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Picture: 123RF/PAYLESS
Picture: 123RF/PAYLESS

Early childhood development (ECD) provides a critical window to improve health and wellbeing across life, with impacts that resonate even into the next generation. This is according to the Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood Development progress report, released by the World Health Organisation.

In SA access to affordable, quality early learning presents an ongoing challenge for the majority of the population and has resulted in compounding inequality for millions of children. For those of us invested in uplifting the next generation, we must answer the question of how we can reform our education system to create a more equal society.

At the 2019 state of the nation address President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed that by 2030 every 10-year-old (or grade 4 pupil) will be able to read for meaning. However, a report released earlier this year by the 2030 Reading Panel states that learning losses as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic mean the country is further behind the 2030 goal than it was before.

The report asserts that even if SA were to get back onto the pre-pandemic trajectory it will still take 86 years before all grade 4 pupils can read for meaning. This forecast has been reinforced by SA’s results from the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls).

The study found that 81% of Grade 4 learners in the country cannot read for meaning in any language — an increase from the 2016 Pirls assessment, which found that 78% of grade 4 pupils could not read for comprehension. This regression constitutes a major setback for the future of the country, and much of the blame has been placed on the havoc wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic across multiple sectors, including basic education.

However, the context of literacy and numeracy challenges faced by pupils in SA’s public education system in particular, predate the pandemic and have more to do with our inability to disrupt the injustices of the past. The Pirls results showed that performance in urban provinces such as the Western Cape and Gauteng surpassed those of more rural provinces such as Limpopo and North West. There were also variances between fee and no-fee paying schools — with the former performing better. The latter schools provide education to pupils from poorer communities, based mainly in rural and township areas.

The consequences of poor learning outcomes on children cannot be underestimated and radical interventions are necessary to disrupt the status quo. Recently, the chairperson of the 2030 National Reading Panel and former deputy president of the country, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, pointed out: “We are not able to fix this country with a silver bullet. We have to begin at the very start — and that means the beginning of a child’s life. The ages of 0-6 are the most important in a human being’s development.” She urged the country to invest in high quality ECD programmes.

The expansion of quality early learning programmes must be accelerated, and greater support provided to existing early childhood development practitioners. Studies have shown that to reduce learning deficits and strengthen economic development significant investment must be made in early childhood learning. Without access to this critical stepping stone these children will not be able to realise their full potential, to self-actualise, to cultivate economic independence, or contribute to the economic growth of the country.

Currently, early learning provisioning for children under six is inadequate, with poor access and in some cases poor quality provided. The department of basic education states that 1.3-million children aged three to five are not attending any form of early learning. For 3.5-million children aged two and under the access gap is unknown.

Regarding child outcomes, only 45% of children accessing early learning programmes are developmentally on track. The access gap is highest among 66% of the poorest children — those from quintile one communities. The department states that 600,000 children receive the per child ECD subsidy, and yet about 4.7-million children aged five and under are eligible to receive it.

This illustrates that unless radical action to increase access and quality to early learning programmes is taken, the past will continue to replicate itself and poor literacy outcomes will worsen. By radical action I mean specific efforts to support early learning programmes, more so those in marginalised areas.

Thankfully, a number of organisations, including the likes of SmartStart, a national early learning delivery programme, have taken on the burden of grappling with and addressing these issues. More than 60% of the organisation’s programmes are based in rural and peri-urban areas, in under-resourced communities and neighbourhoods. This is what many providers in the sector are trying to achieve by improving access to high quality early learning programmes countrywide, more so in the marginalised areas.

Fortunately, some of the interventions tabled by the basic education department are the revision of the National Reading Plan; enhancing school readiness by improving the quality of ECD; the introduction of a national systemic evaluation at grade 3 level; and tracking early learning outcomes and school readiness through the Early Learning National Assessment (ELNA) and Thrive by Five surveys.

If we as a country dilly-dally on addressing this critical issue it means the current cohort of zero-to-six-year-olds, and the generations that follow them, will be victims of history. We need to ensure that interventions are put in place to stymie the inequality millions of children experience right off the starting block.

• Dr Mazwai is a former newspaper editor and activist.

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