Early childhood development should form the foundation of education


The recent 2017 matric results have once again placed basic education in the spotlight.  Concerns have been raised about the fact that although more than one million (1,039 762) learners enrolled in Grade 1 in 2006, only 669 382 learners passed matric in 2017.  This leaves more than 370 000 learners unaccounted for.

For me, this is an important time to reflect on the overall state of education in South Africa – and in particular early childhood education (ECD). Learning starts much earlier than school-going age.  It begins at birth and this country needs to focus on assisting parents and caregivers to ensure that children are school-ready when they enter primary school.  This will definitely result in setting up our schools and teachers for success.

When you build a house, you should build it on a solid foundation so that it will stand strong.  The same principle can be applied to ECD.  Proper groundwork in the formative years will ensure success later on in life – if a child has a good foundation of numeracy and literacy, their potential to succeed is much greater.

In a country with high levels of poverty and large numbers of learners coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, early childhood education plays a significant role in getting children school-ready to ensure that the formal school system can focus on developing them towards responsible adulthood.

We need to set the goal that all children starting school are given the opportunity to finish school, because as a society we have supplied these children and their families with the tools for success.  Learning through play with appropriate and quality resources has a profound effect on a child’s subsequent formal education.  Children, who receive a good educational foundation during the most important formative years of their lives – between the ages of 0-6 years old – are more likely to succeed in school.

Investment in Early Childhood Development (ECD) is one of the most effective ways to decrease social inequalities caused by adverse environments, which hamper the development of young children. Interventions aimed at improving early childhood development also have the ability to increase school attendance numbers and the pass rates of learners at primary and secondary school levels.

Research has shown that about 60% of SA children begin life at a lower level of capacity than they should and they fall increasingly behind during the most formative period of their life. The net effect is educational under-achievement, high rates of personal and social problems as well as poor prospects for growth, prosperity and social stability.

In 2017, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) showed that almost 80% of South African Grade 4 pupils fall below the lowest internationally recognized level of reading literacy in their language of learning and could not read with comprehension.  This study exposed serious problems with teaching and learning in the pre-Grade R and the Foundation Phase.

Although progress in the National Early Childhood Development sector is noted, the ECD Diagnostic Review (Ilifa Labantwana) pointed out significant gaps in services.  The review highlighted the absence and/or poor quality of ECD services for young children and specifically that the poorest children in the greatest need have limited access to the minimal services.

Formal schooling age is too late for a child to start education as the early ages form the basis of development and learning in later years. Consequently, there is a need to focus on early childhood care and development. Nobel Prize winning University of Chicago Economics Professor James Heckman’s work confirms the great gains to be had by investing in the early and equal development of human potential.

Invest (Invest in educational and developmental resources for disadvantaged families to provide equal access to successful early human development) + Develop (Nurture early development of cognitive and social skills in children from birth to age five) + Sustain (Sustain early development with effective education through to adulthood) = Gain (Gain a more capable, productive and valuable workforce that pays dividends for generations to come).

Early childhood education should be viewed as a long term investment, but potentially the most cost-effective investment that has the largest gains for us as a country. The questions needs to be ask how can we help infants, toddlers and preschoolers get ready for the challenges of grade school and make satisfactory progress during the early years of formal schooling?

In my opinion, a clear strategy is needed to develop capacity in those who start ECD centres, while raising awareness of ECD through government and community advocacy and networking to ensure continued sustainability. This will ensure effective and quality ECD programming – particularly in communities that are marginalized and impoverished, where access to services is limited. ECD practitioners must be provided with training programmes, educational materials/toys and resources as well as on-site monitoring, mentoring and support to improve access and quality of ECD.

It is crucial to assist ECD centres with the registration of programmes, as a requirement of the Children’s Act No 38 of 2005 that stipulates that best practice and regulation takes place. It is also imperative that we support parents through parenting workshops showing how education starts with learning through play.

ECD should take center stage as the start of the education process.  If a child is school ready s/he is life ready – this also speaks to the fact that if a child is school ready, there is more likelihood that a child starting Grade R will progress to and successfully complete Grade 12 (Matric).

Having government, civil society and corporate South Africa working together can ensure that this become a reality.  Early childhood education might seem like child’s play, but the impact of early childhood education on the life of a child, is serious business. Children, who complete our programme are more likely to succeed in school, embark on tertiary education, find a job and eventually make a positive contribution in creating the foundation for a prosperous society.


Candice Potgieter is the CEO of The Unlimited Child, one of the country’s leading early childhood development organisations