In February last year Statistics South Africa released a report which highlighted how important investing in early childhood development (ECD) is for the country’s future. Sadly, reality paints a different picture. The physical, cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional development of many children in South Africa has been stymied by government’s failure to implement the numerous policies on early childhood development (ECD).
This is the view of Dr Eric Atmore, adjunct associate professor of Social Development at the University of Cape Town and director and founder of the Centre for Early Childhood Development (CECD) in Claremont, Cape Town. He received his doctorate in Education Policy Studies on Friday April 5 at the sixth ceremony of Stellenbosch University’s (SU) April graduation.
As part of his doctoral study, under the supervision of Professor Nuraan Davids from SU’s Department of Education Policy Studies, Professor Atmore traced, read and analysed all 27 ECD policy and policy-related documents in South Africa from 1990 onwards. He then interviewed 19 key ECD individuals involved in ECD policy-making between 1990 and 2015, and added his own voice to get his message across.
Dr Atmore points out that his study is the first of its kind in South Africa and, from what he could find in the literature, the first globally to track an ECD policy-making trajectory over such a lengthy period.
The 63-year old Dr Atmore has been involved with ECD since 1979 and being very passionate about it, he says he conducted the study because South Africa has had 27 ECD policy and policy-related texts since 1990 but minimal policy and ECD programme implementation.
“I also did this research because I was significantly active in ECD policy-making from 1990 to 2012 and there was a story to be told of how ECD evolved in post-apartheid South Africa.”
He says that even though opportunities for good quality early childhood experiences are critical to young children’s growth and development, as a country we do not have much understanding of the ECD policy-making process and the weaknesses in implementing ECD policy.
“My motivation for being involved in ECD is knowing that young children have a fundamental human right to quality early education and development, including health care and nutrition, and that many, many children, some 70% in South Africa, do not have this right met,” says Dr Atmore, who has three grandchildren.
He says his research has shown that since 1994 there has been a significant lack of political will on the part of government to support ECD in South Africa.
“While the policies spoke to the importance of providing ECD services, implementation was minimal. Also, the National Treasury did not provide sufficient funding to implement these ECD policies and our government officials, nationally and provincially, do not have the capacity to implement ECD programmes as set out in the various policy documents.
“Government has not done nearly enough for young children and for ECD. Government’s commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international conventions is poor,” says Dr Atmore.
He says his research findings provide lessons on ECD policy implementation and a way forward to meet the needs of young children, both in South Africa and globally.
“My study also highlights the need for greater activism from ECD providers.
“There are some 30 000 ECD centres with about 90 000 individuals, overwhelmingly women, who provide early education, development and care to our youngest children each day. This has long been provided by the non-profit and community-based sectors. This activism must lead to political will and government’s commitment to our youngest children in South Africa.”
According to Dr Atmore, this extensive community ECD provision network is one of the strengths of ECD in South Africa.
As to why there’s been a dearth of studies on ECD policy in South Africa, Professor Atmore says researching policy is difficult. He adds that the majority of researchers in ECD are interested in ECD programmes and implementation with only a few focusing on ECD policy studies.
He says one of the highlights since founding the CECD is seeing women from numerous communities across South Africa providing ECD services for young children.
“While the quality is not always the best, it is inspiring to see what South Africans can do with the right determination and vision to educate and care for our young children.
“We have received a number of awards in education including the president’s award for ECD and the African ICT award in education, but nothing tops seeing the inspiring women in our communities providing ECD programmes for our young children.”
Dr Atmore says government officials and activists in the ECD sector, and people involved in education and social development in South Africa and globally will benefit from his research.
He has completed the first draft of a book based on his thesis and plans to disseminate its message at conferences in South Africa and abroad.
Dr Alec Basson is a science writer at Stellenbosch University.