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The 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) released this week shows that 81% of South Africa’s grade 4s can’t read for meaning. Chris Barron asked ERIC ATMORE, early childhood development activist and associate professor at the University of Stellenbosch ... Is this a result of neglecting early childhood development? Without a doubt. There’s a direct correlation. Is there a link between countries with high pupil literacy and countries where early childhood development (ECD) is taken seriously? Yes. We see the best Pirls scores in countries where there are high rates of literacy and numeracy of parents which is fed down to their young children. So this is an essential element of ECD? The other main elements are qualified teachers and the availability of resources they can use in building early literacy and numeracy. What we’ve got in South Africa is a vastly underqualified group of teachers working with young children, and no resources in the playroom. But the teaching of literacy begins in the home with the family. The basis of early literacy and numeracy is how the family gets involved. Can ECD centres compensate for the absence of this kind of home environment? To a degree, if there is one nearby that is properly resourced and run, but only to a degree. Most early learning happens in the home. It doesn’t need expensive resources but it does need an involved parent or involved teacher. The overwhelming majority of teachers at ECD centres are unqualified and untrained. So in effect ECD is being ignored in South Africa? It hasn’t had the priority it needs. The scientific evidence from around the world says that a quality early learning programme prepares children not only for grade 1 but for life. And it is vastly neglected in South Africa, with very little political will to change that. How do you explain this given the evidence of its utter importance? It’s a matter of political priorities. Has the budget for ECD grown at all? Very, very slowly. One of the errors made was to locate ECD in the department of social development. It was moved to the department of basic education 18 months ago. Has that led to any improvement? Up to now it’s been more of the same. There has to be political will at the highest level. As long as ECD doesn’t have political backing it will never thrive. There needs to be a systemic government plan to integrate ECD into the education system, and we’re not seeing that. So we can’t expect improved literacy levels any time soon? Not until there are qualified teachers and sufficient budget allocation — we still allocate less than 2% of our education budget to ECD. If inequality is going to be tackled, isn’t this precisely when it needs to happen? Yes. Societal inequality is replicated at the early childhood level. We’ve got about 1.6-million children who attend an ECD centre daily, but those centres are short of books and the teachers are not trained and don’t have the capacity to read a simple story. Provided there’s a qualified adult teacher and the resources are there, children will soak up literacy and numeracy. The problem does not lie with the children, the problem lies with the system. It doesn’t provide the environment they need at all.