Early Learning Opportunities Vital for National Senior Certificate Success

Schooling learning early childhood
Tuesday, 17 January, 2012 - 12:34

South Africa needs to invest in early childhood development (ECD) programmes, address the existing weaknesses in its education system, and introduce effective ECD policy in order to improve the matric results

Once again the National Senior Certificate results are poor, notwithstanding the small increase in passes from 67.8 percent to 70.2 percent.

While only 70.2 percent of those children who wrote the 2011 National Senior Certificate examinations passed, a far more frightening picture emerges when we look at the cohort of children that began Grade One 12 years ago. Official education department statistics tell us that 1 035 192 children that started in Grade one in public schools in 2000, and 872 693 (84.3 percent) reached Grade seven, the last year of primary school. 496 090 wrote the senior certificate examinations in 2011 and 348,117 passed.  This is 33.6 percent of the cohort that began school in 2000, revealing that only one in three children passed the senior certificate examination.

The good news is that this is up from 24.4 percent in 2009 and from 27.6 percent in 2010. That this situation is untenable should not be disputed although Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, says she is “…happy with the results”, President Jacob Zuma however, is more circumspect saying that the improved pass rate “…is a step in the right direction.”  Minister Motshekga has no reason to be happy especially since obtaining a pass is not that difficult. Pupils only require 40 percent in their home language, 40 percent in two other subjects and 30 percent in the three other subjects to pass. Despite making achieving a pass very much easier, the increase in pupils passing is marginal.

Numerous reasons for this are put forward; including poor teaching in schools, teachers not in classrooms, lack of support to schools, not enough teaching time, inefficient systems, inadequate examination-writing skills and more challenging examination papers. But we have heard this many times before from successive education ministers, all of whom had the power to make a difference.

It is clear that the education system continues to be plagued by obvious weaknesses that act as barriers to the performance of pupils. Like each education minister before her the current Minister stresses that we must intensify our efforts to address these weaknesses.

To combat the poor showing year after year government needs to invest more heavily in the early years of education. Expanding and improving the quality of early childhood development (ECD) programmes for young children is a proven programme and sustainable solution.

International research, corroborated by a range of South African studies, shows empirical evidence that good quality early childhood development experiences produce significant social, economic and developmental benefits to children, families and communities.

A child who attends a good quality early childhood learning programme enters formal schooling:

  • More confident and able;
  • More likely to proceed through school without repeating a grade;
  • Less likely to need remedial education;
  • Less likely to be involved in crime; and
  • More likely to get paid employment as an adult.

In addition, young girls who attend a quality early learning programme are less likely to become pregnant while in their teens.

If a comprehensive and effective national ECD programme, supported by government was in place, it would clearly have a major impact on performance of pupils and on the national senior certificate results.

American researchers, David Weikart and Larry Schweinhart, quantified these outcomes in dollar terms. They calculated that each dollar spent on early childhood development produces a cost saving to society of US$16.14. This return on investment is remarkable and would be the envy of corporate executives.

Yet our national and provincial education authorities, while doing more than any pre-1994 government, nevertheless continues to limit young children's access to early childhood development programmes through inadequate policy, strategy and practice.

Nationwide there are some 1.1 million young children in about 24 000 early learning centres. More than 90 percent of these are community initiated provisions. This represents 20 percent of the 0 to 6 age population and means that large numbers of vulnerable children do not benefit from a structured early learning programme, in a positive learning environment, prior to entering Grade one.

Some young children grow up in environments and circumstances where parents are able to devote considerable time to their early education needs. In these homes books, magazines and newspapers are readily available and are read to children, and counting games and pre-numeracy activities take place which encourage the development of numeracy.

However, for families living in poverty, the situation is very different. Stretched for time and resources, these parents are not able to provide the optimal environment for the development of literacy and numeracy. The result is that most of these children enter Grade one not having experienced even one year of a structured learning programme and the effect is felt twelve years down the line in poor school leaving results, if they ever get there.

Government's Grade R programme is an attempt to meet this deficit, but it is too little, too late. The ECD White Paper plan was to ensure that every child received at least one year of Grade R education prior to entering Grade 1 by the year 2010. But this programme itself is way behind schedule and President Zuma subsequently announced that this will only be achieved by 2014. The reality is that it not likely to be reached before 2016 at the earliest, and not by 2018.

National ECD policy is flawed. The system does little to increase access or to improve quality, government resource allocation is miniscule and the implementation plans, where they exist in the provinces, are severely flawed.  In the policy there is no state provision, only state-assisted provision with minimal financial support. A little more than one percent of the education budget is allocated to the early years.

While the pervasive problems of poverty are not easily eradicated a radical rethink of early childhood development policy, strategy and practice is needed at a national level. Non-government organisations with many years of experience and much expertise can add value here. Our organisations are willing and able to make a huge contribution to meeting the needs of our youngest children.

As a country we need to make a much greater investment in education at the level that produces the greatest social and economic return, the early years, and see the benefits all the way through the education system. It is only by going back to the most important formative years that we will get the education system right and produce senior certificate results that we can be proud of.

- Eric Atmore is Adjunct Associate Professor of Social Development at the University of Cape Town and Director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development.

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