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Prioritising early intervention in education:

Paving the path to a prosperous South Africa

Nelson “Madiba” Mandela’s profound legacy lives on through his unwavering commitment to children, justice, equality and education. He once said: “Children are the most important asset in a country. For them to become that asset, they must receive education and love from their parents.” As we commemorate Mandela Month, it is vital to reflect on the state of our children’s education, especially considering the mounting challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality faced by young South Africans today. The crux of the matter lies in providing strong foundational learning experiences for children aged one to six, emphasising the importance of early intervention in education.

Recent statistics from the 2030 Reading Panel Report serve as a stark reminder that 82% of Grade 4 learners struggle to read for meaning, indicating a worsening situation compared to previous years. This alarming reality demands a renewed focus on Early Childhood Development (ECD), where the bedrock for literacy and reading skills is laid. Illiteracy hampers personal development and economic growth, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and unemployment. However, by investing more in quality ECD programmes, we can build a robust foundation for future generations, empowering every child to thrive.

The importance of Early Childhood Development

Early childhood is a critical period characterised by rapid brain development and learning. The experiences and environments children encounter during these formative years profoundly shape their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. Research has shown a direct correlation between early learning and later cognitive development, underlining the importance of high-quality ECD programmes. Such programmes provide children with the necessary support, stimulation and nurturing relationships to reach their full potential, setting the stage for future success in education, employment and life.

ECD in South Africa today

Despite recent progress, South Africa still faces significant challenges in providing equitable access to quality ECD opportunities for all children. Vulnerable communities continue to be underserved due to limited resources, inadequate infrastructure and a shortage of trained ECD practitioners. These disparities exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities and hold the nation’s progress back. According to the Thrive by Five Index, a survey released on April 8 2022, 65% of 4-5-year-old children attending Early Learning Programmes are failing to thrive. These children are not meeting the expected early learning outcomes for their age, which puts them at a significant disadvantage when they start formal schooling. The survey was the largest ever conducted on preschool child development in the country and was initiated by First National Bank (FNB) and Innovation Edge in collaboration with the Department of Basic Education (DBE). It was also supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and ECD Measure.

The partnership imperative

Addressing the crisis in ECD requires a strong collaborative effort between the government, businesses and NGOs. By forming partnerships, we can achieve greater impact, leverage shared expertise, increase efficiency, expand influence, facilitate learning and improve long-term sustainability. These partnerships should be built on careful planning, clear roles and responsibilities, effective governance, transparency and robust monitoring to ensure that the best interests of young children are safeguarded. The government’s role in ensuring access to basic education can be bolstered through financial support from the private sector, while NGOs can augment the delivery of best practice programs and expertise in communities.

Investing in teachers is a crucial aspect of the overall development and success of education systems. Sound training and development enhance teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom, motivating them to deliver quality experiences to students. South African teachers, as integral parts of their communities, can strengthen their engagement with parents, garnering support for schools and infrastructure. Empowering parents with knowledge and support through parenting programmes and community engagement initiatives fosters a nurturing environment and strengthens the bond between caregivers and children.

The role of Mandela Month

Mandela Month provides an ideal platform to raise awareness, mobilise resources, and inspire action to address the challenges faced by young children and their families. By embracing Madiba’s vision for a united, equal and prosperous South Africa, we can champion early childhood development and break the cycle of poverty. Investing in quality ECD programmes empowers our children and paves the way for a brighter future. Through collective action, collaboration and sustained commitment beyond Mandela Month, we can create an inclusive society where every child has the opportunity to thrive. The responsibility lies in our hands to build a firm and erudite future for all.

Theresa Michael, CEO of Afrika Tikkun Bambanani (www.afrikatikkunbambanani.org) urges all stakeholders to unite and make a lasting impact on the lives of South Africa’s children. Together, we can create a nation where education is a powerful force that breaks the chains of poverty and ushers in a new era of opportunity for all.