The reality of African children and their families differs in many ways from the conventional narratives drawn from Western views of early childhood development. Disciplines such as biology and developmental and child psychology have presented universalised images of children and childhood. Where these western framings are uncritically used, they sideline African ways of being and knowing.
“Africa has a rich cultural heritage that serves as a resource to shape the lives of African children,” says Unisa’s Professor Hasina Ebrahim, joint holder of the UNESCO Chair in Early Childhood Education, Care and Development.
Unisa shares this Chair with the University of Victoria in Canada. The latter hosted the Chair on its own from 2008 until June 2017 when it supported Unisa’s successful application to UNESCO to be the co-holder.
“Professor Alan Pence of the University of Victoria brings a wealth of experience of working with the First Nations (indigenous people) in Canada, as well as extensive work with leaders in Africa, and this is synergistic with Unisa’s capacity-building and knowledge-production programmes,” says Ebrahim, who is a full professor of Early Childhood Care and Education. “The partnership is indeed an exciting one.”
Foregrounding African research
Ebrahim’s main priority as co-holder of the UNESCO Chair in Early Childhood Education, Care and Development is to ensure that African research on early childhood policy, practice and teacher development is foregrounded. “We need a new cadre of scholars and researchers in the continent,” says Ebrahim, who is herself considered part of the new wave of early childhood researchers in Africa and has served as the director of institutes for building the capacity of early childhood researchers in South Africa and broadly in Africa.
“There should be a concerted effort to promote research highlighting African realities and conditions impacting on child outcomes,” she says. “If this is approached in a more robust way, then our interventions will meet the criteria of context responsiveness. We need our own evidence to highlight our issues and map a way forward.”
For example, research has shown that there are significant inequities between Grade R children from poor and affluent families. “Children have developmental delays because of poverty and multiple-problem families. School is a whole new, unknown world to these children, some of whom have never seen a chair, for instance, and have to learn that this is something you sit on. Everything about school is new and strange to some children from backgrounds of poverty.”
From private care to public good
“It is heart-warming to note that we have greater political will from the South African government for the early years as compared to other countries in Africa,” she says. “We are shifting the notion of early childhood development as private care, to early childhood development as public good, especially for poor and vulnerable children. The main challenge is to implement joined-up services for holistic child development.”
Ebrahim, who was instrumental in developing the South African “birth to four” curriculum framework for teachers, says it is critical to professionalise the workforce to improve the quality in early care and education. “In South Africa, there is no degree for the early years below Grade R, just a few short courses.”
Unisa, through Ebrahim’s leadership, is at the forefront of a European Union-funded qualification development project at diploma and degree level. “This development will be a real milestone for the field,” she says.
*Submitted by Virginia McManus