Thursday, November 24, 2016

Bridging Classes: Fixing the Inequality Divide through Education

Article by Kate Ellis-Cole (Published with the author's permission)

The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as the Americans say. For our #FeesMustFall student protesters, ‘grease’ has come in the form of an additional R17bn for higher education from Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande, over the next three years.

While the protesters are within their rights, what some refer to as the most integral education sector – Early Childhood Development (ECD) – is being effectively muted by comparison. Poor foundation phase education lies at the heart of SA’s most harrowing education challenges, like poor literacy and a lack of numeracy aptitude. Yet, there is no identifiable government programme for financing the construction of new ECD facilities. Let alone, upgrading and maintaining existing ECD facilities, and improving general access.

The only hunger that a child should experience is the hunger to learn. But, sadly, South Africa’s children continue to go hungry, and the country’s macro-economic ills continue to push these potential stars further back in the pecking order.

South Africa’s notoriety for being the most unequal society in the world – our gini coefficient hovers at 0.69, with 1 representing a perfectly unequal society – has resulted in our children being disenfranchised. In a no-growth economy, and in a country gripped by extreme social and political turmoil, inequality is an evil that must be vanquished for the good of us all.

Measures of inequality are based on access to basic services, including health care, essential infrastructure, electricity supply, sanitation, and education. However, quality education can scarcely be expected to occur in the presence of enormous lack in the other areas. Poor teacher education, a lack of sanitation and infrastructure, and poor learning resources in rural areas mean that quite aside from the injustice faced by children without access to ECD centres, inequality wreaks havoc even among those rural children who do indeed attend ECD centres.

According to the World Bank, only 30% of South Africa’s black children have dual-parent households, in contrast to 83% of white children. On average, black children are also more likely to have a large number of siblings, live in poorer or informal areas, and are orphaned or part of a child-headed household. There is, of course, also the cataclysmic state of the education system in South Africa, which sees our children’s numeracy and literacy ranking among the lowest in the world. This stems from a flawed ECD phase. It is important to therefore consider statistics published by the World Bank, that show that 60% of South African school leavers do not have a proper matriculation, and those that do pass, do so with an aggregate mark of less than 40%. Low quality education also contributes enormously to unemployment, which in turn proliferates the prevailing inequality.

ECD is the psychological, social and physiological education and care of small children, younger than school-going age. It comprises quality nutrition needed for the healthy development of the child’s brain and musculoskeletal system; social interaction, love and affection; health care and treatment; age-appropriate physical exercise and strengthening; and cognitive and academic opportunities for learning. The South African government and National Development Agency are aware of the need for quality ECD centres, citing scientific studies that prove that the academic abilities of school pupils, students and graduates are enhanced through their involvement in ECD from a young age. But is government playing its role in executing early learner development programmes? Then, there’s the question of whether parents have been educated around the benefits of their children attending ECD centres, before primary school-going age.

One of the reasons that ECD seems unlikely to reach the lofty goal of being universally accessible and equitable by 2030, as set by government, is the restrictive costs of establishment and attendance. Our government provides a miniscule subsidy for indigent children’s education, an amount which scarcely enables attaining even the bare minimum required by legislation to open an ECD centre. This presents an obstacle to the construction of new facilities, upgrading current ones, and improving resources and equipment to better the state of facilities.

Only one third of the children eligible to attend ECD programmes have access to them. And a sore lack of governmental policy is hampering the coordination and integration of ECD into an actionable plan. Established ECD programmes and centres provide economic and social benefit through giving job-seeking parents an opportunity to work away from home, and be stimulated themselves. Add to this, children’s improved proficiency at school, improved intellectual development, better social competency, and higher verbal and intellectual capabilities. In turn, these skills contribute to a stronger workforce and a more productive populace, shrinking the inequality divide.

So, if there’s any squeaking to be done, let it be to project the voice in favour of quality early foundation phase education for our children. While they’re in no position to march to parliament and present a memorandum and demand to be heard, they’re the silent carriers of the unlocked economic potential of SA Inc. The South African government and civil society hold the key to this potential. Why won’t we unlock it – together?

Kate Cole – IQ Business

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