Choosing Pre-Schools

Without a doubt the period of your child’s education with the most number of choices is their pre-schooling. Not only are there a high number of institutions in this sector, there are also a bewildering selection of ways with which they refer to themselves. There are crèches, day cares, pre-schools, schools, and kindergartens to name but a few. On top of this you get the educational system that the institutions uses, such as Montessori or Waldorf, thrown into the mix.

It’s enough to send any parent into a panic of self doubt.

What’s in a name?

The answer? Surprisingly little.

At Pre-school level the vast majority of facilities are privately run businesses. As such they are free to call themselves anything that they deem fit. There are no boundaries or regulations governing definitions or terms. So a crèche can be the exact same thing as day care, which can offer the same services as the pre-school down the road. On the other hand, two places calling themselves day cares may offer slightly different services, with somewhat different conditions in place.

So what about the specific educational models such as Montessori and Waldorf? We certainly have our share of Montessori schools in the area. And you would think that they followed a model set down by a controlling body. This isn’t the case however. There is an organization called the South African Montessori Association (SAMA), and Montessori institutions can apply to be members. The term ‘Montessori’ is not protected though, and so it is not legally possible for an organization such as SAMA to insist that a) all Montessori schools be registered, or b) that all Montessori schools follow strict guidelines (such as would be the case in a franchise operation). As such a school can call itself “Montessori” under any circumstance, its up to you to decide if this is true or not.

This is not the case with Waldorf Schools. Both the name ‘Waldorf’ and ‘Rudolf Steiner’ are trademarked and a none profit organization called The Southern African Federation of Waldorf Schools has a primary task of ensuring the integrity is maintained. This isn’t to say that they put out a set syllabus (this would probably contradict the philosophy behind the schools anyway). The federation’s stated aim is to “To positively support Waldorf education in the schools and to maintain a high standard of education at every level, in the spirit of the pedagogy inspired by the insights of Rudolf Steiner .”

Surely they are all registered?

Yes and no.

It seems that the cut off point for registration is 6 children. If a day care has 6 children or less then they do not need to register with anybody (except possibly SARS). Such facilities are likely to be a single person looking after babies and toddlers for a specified period of time. Typically referred to as “day mums” they are using their homes to make a little extra money. Facilities vary greatly and you tend to find out about them through word of mouth. They also tend to be someone who you trust your children with and it becomes a very ‘part of the family’ arrangement.

We used a day mum for our daughter up to the age of 2. The lady who looked after her had run larger schools but was now in semi-retirement. She simply didn’t want to jump through the legislative hoops that came with having more children and so always kept below the legal cut-off.

The situation changes drastically when the numbers go above 6. 7 kids and above and the legislation goes through the roof.

It is a legal requirement that all child care facilities with 7 or more children are fully registered and licensed. None compliance is a series offence and sending your children to a none registered establishment is putting them at series risk.

Registration is done with the local authorities, and they are governed by guidelines set down by central government. Its quite a list of requirements covering things such as planning compliance, safety (also such things as playground equipment), fire, health and hygiene, insurance, and many more things that will ensure the development and well being of your child while they are in the facilities care. Rest assured that if the place is registered then they meet the minimum (which is still quite substantial) requirements required by the local municipality.

If a facility is registered they will happily show you any and all up to date certification to prove it. They worked hard and jumped through a lot of hoops to get there and so will be all too happy to show it to you. You can further check the validity with the local municipality.

If a facility is being cagey about registration, and giving you stories about “waiting for this’” or “we haven’t but our standards are much higher”, or “we would pass but it is so expensive to do” then thank them for their time, walk away, and go straight to the nearest municipal office and report them. Do you really want to see the place on the news in connection with a tragedy, when you would have been in a position to stop it from happening?

Unfortunately it does happen, and child care facilities do open up that are not legal, nor safe. The sad thing is that they are usually in places where people are desperate for low cost, easy access child care. Far too often it is the children who pay the ultimate price.

Another potential pit fall is that quiet little place that is run by a friend of the family, its not registered but it is run by someone “who knows what they are doing”. It is all too easy to look the other way and trust this person, however, remember that it is the life of your child that you are trusting them with. Its simple and easy, if the place does not comply with the law then don’t send you child there. NO EXCEPTIONS!

Teachers and syllabus

There are teachers, carers, and assistants. They may call themselves other things but they all boil down to one of these. A teacher without the right level of qualifications for the age group they are teaching is a carer. Care givers also require a level of qualification- if they do not then they are an assistant. Assistants may have some level of qualification and are in the process of gaining experience, but they may not, and if the facility has employed them at that level then that is what they are.

And remember- the facility is only as good as the staff who are there!

I have personally fallen foul of this with a crèche that is no longer in operation. The two owners had the highest level of pre-school teaching qualifications available- one of them was qualified to teach grade R. “Super,” we thought. They also had high levels of first aid qualifications. “Oh, brilliant, our child is in good hands,” we thought. The next highest qualified carer was moderately qualified, with a basic first aid, which was also good to know. Until we started seeing the owners out and about during school hours. Not so bad, one of them is always there, you might say. No, no, nooo- we always saw them out and about together, doing things for the school for sure, but…. if they were not there what use were all their qualifications? At that point the crèche was in the hands of an inexperienced, moderately qualified carer. Our breaking point came when I picked up my daughter and the only person there was the cleaner. Now, I am sure the cleaner was a very competent woman, who had raised a few children herself, but that really isn’t the point here is it.

One good thing to look for when picking a place to care for your most precious ones is that someone runs the business and someone else runs the caring. Then you can check the qualifications of the people who will actually be caring for your child and be somewhat safe in the knowledge that a) they are more likely to be there all the time, and b) the business is being run very diligently. Even if it is not obvious that this separation is in place it is good practice to judge the level of competency of the facility by looking at the level of qualification of the next person down from the owner. More often than not they are the person who is going to be ‘on site’ the most.

When it comes to pre-school there is no set curriculum, there are however guidelines as to the level of development that a child should have achieved by a certain age. They tend to be based around fine motor skills and concentration levels rather than anything concretely academic, and nearly always aimed at preparing children for their next stage in their educational development (or ‘big school’ as it is nearly always referred to).

How this is achieved and how formal the environment is really depends on the facility and the resources it has available. It is now almost universal that child development is achieved through a mixture of play and learning (usually veiled as play, such as art work and puzzles etc). To be honest I have seen some pretty bizarre subject matter covered by lesson plans, however, it is usually just a way of introducing the basic requirements and still keeping things fun.

The only exception to this is ‘grade R’. If a child care facility says that they offer grade R then they have to meet the education departments criteria as this is a structured part of the educational syllabus. To be hones, if your child has been in good child care facilities and pre-schools from a young age they will already know the grade R curriculum well before they get there. The curriculum as set down by central government is very basic, but it is a minimum standard and your child will actually be required to meet those standards if they want to progress to grade 1.

The number of independent, small pre-schools who are offering grade R is diminishing. This isn’t because they are not able to deliver a quality education at this level, it is more to do with the larger schools wanting more children in their own grade R programs. We were clearly told that by not enrolling our daughter into grade R at Fish Hoek Primary we would be taking a big risk when it came to grade 1. A child in grade R is accepted automatically into grade 1 at the school they are in, however, there are limited spaces available for children who did grade R somewhere else.

I have been told by other facilities that the parents of their grade R kids do not struggle, and that it is a ploy by the larger schools, however, we were not willing to take that risk.

Whatever the truth is it is having the effect of reducing the number of children who are doing grade R at independent facilities, forcing many of them to stop offering the service simply because of economics.

If you do go the independent route the thing you need to consider is, will the facility prepare your child for grade 1? If they do, and you are happy with the arrangement, and feel secure that your child is going to get into the next school of your choice then there are some very competent facilities available to you. Some may even prove to be better than a main school. But it is a big, scary decision (and did we wimp out at the cost of the little guy, and erode that little bit of competition that is good for keeping any environment healthy and honest?)

This has been a long article, and I thank you for coming this far- however, it barely scratches the surface and doesn’t touch on the main decision making tool that you will employ when choosing child care for your kids.

You can do all the research in the world, use tick lists, produce spreadsheets, and search the internet until your eye balls fall out- at the end of the day it will be a gut feeling that makes the final decision for you. Do you have that feeling that one facility is going to be better for your child than another? It shouldn’t be your only way of choosing but it will probably be the deciding factor.

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