The most challenging part of early learning development is the road ahead
In March 2015 the Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini, published a gazette for public comment and input on the national policy on Early Childhood Development (ECD).
The overarching goal of the policy is to ensure that ECD services extend to reach all children from conception to the time they commence with their formal schooling at reception year (Grade R). In addition, the policy also aims to provide a common set of standards that will ensure quality and equitable provision of ECD services for all children in the country.
There is no question that this step taken by the Minister has created a naturally precipitated excitement and hope, particularly within the ECD sector, which has been advocating government to increase its investment and coverage for years. This is in view of the positive returns that early learning has for children and the country as a whole; the enormous social, educational and economic benefits that countries investing in early childhood education derive in the long run.
These include increased primary school enrolment, enhanced school performance, lower repetition and drop-out rates, reduced need for costly remedial education programmes and improved participation as adults in economic and social activities.
Once the final adoption of the national ECD policy by government has taken place (ideally before the end of 2015), this will mark the end of the struggle for a legislative framework to ensure the participation of all children in ECD programmes. What will remain is practical obstacles hindering the access of some children to ECD, but they will be dealt with upon being encountered.
Equally, this will also be the beginning of what is likely to be a long and tiresome journey to provide parents, caregivers and practitioners with quality services to ensure the optimal physical, social, emotional and cognitive development of children. In a country where only approximately 50% of 3- to 4-year-old children have access to ECD centres, with varying levels of quality services, it will be a major challenge to ensure that the required number of people needed to do the task are found and properly trained.
It is only when one considers the comprehensive package of development services required for the holistic development of children that the magnitude of the task becomes evident. Skilled facilitators will be required to provide effective training to parents or caregivers on healthcare, quality nutrition, emotional and social care, as well as cognitive stimulation and language development to the 0- to 2-year-olds in their homes.
There will also be a need for well-trained ECD practitioners to facilitate the holistic development of 3- to 5-year-olds in ECD centres or non-centre based settings. The task of securing the huge numbers of facilitators and trainers needed to reach the ambitious targets is, in itself, a daunting one.
It is therefore important for the ECD sector to continue creating a repertoire of effective strategies and models of development and early learning that have been empirically proven to produce the intended development and learning outcomes for young children.
The early learning strategies and models would come in handy for the training of a huge influx of ECD practitioners into the ECD sector once the national policy has been approved, and the state has made financial resourcing of the ECD policy a reality. The long and inglorious struggle of the public school sector to overcome the challenges of poor educational outcomes is instructive in this regard.
Although the schooling system has been receiving full government funding for years now, it is still far from realising the quality academic attainments that have been its holy grail all along. This can only mean one thing for the ECD sector: getting learning right in the ECD sector will be a long road ahead and we must be prepared to stay on course.
However, the struggles of the impending journey would be greatly alleviated if we go into the future armed with the knowledge, skills and expertise of what has been proven to work as this would shorten the inevitable path of experimentation and trial and error.