To fight inequality, South Africa needs high-quality childcare at scale

Here’s how GROW with Educare Centres are succeeding in the complex task of scaling high-quality ECD in poor communities.

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South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world, with Stats SA saying that 30,4 million South Africans (55,5% of the population) live in ‘absolute poverty’ (2015)*. Our Gini Coefficient ranking of between 0.660 to 0.696 puts our society as one of the most constantly unequal in the world. The most vulnerable are our children and persons with little or no education. This coupled with the fact that a child’s brain develops the functions it needs to be successful at learning, and essentially at life, between the ages of 1 and 5 years old, leaves no doubt that South Africa needs high-quality childcare at scale.

GROW with Educare Centres, a NGO based in Cape Town, is doing this by rolling out quality ECD Centres in poor communities. “Promoting high-quality childcare at scale in South Africa is necessary and relevant,” says Head of Education of GROW with Educare Centres, Lisa Voortman. “Children in the low-income areas are subject to higher levels of violence, neglect and abuse. They arrive at Educare Centres with anxiety and stress and they need quality teachers to provide the antidote through love, attention and care.

“In the South African Early Childhood Development (ECD) context, ‘quality and scale’ in one sentence often leads to much debate and differing of opinions, so it’s important to understand what constitutes quality and how it is possible to replicate quality at scale,” she said.

Recently an international study on the subject highlighted some of the same core aspects applied by GROW with Educare Centres as being central to successfully scaling ECD.

“The two main elements constituting quality in ECD centres are Structural Quality - relating to the infrastructure, the provision of equipment and curriculum, the safety of the environment, and the child to care-giver ratio; and Process Quality - the interactions between the child and the care-giver. 

“Young children need an environment with high-quality interactions with their care-giver that are frequent and responsive to the child’s interests. These two qualities are interrelated and have a direct impact on the development of the child,” she said. “Children thrive in a warm, happy, safe environment that is sensitive to their needs.”

Structural and Process Quality are at the core of the GROW with Educare Centres model. “Structurally, we transformed classrooms into optimal learning environments. The curriculum is structured and educationally designed and developed. The equipment is age-appropriate and directly linked to the curriculum. All aspects of safety, such as gates, sleeping mattresses, electricals and plumbing are ensured,” said Voortman.

“We also provide quality training on all aspects of child development, including the social and emotional needs of a child. Our experienced education mentors go into the classrooms to provide hands-on mentoring for teachers and to demonstrate best practice. They observe, guide and correct where necessary. These aspects of process quality are essential as they have a direct impact on a child’s development.”  

A study titled High-Quality Childcare at Scale in Latin America* written by the principal Economist, 
M Caridad Araujo, described some relevant findings that closely mirror the GROW with Educare strategies and vision.

Here are some of the aspects of the GROW with Educare Centres that align with Araujo’s findings, and the reasons this NGO is making a success of this complex issue.

  1. “Do not rush expansions in coverage without a strategy to provide quality services in place.” - Araujo. GROW with Educare Centres is expanding slowly, but constantly, so as not to compromise on the quality and sustainability of the project. Evidence strongly suggests that an inadequate quality childcare service in the first three years has a negative impact on the child’s development.
  2. “Target well” - Araujo. Children from low-income communities benefit the most from our quality programmes. Our focus therefore is to ensure deep, sustainable quality rather than a light touch aimed at maximum reach.
  3. “Work conditions” - Araujo. Teachers in ECD centres in South Africa often work in poor conditions and are grossly under paid. They receive little or no job security and are often volunteers. The GROW with Educare project ensures that all staff have contracts and development plans. Their salaries are reviewed with the business mentor and are subsidised for a period when the Government subsidy has been applied for but is delayed in process. The Principal also prepares annual staff evaluations and is assisted by GROW’s Education Mentor to provide a structured and conducive working environment.
  4. “Mentoring” - Araujo. This is a fundamental aspect of the GROW with Educare Centres model, and our Education Mentors regularly visit each centre to encourage, guide and support the teachers. The Business Mentors meet with the principals to guide them through the financial and administrative aspects of running a small business.
  5. “Continuous quality improvement” - Araujo. GROW with Educare uses technology to gather data on the operational processes and the developmental progress of the children, allowing for continuous learning and responsive action.
  6. “Pre-service training” - Araujo. An eight-module training programme is mandatory for all staff of all GROW with Educare Centres. This training covers all aspects of the curriculum, the equipment supplied and the developmental areas of the 2 to 5-year-old child. Teachers are guided and trained through the purpose of each activity and educational equipment, while gaining a better understanding of their role as a nurturing caregiver.
  7. “Curricular and early learning guidelines” - Araujo. The Grow Learning Company designed the accredited curriculum used in all the GROW with Educare centres. It is aligned to the National Curriculum Framework, which Government has introduced as the national standard for early childhood education and care.
  8.  “Keep the focus on process quality” - Araujo. The GROW with Educare project team understand the critical essence of the day-to-day interactions between the caregiver and the children. We consistently work through our mentoring processes and additional workshops to develop and support the teachers who have themselves seldom been exposed to a nurturing environment.

It is clear, from this article, that many ECD challenges are not unique to the South African landscape. “GROW with Educare Centres is continually addressing the question of quality at scale by ensuring our structural and process quality are never compromised and are implemented in a credible and sustainable manner,” said Voortman.

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