In 2003, 1 252 071 children embarked on their formal school career, these children would become the class of 2014 where the matric pass rate was 75,8%. Yet if we consider of the more than 1 million children who started grade 1 in 2003 only 688 660 would eventually write matric, this means of the children who started school in 2003 only 41,7% would pass matric.
Research shows that the foundation for lifelong learning and success at formal school is laid in the preschool years. In 2001 there were only 3486 preschools registered with the Department of Education (DoE), and that 2,4% of all learners in the DoE system were attending preschool (a total of 275 044 children). Although I'm sure many more children attended preschool sites and programs that were not registered and possibly did not facilitate a prescribed curriculum. Perhaps then we can agree that if more of the grade 1’s in 2003 had the opportunity to attend well run preschools with an age appropriate curriculum the number of children writing and passing matric may have been much higher.
Formalising Grade R and including it in the Curriculum and Policy Statement (CAPS) was definitely a step in the right direction, not only has it has increased the accessibility to learning opportunities but also provided a good age appropriate programme. The disparity was still in the birth to four year age cohort, so many of these children are either not accessing any early learning programme or are attending programs where teaching is not age appropriate and methodology is incorrect.
Taking all this into consideration I would like to give the DoE a huge thumbs up for developing and sharing the Birth to Four National Curriculum framework (NCF). The NCF that was released earlier this year can certainly be utilised to ensure good age appropriate learning programs are put in place so the birth to four year olds will be ready for a successful school career by their 5th birthday.
The NCF encourages Early childhood development organisation’s to implement a child focused, play based programme that meet the needs of the birth to four age cohort. It can be used when working with individual, small and larger groups of children in a center or non-center based setting.
For NGO’s like Cotlands who aim to address the education and social crisis by establishing early learning playgroups (ELPG)and toy libraries in poor communities to serve vulnerable children aged birth to six, the NCF will provide a framework for developing the programs and learning materials.
The NCF has taken the constitution and early learning developmental standards (NELDS) into account and also helps bridge the NELDS and CAPS documents. These were the documents previously used by early learning organisation to develop material.
The NCF is divided into four specific age ranges, and has six early learning and development areas (ELDAs).
- Well being
- Identity and belonging
- Exploring mathematics
- Knowledge and understanding of the world
Each of the learning areas has a developmental guideline, some examples of possible activities, broad assessment guidelines and watch points for each age range. It also guides practitioners on an acceptable assessment and evaluation process. The assessment process allows for tracking and reporting children’s development where the evaluation process assists practitioners to evaluate the overall programme and specific activities.
As a programme development manager I undertook to use the NCF as a bench mark to evaluate the Cotlands programs, and methodology. It was exciting to see that the Cotlands Early learning programme covered all the ELDAs and our assessment process was aligned. We do have to admit that we do not have outing’s as part of the ELPG programme as these are often difficult to organise considering the remote location of some of our ELPG sites, we also do not encourage our beneficiaries to operate electronic devises as per ELDA 6. As an organisation we strongly advocate for young children to experience concepts and life kinesthetically and believe the best way to learn is through 3D play.
Having a nationally recognised frame work that the DoE is willing to share with all stakeholders, undoubtedly increases accountability and can be used as a bench mark when evaluating programs and their ability to meet the developmental needs of young children. One of the challenges is that it’s not the DoE’s role to evaluate services offered to young children as this falls into the Department of Social Developments (DoSD) and Department of Health’s (DoH) scope. Unfortunately, the tools used to measure these programs and sites are designed to look primarily at the health and safety aspects. So the concern of children still attending programs that do not set the foundation for success at school is real. DOH and DoSD officials will need to be trained and tools developed to ensure the learning content of early learning programs falls within the NCF, and that the learning programme is examined as closely as the health and safety issues when registering either a center or non-center based programme.
Looking ahead, it will be very beneficial if the DoE goes on to develop a nationally recognised curriculum for children birth to four years, having a framework is great but most of the relevant stakeholders do not have the internal capacity (Either in skills, funding or time) to use the framework to develop their own curriculum. The curriculum will need to be in a user friendly format and readily available as many early learning practitioners in South Africa do not have formal training and we do not have the capacity or funding to formally train enough practitioners to meet the demand for early learning services in our country.
Many civil society organisations utilise their funding and expertise to build capacity in the early childhood development sector, and if we all were to make use of the same curriculum to capacitate we will impact school readiness more effectively. Cotlands has seen how weekly in-service training can capacitate someone from the community to work with small groups of children in a non-centre based programme to adequately prepare the children for formal schooling, as an organisation we will always advocate for accredited training where practitioners receive a formal qualification but due to varying challenges this is not always possible, and in the short term should not prevent children from receiving good quality early learning opportunities.
Also interesting to note is the terminology used in the NCF, all research and academic documents referrer to babies, toddlers and young children yet the NCF referrers to Beginning, Moving on, Advancing further and Toward Grade R – small deviations like this may seem insignificant but have an impact when developing training material and ensuring that practitioners have a good understanding of best practice and correct methodology when working with specific age groups.
If we want young children to develop into young adults who not only have a good matric but also the skills and desire to engage in lifelong learning so they can contribute to society in a meaningful way we will need have multi-disciplinary interventions. No one person, organisation or government department will be able to provide all the necessary support, and it is wonderful to see how the DoE has used their expertise to create the framework, but also made the frame work available to the rest of the team.
I have no doubt that if we work in collaboration and agree on a few principal issues like what and how young children should be learning in their formative years we will certainly see different grade 12 results for the class of 2026.