Grade R teacher Thozama Kila keeps her crew busy on their first day of class at Soweto-on-Sea Primary School with a vigorous play session. Picture: THE HERALD
Grade R teacher Thozama Kila keeps her crew busy on their first day of class at Soweto-on-Sea Primary School with a vigorous play session. Picture: THE HERALD

President Cyril Ramaphosa proposed in his state of the nation address to provide for two reception years at school, yet as things stand grade R has almost no benefit for SA’s poor children. The department of basic education’s national assessment of grade R found that its impact for the poorest three quintiles demonstrated “no measurable impact”. So what value can we expect from adding a second year?

Here’s what we need to do to solve that challenge: To start off, having two reception years is really not a bad idea. Evidence suggests that two years of high-quality preschool programmes are better than one. Children who attended early childhood development (ECD) programmes for two or more years scored significantly higher in grade 5. But whose scores are those? A four-year-old from a poor household has a 50% chance of being enrolled in an ECD programme, while children from wealthy homes have a much more respectable 90% chance.

A recent survey found that 58% of a nationally representative grade 4 sample could not read for meaning in any language and 29% were completely illiterate. The results of the annual national assessments (ANA) further corroborates that it is poor children who suffer the most. By the time the child has reached grade 4 there is already a large learning gap between rich and poor, with only 5% of poor children who start school entering higher education.

Statistics suggest that the likelihood of children from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds getting a good matric, studying further and finding productive work is likely to be already unattainable by the time they reach the end of the foundation phase.

From taking a strong stance on corruption with the formation of a new investigative unit within the NPA, to a South African first oil and gas discovery- these were some of the highlights from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2019 State of the Nation address.

As soon as a child is enrolled at an Afrika Tikkun ECD Centre (from the age of two), they are linked to an array of services that enable any developmental delay to be identified and addressed early on. Vulnerable families are connected to social support services, which include material and emotional support. This allows for early identification of developmental delay; and for the home environment to be supported to become a stimulating environment. In 2018, 154 children in Afrika Tikkun’s ECD programme presented developmental delay. By the end of the year, 122 were able to catch up as a result of special support programmes implemented. By the end of grade R, children scored 73% school readiness, which is on par with some of the best ECD centres in the country.

In their tender years a child’s development opportunities are created in the way the caregiver communicates and stimulates the child. Research has shown that there is a greater prevalence of developmental delay in poor households. The disadvantage of low socioeconomic status leads to fewer resources available to the child and a lack of adequate stimulation and learning opportunities for development. This disadvantage also puts the child at risk of an adverse family environment. Children from poor homes are most likely to live in extended families, with only one primary caregiver. Those caregivers are also more likely themselves to be vulnerable.

Because we know brain development begins before conception and continues throughout those crucial early years, it is absolutely vital that attention and support is given in the form of social protection and training for parents and guardians. There also needs to be learning programmes for the whole family, so as to foster stronger cultures of learning and education in the home. Parents can be taught to value their children’s education and to recognise the role they play in it.

Ramaphosa’s proposal could have tremendous value if the design and implementation of the child’s education takes into serious consideration that development of the child in this phase is experience dependent. Children are marvellously able to acquire complex skills instinctively using perceptual skills.

This is what development and evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray describes as our instinctive drive to educate ourselves. These drives are powered by curiosity, playfulness and sociability.

Play provides a foundation for the development of logical thought and teaches important rules of social behavior. There are different kinds of play, and they develop different strengths and abilities in children. A child who learns to combine play and curiosity in his exploration of the world is laying the cognitive foundations for scientific discovery in adulthood.

A local study of the barriers for grade R children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds found that 28% of the children sampled had perceptual-motor skill barriers affecting their ability to learn, to read, to listen and write in primary school. So what is happening to the educative instinct of SA’s children? Is the grade R classroom environment nurturing the power of play, natural curiosity and sociability to empower a lifelong capacity to learn? And are children being exposed to an environment (in the home and the class) where reading, writing and counting is visibly encouraged? Rather than confining the child within a structured classroom environment; the brain’s instinctual educative drive needs to be liberated and nurtured.

Play is the ideal state for learning new skills, solving problems and creativity. So perhaps our challenge to the department is to ensure that for those two reception years we are talking about the playground more than the classroom. And if we are to close the inequality gap, we cannot do so by creating structured classroom environments for those entering school from age four. Parents and teachers need to be trained about the importance of play — in all its varieties — free play and fantasy play in particular. The learning environment should create opportunities for the curiosity, playfulness and sociability of the child to be directed towards the kind of creative, scientific and logical outcomes we need to cultivate in this generation of children — if we want them to succeed in technical learning and work environments later in life.

• Sofianos is with Afrika Tikkun, a non-profit organisation.