There are an estimated three to four million children under the age of six who have no access to early learning in South Africa, mainly due to logistics and poverty.
This has a significant impact when they enter formal schooling and has a lasting effect throughout their schooling years, ultimately influencing their career options.
“This frightening statistic is the challenge that we are facing,” says Bonnie Haack, chief learning officer at Johannesburg-based NPO Cotlands, which recently saw a partnership with digital learning experts Blue Pencil Creative come to fruition.
Cotlands started life as a home for abandoned babies. In 2012, however, it shifted from being solely a residential unit for babies and small children to taking up a new challenge: early learning education from birth to the year before a child starts school.
As part of this initiative, they facilitated a comprehensive play-focused early learning programme (ELP) for children in marginalised communities that includes toy libraries and playgroups.
The community-based programme relies on early learning facilitators (ELFs) from local communities to run the groups, which not only educates the children but empowers the facilitators.
“The ELFs undergo an induction into Cotlands’ learning culture and educational philosophy and are upskilled through Cotlands’ in-service training,” explains Haack, “but they should ideally have NQF Level 4 ECD (early childhood development) Practitioner training. Unfortunately, formal education is not accessible to most of our facilitators, which has an impact on the children they are training, leading to a vicious cycle.”
The partnership with Blue Pencil Creative has provided Cotlands with a SETA-accredited ECD-certified training programme, which highlights how NPOs can position themselves for a stronger, more sustainable future by linking up with ICT professionals to help them take their critical work to the next level.
The fully-integrated end-to-end digital programme, which includes a learning component and online submission of portfolios, was launched in July 2020. Interactive and experiential, it allows students to work at their own pace and on a laptop, desktop or tablet.
“We have a dire need in the country for ECD trainers. They set the scene for everything that is to come,” says Adrian Ziller, MD of Blue Pencil Creative. ”If you instill in children a love of learning and a love of trying things with confidence … it is incalculable how much that will impact their lives.
“Cotlands is doing such innovative things to service their communities, and that is congruent with our philosophy,” Ziller adds. “We are very excited to be one of the first companies to pilot an entirely digital SETA-accredited training solution for an NPO.”
Cotlands’ executive and training administrator, Kerry Huggett, says the programme offers a gateway into formal education, based on workplace experience through recognition of prior learning. This is what Cotlands envisages: providing a career pathway for its facilitators to professionalise the services they offer. It is a vision that has now been brought into sharper focus.
Cotlands will ultimately be making the digital courses available to everyone, as they are far more affordable and accessible than existing classroom-based courses.