Chapter 6: Assessing young children in South Africa

AUTHORS: Z. Amod, D. Heafield

ABSTRACT: This chapter explores the complexities, purpose and relevance of school-readiness assessment within the South African context as well as the existing research in this field.  The concept of school-readiness assessment is a contentious issue in this country. This is firstly due to the historical misuse of assessment instruments for the purpose of exclusionary practices and the perpetuation of an inequitable education system.  Secondly children in this country exist within extremely diverse socio-cultural and economic structures and this contributes towards significant emotional and developmental differences between young children. A linear, maturational model of school-readiness assessment (as espoused by Kagan, 1992, 1994 and Damarest, Reisner, Humphrey & Stein, 1993) therefore seems immensely inadequate, and denying a child the right to begin school at the appropriate age based on this model could be considered both discriminatory and unfair. It is partly for this reason that the government has imposed an informal moratorium on school readiness assessment within government schools. The objective of this chapter is therefore to propose a more holistic and eco-systemic view of school readiness assessment, based on a critique (which includes strengths and limitations) of existing approaches.  The move towards an inclusive education and training system which has been outlined in Education White Paper 6 (2001) places the responsibility on schools, and the education system as a whole, to provide adequate support structures to accommodate a diverse range of children with a variety of barriers to learning. The emphasis on learners being ready for school has therefore shifted to schools being ready for all learners.   This interactional / bi-directional concept of school readiness is supported in the literature (Meisels, 1996) and in a recent South African study (Goldblatt, 2004).  Although there is still a place for the assessment of individual learners to determine the types of support structures that may be needed,  government expenditure on education is more suitably spent on upgrading facilities, reducing class sizes and improving teacher training. This will provide all learners with a better chance of reaching their full potential.

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