One hundred and twenty-two participants from 14 countries, including 10 in southern Africa, came together for a challenging and dynamic three-day conference on Early Childhood Development and Education (ECDE) in December. Hosted by OSISA in collaboration with the Open Society Foundations Early Childhood Programme (OSF-ECP), the conference was a living example of the rich diversity of current ECDE efforts to ensure every young child participates in a quality ECDE programme in the southern African region and beyond.
Under the theme ‘Quality Matters’, government representatives, ECDE experts, academics, practitioners and development partners, debated and shared ideas on how to increase and accelerate the availability of quality, holistic ECDE programmes in southern Africa, particularly for marginalised and vulnerable children and families living in conditions of poverty or with special needs; how to contribute to improved integrated and inter-sectoral coordination of ECDE in the region; and how to strategize around the dynamic and dramatic interplay between quality ECDE, inter-sectoral programming, the realisation of children’s rights and sustainable development.
The scene was set at the start when Siphosami Malunga, Executive Director of OSISA, inspired participants by describing the urgency of providing quality ECDE. Wongani Grace Nkhoma, OSISA’s Education Programme Manager, informed participants about what OSISA/OSF-ECP is doing and will be doing to promote quality ECDE regionally.
Dr. Lynette Okengo, a regional ECDE consultant, explained how, despite a positive trajectory, progress has been limited over the last three years in providing quality ECDE in the Southern African region. Martin Woodhead, Professor of Childhood Studies at the Open University UK, and Chair of the International Advisory Board of OSF-ECP, highlighted the complexity of implementing quality ECDE, while urging that, nonetheless it is “simple” and that all ECDE practitioners and decisions makers have a duty to “do quality”.
Tina Hyder, Deputy Director of OSF-ECP based in the UK, urged conference participants to help put quality ECDE on the global and post 2015 development agenda. Linda Biersteker, Head of Research at the Early Learning Research Unit, South Africa, and Dr. Okengo shared evidence of what the existing body of research says we should do and need to do to ensure quality ECDE. And Sarah Klaus, Director of OSF-ECP, described what is being done to promote quality ECDE at the regional level in the Eastern Europe and Eurasia regions through the development and application of agreed quality standards
Many presenters shared what is being done in the Southern African region, and all participants passionately shared and discussed their beliefs about quality ECDE and what, for each of participant, are the most important factors. In addition, all participants contributed ideas and made plans for what they want to do, need to do, and will do in order to realise quality ECDE.
Several concepts and ideas emerged as particularly important during the conference.
The term, “Schoolification” was used in the on-going discussions about if ECDE should be “preparation for school” or “for life”. Other dichotomous questions that were often discussed included: Is it acceptable to use volunteers? Or should all ECDE staff be paid? Can we have both equitable access and quality?
It was considered that perhaps key to bridging these dichotomies is moving forward incrementally on all fronts. We can identify reasonable (low or no cost) actions that simultaneously address issues of quality while ensuring accessibility. For example, we can develop a training/career path for volunteers, and we can develop curricula and train teachers and parents to prepare children for school and life.
A commonly expressed concern of presenters and participants was that lack of coordination is a major barrier to quality assurance and enhancement efforts, but coordination does not necessarily guarantee good quality programmes across the board. “Coordination of integrated ECDE services is necessary but not sufficient to ensure quality”, stated Linda Biersteker.
The dynamic and dramatic interplay between quality ECDE, inter-sectoral programming, the realisation of children’s rights and sustainable development was a theme of consistent exploration and strategizing throughout the conference. Many presenters described their programme as using a child’s rights based approach, and Professor Woodhead made a very strong statement that in our advocacy efforts we must include the argument that ECDE is a child’s rights issue along with the economic and social justice argument.
Participants reached consensus on a framework to improve quality in ECDE in the region, with ideas and activities centred around building a Regional Network, addressing research gaps, strengthening systems building efforts, and investigating alternative financing mechanisms for ECDE. In addition country action plans were developed. Thus, the conference delivered a framework that is at once country-specific, regional, and thematic.
Finally, the framework is also informed by a commitment to quality and the knowledge conference participants gained about the broad elements of quality: children’s rights are ensured; families and community members are active participants; there is adequate financing, supports, coordination and collaboration across all sectors and stakeholders; practices are holistic, nurturing, child-centred, active and interactive; teachers/caregivers receive on-going professional development; the programme is inclusive and developmentally, culturally, and contextually appropriate and responsive.