Home South African Young children in SA failing to thrive – child development survey

Young children in SA failing to thrive – child development survey

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One of the largest surveys into preschool child development has found that 65% of 4- to 5-year-olds in South Africa are failing to thrive.

The index found that children attending early learning programmes were not able to do the learning tasks expected of children their age, with 28% of children falling far behind. File picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

ONE OF the largest surveys into preschool child development has found that 65% of 4- to 5-year-olds in South Africa are failing to thrive.

The Thrive by Five Index assessed more than 5,000 children aged 4 to 5 years old enrolled in early learning programmes (ELPs) across the country in three areas: early learning, physical growth and social emotional functioning.

The survey was initiated by FNB and Innovation Edge in collaboration with the Department of Basic Education, supported by the US Agency for International Development (USAid) and ECD Measure.

Of the 1.3 million children in South Africa aged 4 to 5 years old, about 72% (more than 930 000) attend some kind of ELP. Children who are thriving are on track in both physical growth and early learning.

The data for the index was collected between September and November 2021. The final sample used for analysis included 5,139 children (48% boys and 52% girls) drawn from 1,247 ELPs across the country.

Learning tasks assessed were gross motor skills, fine motor skills, early literacy, early mathematics and executive functioning (a child’s ability to solve problems and pay attention). Each child was assessed in their own language by a trained and accredited Early Learning Outcomes Measure assessor.

The index found that children attending ELPs were not able to do the learning tasks expected of children their age, with 28% of children falling far behind.

One in four children (25.1%) showed signs of long-term malnutrition, presenting as stunted physical growth. Overall, 5.3% were found to be severely stunted, with stunting highest among the poorest children.

For social emotional functioning, the index found that 27.5% of children did not meet the standard when it came to age-appropriate social relations with peers and adults, while 33.4% were found to not be emotionally ready for school.

The index found that children attending early learning programmes were not able to do the learning tasks expected of children their age, with 28% of children falling far behind. Picture: Supplied

Thrive by Five project leader Sonja Giese said data collection would be repeated every three years to track trends.

“The experiences we have during our first five years of life set our trajectory as individuals, and collectively for society as a whole. One of the most important measures of the current state, and future potential, of our country is whether our youngest children are thriving. Until now, we have not had data to track this important indicator. The Thrive by Five Index aims to fill this data gap,” Giese said.

She said the data points to unequal opportunities in early childhood which set poor children up for failure, reinforcing inequality and exclusion.

“The index found that a child’s chances of starting school on track is profoundly influenced by the income level of the household they are born into.

“Young children from more affluent backgrounds are starting school with a distinct advantage over their poorer peers. This advantage will increase as they get older because children who start school already falling behind are likely to fall further and further behind over time.”

Early learning receives less than 2% of the government’s annual education budget, reaching just 13% of poor children aged 0 to 5 years.

Pathways Outa Poverty head Guy Harris said: “If those are the results for those in ELPs, what are the results for those excluded? Fees must rise to fund ECD and reduce grade slippage at basic education, increase maths and science participation and 50% passes and help reduce tertiary drop-outs. These are our future employees, future customers and future neighbours Parliament and the bureaucrats are messing with.”

Stellenbosch University Education Policy Studies associate professor Eric Atmore said the index sheds light on the magnitude of the problem and is a warning to the Department of Basic Education that it needs to be urgently remedied.

“We have been a constitutional democracy for 27 years now. By this time, the government should have a thriving education system up and running. We have the education policies in place, but we do not have the political will to meet the needs of young children.

“Children are still falling into pit latrines at school and drowning and children are still denied the opportunity to attend a quality ECD centre.”

ECD programmes migrated to the DBE as of April 1, 2022.

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