Strengthen Childhood Development [opinion]

EXPERTS in the field of education gathered in Windhoek this week to discuss ways on how to strengthen Early Childhood Development in the country.

The two-day symposium, coordinated by Unicef and the Economic Association of Namibia, follows the recent Grade 10 and 12 results that have once again awakened the country to the harsh realities of the struggling education system.

Experts hope to address the root causes of the high failure rate, saying that this could be attributed to the fact that most of Namibia’s children had a shaky foundation in their early years due to disease, poverty and malnutrition.

Although Early Childhood Development (ECD) is included in the programmes at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, many argued that it is often overlooked by policy makers.They proposed a bottom-up approach, which means investing in the child’s development starting with a healthy pregnancy and positive parenting through the ECD concept.

Participants, including South African researcher from the Human Science Council Chris Desmond, emphasised the need to improve the education system by focusing on ECD.

Desmond, who presented a topic under the theme ‘The Cost of Inaction’ said that early interventions in a child’s life (from 0-4 years old) could lead to larger returns for the country. The experts proposed an integrated intervention through ECD, whereby a child is exposed to all the components that lead to his or her development all at once.

He said ECD does not begin at pre-primary level, but right at conception, adding that the first 1 000 days of a child’s life are crucial for planting a long lasting positive impact as the brain is more receptive at this stage.

Desmond explained that often, children are denied an opportunity to thrive even before they take their first steps, a permanent damage that has a lasting negative impact and is difficult to reverse.

“This is because the foundation of cognitive development occurs in the early years,” he explained. He said some threats to a child’s development include a difficult pregnancy, poverty and a foundation of an unequal start in life. Desmond referred to the large gap between the rich and poor, which is prevalent in Namibia.

“ECD investment outcomes can be achieved in multiple different ways, including more enrollments at primary, secondary and higher education level, leading to an educated population,” he said, adding that a largely educated population in turn leads to a drop in child and maternal mortalities.

“Educated women are more likely to take care of themselves than those who are not,” he said.

In South Africa, the concept has taken off the ground, but Linda Richter, another researcher from the Human Science Council, explained that it has not reached all the targeted areas to a satisfactory level as government has not yet fully financed ECD in that country. “ECD funding mostly depends on civil society organisations,” said Richter.

Unicef country representative Micaela Marques De Soussa said that despite positive gains, children in Namibia face enormous inequities. “Poverty affects 34% of children, while one in three children is stunted, 13% of primary school aged children are out of school, with an increasing dropout rate at secondary level, and alarming levels of socially tolerated family violence and child abuse,” she said.

In a follow-up meeting that involved all stakeholders yesterday – Unicef, the gender and child welfare and education ministries and NGOs – the group discussed the Expanded High Level Technical Committee for Transition of ECD and Expansion of Quality Integrated ECD Services in Namibia. The Ministry of Education presented the pros and cons of a possible transition of the Early Childhood programme from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare to the Ministry of Education.

The group says it hopes to visit President-elect Hage Geingob to sell the idea before 31 March 2015. “Hopefully, he will be sympathetic,” said education consultant Justin Ellis.

Source : The Namibian