor skills. This acts as a sad reminder that work is needed at the basic level, we need to go back to the beginning to plan for our future.
And how do we plan for this future? By fixing our early childhood development learning programmes. By ensuring that the many officials in not just the Eastern Cape who are struggling to reach remote areas have transport and the necessary equipment to deliver at their jobs. By making sure that early learning programs are investigated, evaluated, and monitored to make sure that the quality of education they deliver is in line with national standards.
I am but one of the mere few that have managed to successfully emerge from a system of education that was likely unplanned, but many of my playgroup classmates cannot say the same. There are many who would not have had to be in grade 1 twice just to learn addition and multiplication, reading with meaning, and taking then applying instructions. There are many who wouldn’t have had to drop out had their progress been monitored with tailor-made solutions that attended to the skills they seemed to be lacking at a particular age, and their innate talents nurtured. There are many who would have been stimulated by being able to colour in between the lines and at least write coherently before going to “big school”. All of this would have been made possible through learning in a registered ECD centre, one where the teacher had enough material, was equipped, and was motivated to teach the student.
This is what Vangasali aims to do, though not the silver bullet, it is aimed at ensuring that children study in centres that are registered, centres that can be easily monitored because the Department of Basic Education knows where they are and centres whose curriculum can be monitored and measured against national educational outcomes. It is a campaign that many of my playgroup classmates could have benefited from, a campaign that could be part of a mixed bag of government solutions to improve early learning outcomes. What it requires is a concerted effort from all in society to speak to its outcomes, to make information around it available and for the government to be held to account for the fulfilment of its outcomes. I am ready to play my part, are you?