The Early Learning Resource Unit (ELRU), recognised for its pioneering work in early childhood development, is still helping children reach their full potential 40 years after it opened its doors.
The organisation, based in Lansdowne, works mainly in disadvantaged communities where it helps to “bridge the gap” when parents cannot afford crèche fees, and to assist early childhood development (ECD) centres with training.
The areas it works in include Athlone, Hanover Park, Langa, Lavender Hill, Khayelitsha, Franschhoek, Louwville, Delft, Lwandle, Swellendam, Gugulethu, Nyanga, and Mitchell’s Plain.
To kick-start its 40th anniversary celebrations, Elru decided to honour one of its founders, the late Professor Richard van der Ross, who was an author, former teacher, anti-apartheid activist, and Freeman of the City of Cape Town. Professor Van Der Ross died on Wednesday December 13 last year, at the age of 96.
The current Elru director, Tracy van der Heyde, explained that the organisation has its origin back in 1972, when a team of people started the Athlone Early Learning Centre (ELC) in Kewtown.
“It was initially attached to the Eoan Group (School of Performing Arts), who envisaged a pre-school as part of its establishment, and funded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation in the Netherlands. This educational project, based on the American programme, Operation Head Start, was born with 120 children from Athlone.
“The focus was on children in economically-marginalised townships that had been created on the basis of separatist and racist policies,” said Ms Van Der Heyde.
Ms Van Der Heyde said: “These policies, by their very nature, denied and thwarted the potential of people living there. The ELC set out to expose young children to
programmes that would stimulate their cognitive ability and ease their transition to
learning in formal school.”
In 1978, when seven staff members broke away from the ELC with funding from the Bernard van Leer Foundation, Elru was established. Over the years, it has grown exponentially and now boasts 300 fieldworkers and 36 office staff.
Ms Van Der Heyde added that the number of fieldworkers are continuously growing.
When asked if the needs of children had changed over the years, Ms Van Der Heyde said: “The needs of children have not changed over time. In order to survive and thrive, children continue to need basic services that include nutrition, health, early stimulation, social services and supportive parenting. These make up an essential package of services that support the holistic development of children.
“While ECD centres still remain the dominant form of provisioning for early childhood care and education, organisationssupporting these centres will be called upon, more and more, to facilitate the integrated delivery of the essential package of services which is a lot broader than Early Childhood Care and Education(ECCE). Training programmes will therefore have to be adjusted to cover the essential package and organisations will have to ensure that there are monitoring and evaluation systems in place that track progress and measure outcomes.
“At Elru, through our First 1 000 Days programme, we are delivering an integrated package of services to children (aged from 0 to 2 years) and pregnant mothers, so that these children have the best possible start in life. Our training programmes have also been enhanced to support practitioners in the classroom through a mentorship and coaching programme.”
Ms Van Der Heyde also pointed out that despite its advocacy work to increase the understanding of the importance of ECD, many communities still remain largely unaware of getting it right from the start.
“While government acknowledgesthe value of ECD, funding remains primarily focused on primary and tertiary education and we have been advised of budget cuts for this year. The ECD sector, therefore, remains the Cinderella in education,” she said.
Despite the challenges however, Elru’s work has reached thousands of children.
“In2017,programmes in the Western Cape, Northern Cape and the North West reached 9 391 children, 632 fieldworkers and 75 ECD centres. Elru remains a pioneer in the development of learning programmes and materials, and many of the organisation’s resources can be downloaded free of charge from its website. Elru’s work of 40 years is a tribute and a testament to Professor Van der Ross’s unwavering dedication to education and his vision for our youngest children to develop to their full potential,” Ms Van Der Heyde said.
Professor Van der Ross was widely known as an academic because of his leadership role at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) over more than two decades, and as an author and prolific writer who published several books that are now becoming collector’s items.
However, he also made an extraordinary contribution to the field of early childhood development in South Africa.
The Kewtown ELC became the model for replicating similar ECD centres in other provinces, which Elru later went on to further develop and disseminate country-wide and beyond. Professor Van der Ross, as a circuit inspector of the education department, was seconded to the ELC where he held the position of principal from 1971 to 1974 before his appointment as rector of UWC. During his time at the ELC he initiated a community work organisation – known as BABS (Build a Better Society) that would work alongside the ELC to strengthen family and community support for children, as well as leadership for realising the aspirations of local people.
Professor Van der Ross was fortunate to have the likes of George Gibbs and Freda Brock (his daughter) – young social work graduates who realised the need for a different community development approach to conventional social work practice.
Ann Short, formerly head of research at the ELC, became the director of Elru. Under her leadership, Elru grew to a fairly large organisation, nationally and internationally acclaimed as a leading research and development organisation in ECD.
In 1994, Ms Brock joined Elru as director, and followed in the footsteps of her father.
Today, Elru has three-key programmes:
The Family and Community (FCM) Home Visiting Programme, aimed at the first 1 000 days (conception to two years), ensures that the primary caregiver is supported and equipped with tools and skills to support the growth and development of young children;
The Playgroup Programme supports children from the age of 26 months to 6 years and is organised in homes of unemployed mothers, bringing six hours of play per week to children whose families are unable to afford ECD centre care;
The Whole Centre Development Programme, which focuses on infrastructure, practitioner training, site learning programme, institutional capacity, leadership and governance; capacity building and resource provision cover training, mentoring, materials development and is shaped by ongoing monitoring and Evaluation which underpins all the programmes to show not only the progress and development of the model, but its impact on the holistic development of the child.