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Teacher education pre-1994 was characterised by fragmentation and differentiation of provision largely based on race and geographic location.  Teachers for the pre-primary phase (mainly white) and for the primary school received training in colleges of education and received diploma qualifications. Non-governmental organisations were mainly responsible for training of black African preschool practitioners (Department of Education, 2001). Most colleges of education that catered for African teachers did not develop teachers for the early phases of education/schooling. Where universities were involved in teacher education, they offered predominately postgraduate qualifications specialising in the higher levels of education/schooling, mostly preparing secondary school teachers.

The reconstruction of teacher education post 1994 was aimed at overall coherence through a unified system for teacher education and the establishment of a qualifications framework, which put national norms and standards in place for teacher education (Sayed, 2004). At the time, it was recognised that the proliferation of teacher education colleges, developed in response to the Apartheid dispensation of separate colleges for specific race and ethnic groups, were producing a large number of inadequately qualified, poorly trained teachers in phase and subject areas that did not match the actual needs of the system. A period of rationalisation and mergers followed. Of the 101 colleges of education that existed in 1994, many were closed down, and others were merged with, or incorporated into existing universities. At present, there are 21 public universities that offer initial teacher education programmes in South Africa.  Some of the arguments that were put forward to support the closure of the colleges included the overemphasis on practical skills to the detriment of disciplinary content knowledge (Waniganayake, 2005, Ebrahim & Phatudi, 2005) and the lack of a research culture in teacher education (Sayed, 2004).

The transition from the location of teacher education predominantly in colleges of education to location solely in universities has not been without its own challenges. For example, Ebrahim and Phathudi (2005) cited case studies from two universities to show how the quest for a viable teacher education system for early schooling resulted in a clash of cultures. This was especially evident in relation to the nature of pedagogy, the dealing with issues of diversity and reflective practice. The take up of teacher preparation for the early years of schooling has also been an area of neglect. For example, of the 21 universities that currently offers initial teacher education, as of 2009, only 13 offer Foundation Phase teacher education programmes.

Even fewer universities are able to attract teachers and sustain teacher education programmes aimed at teachers for the pre-school years due to the lack of status and career pathways. Consequently, the university system has not been able to attract and so produce sufficient numbers of African language teachers for the early years of schooling, leading to a crisis in this sector.

For teacher educators the Norms and Standards for Educators (2000) required engagement on curriculum design and implementation of programmes based on interconnected competences. Pendlebury (1998) noted that this engagement as reformist attempts should have allowed teacher educators to exercise their professional autonomy and discretion. This process, however, was hampered by several factors, namely, the lack of status of early childhood and foundation phase education in universities; the lack of dialogue amongst teacher educators for the foundation phase nationally; technical interpretations of teacher education policy; an overemphasis of centralised control for programme design and implementation; lack of training to teach in higher education for new staff; and teacher educators unwillingness to change and  to position themselves as lifelong learners. The knowledge base and skills required for initial teacher education in the rapidly transforming realities of South Africa also needs critical interrogation.

Taking into account the context described above, it is timely and critical to explore new avenues in ECE at primary level in  sites such as early childhood centres, schools and at tertiary level in  teacher education. Funding support through the European Union Primary Education Sector Policy Support Programme in South Africa has enabled the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) to put in place a collaborative programme with the higher education sector to specifically strengthen and deepen  Foundation Phase teacher education at universities, with particular emphasis on the need to address shortcomings in the ability of the system to produce adequate numbers of well-qualified African language Foundation Phase teachers. The grant provides resources for addressing several gaps.

One of the gaps relate to the development of a research association. In the current climate this research association will serve as an inclusive body which unites a fragmented field into a community of practice which will aim specifically at raising the status of the field through a strong research base and scholarly engagement.  

The South African Research Association in Early Childhood Education (SARAECE) will seek to be a leading voice for ECE invested in improving the well-being, early education and holistic developmental potential for all children from birth to nine. The association will serve as a catalyst for research in ECE and intends to provide a platform supporting knowledge creation in ECE. It also is committed to becoming an inclusive, collective and critical voice for the ECE field.

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