Another pre-school fairy story?

Posted on November 17, 2011


National planning minister Trevor Manuel and his commission consider early childhood development (ECD) and pre-school education vital to the future development of South Africa. Teachers, their unions, and ECD specialists heartily concur.

However, the 20-year National Development Plan (NDP) released this week by Manuel does not even define ECD or pre-school education, let alone how it should be implemented, where, when and by whom. So the fear across the education sector is that the NDP may be yet another case of “just talking the talk”.

Even the Cosatu, and therefore, government-allied, SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), the largest in the sector, reacted “with caution” to the NDP’s proposal that all children should have two years of pre-school education.

Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke “welcomed” this provision. But he also highlighted one of the problems unmentioned in the NDP: the lack of suitably qualified teachers in an area critical to success at higher levels.

The importance of pre-school education — as distinct from the broader ECD, that includes children from birth to age three — tends to be accepted across the board in educational circles. This is summed up in a statement by the great American educationalist, John Dewey: “I have never been able to feel much optimism regarding the possibilities of higher education when it is built upon warped and weak foundations.”

Warped and weak foundations persist throughout this country where perhaps 20 per cent of the estimated 2 million children aged three to five have any kind of pre-school experience. “We all accept that ECD is the most critical element in education, but it has been neglected and turned into a department of child minders,” says Allen Thompson, acting executive director of the National Teachers’ Union (Natu).

Where facilities exist, they are often sub-standard, with poorly qualified and poorly paid staff who cope with children almost from birth to age six. “Early education is crucial and these arrangements are totally inappropriate,” says Ezra Ramasehla, president of the National Professional Teachers Organisation (Naptosa).

“The long and short of it is: how will it be funded?” asks SA Teachers’ Union (Saou) general secretary, Chris Kloppers. “These plans are always long on promises, but short on implementation.”

Like Natu and Naptosa, Saou also complains that “cadre deployment” has been a major cause of destabilisation in the existing schooling system; that this is something that should be “ironed out” before starting to deal with the critical ECD and pre-school area. Sadtu has also stresses that “improper influence” should not be allowed in the appointment of teachers and departmental officials; that “proper processes” should be followed.

But political interference is only one of the existing problems that concern the unions. And they point out that unless staffing levels, student/teacher ratios, pay and especially the absence of proper training are addressed within the present system, there is little hope of anything better at the pre-school level.

“But what exactly does (the NDP) mean by pre-school?” asks Eric Atmore, chief executive of Cape Town’s Centre for ECD. “It could mean anything before school. The devil, as always, is in the detail.”

He adds: “Is pre-school to be compulsory? Who will attend and where will these institutions be based? How will they be funded and staffed?” And he notes that these questions do not even start to deal with the underlying philosophy and the curriculum to be followed should such schools become a reality. “But it sounds great to say we will have two years of pre-school for everyone.”

What Atmore and several teachers point out, is that this debate is hardly new; it long pre-dates the post-apartheid era. The first battles for pre-school education began in the 1930s and two model training colleges existed in Cape Town and Johannesburg more than 70 years ago.

Both provided full-time, intensive and highly specialised, three-year courses that ranked with the best anywhere. Although, by law, racially exclusive, both colleges — they had “demonstration and practice” nursery schools attached to them — maintained outreach programmes in the segregated townships where in-service training was conducted.

This followed a tradition dating back to the 1930s that gave rise to pre-school training projects in townships in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. In the Johannesburg area, the Anglican church in Sophiatown and the trade unionist Katie Kagan played major roles, along with the likes of the radical Emma Brosius.

In Cape Town, the ANC Women’s League leader Dora Tamana helped to establish the Blouvlei nursery school, one of several such projects. But, by 1958, with the policies of rigid apartheid and Christian National Education coming fully into play, the government closed down formal training facilities for other than whites. By 1970 the two main training colleges also shut their doors.

Non-governmental organisations did their best to step into the breach and several “township schools”, certainly in Soweto, continued to operate until 1976, having apparently been overlooked because they fell under the city health department. Most of the early nursery schools in Soweto struggled on, functioning as creches, looking after children from babes in arms to six-year-olds. Some of these collapsed in 1998 when the Gauteng works department withdrew promised funding.

Funding has always been a bugbear and it has been no different in the post-1994 era. Even the part-time pre-primary course set up in 1995 at the Johannesburg College of Education, was privately funded — and the funds ran out in 2001.

Training never returned to the standards provided for white students in Johannesburg and Cape Town. “But this is what we want reintroduced,” is a common refrain from teacher unions as they agitate for training colleges at all levels to be reopened.

“There is no quick fix, and we have wasted many years,” says Ramasehla. Unless the devil in the detail is comprehensively tackled, many unionists fear that the NDP pre-school proposal could be another exercise in empty rhetoric.