Early childhood education can break cycle of poverty but is plagued by ‘wicked problems’ – experts

Minister for Basic Education Angie Motshekga.

Minister for Basic Education Angie Motshekga.

  • Finland plans to strengthen early childhood education partnership with South Africa.
  • Experts say early childhood education can help break the cycle of poverty in the country and give young children the opportunity to lead the change.
  • But North-West University professor Mariette Koen says the “nasty problems” in the industry need to be addressed to pave the way to sustainability.

Academics say early childhood education (ECE) can help break the cycle of poverty, but the sector is grappling with “nasty problems”.

They were speaking at an event on early childhood development (ECD) and teacher training at the University of Pretoria on Wednesday.

The event was attended by a delegation from Finland, including Finnish Minister of Education Li Andersson, and the main objective was to strengthen Finland’s education partnership with South Africa.

The host was the Department of Basic Education (DBE), led by Minister Angie Motshekga and Deputy Minister Reginah Mhaule.

According to Professor Mariette Koen of North-West University Faculty of Education, a holistic approach is needed to develop the emotional, social, cognitive, spiritual and physical facets of early childhood education. She said this would create sustainable building blocks.

ECE was about more than content-based education. Koen added that it is an opportunity to enable young children to become change agents who should be equipped with skills, values ​​and attitudes to address sustainable developmental change.

She said:

Early childhood education is the most valuable resource to break the cycle of poverty by enabling young children to thrive in favorable conditions.

Despite the positive impact ECE could have on more sustainable development, Koen says the sector still faces “treacherous problems”.

She said this included access to quality education, the role of practitioners in early childhood education, issues with funding, infrastructure and teaching children with disabilities.

“These are some of the nasty problems that have multiple interconnected causes that have no easy solutions.

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“Practitioners are often poorly paid. Participating in universities, vocational colleges or non-profit organizations is not always easy for some practitioners. Some are struggling to attend classes due to funding issues, some work full-time and can’t take time off, and some have challenges with online learning,” Koen said.

She said it is worrying that about 90 percent of practitioners are unskilled or under-skilled.

She said persistently low levels of education in children’s early years would lead to high levels of deprivation, poverty and poor health, which in turn would lead to a vicious cycle of national, economic and social problems.

koen said:

The question now is how to use the opportunities to improve skills in the sector and work towards universal access.


Associate Professor Keshni Bipath from the Department of Early Childhood Education at the University of Pretoria questioned why the percentage of unqualified or underqualified early childhood professionals is so high.

Bipath said talk of putting more money into ECE often came ahead of elections with “nicely written” policies. She said implementation was a problem.

“Bad problems can be solved, but we need a budget, and that budget is kind of neglected,” Bipath said.

READ | Early childhood development is entrusted to the Ministry of Education

Mhaule said finger pointing wasn’t the solution.

“We must not pretend that we come from a prosperous system. We are just a new democracy. This early childhood development has just been introduced into the DBE.

“Social development was about welfare. Therefore, basic education provided the curriculum and training of practitioners. Now it has been decided to transfer the function from social development to the department of basic education,” she said.

Mhaule said stakeholders, universities and researchers need to come together to develop an appropriate model for ECD in the country.