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Virtual symposium spotlights the value of collaboration in improving children’s lives

Tangible, sustainable change is possible in the lives of children and their caregivers when teachers, social workers, nurses, parents and children work together with a common purpose and in a dedicated, solution-focused way.

This is the key message that emerged from a two-day virtual symposium organised by the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) at the University of Johannesburg. The symposium, “Fast tracking child well-being”, was the culmination of a two-year Communities of Practice (CoP) research and intervention study and a partnership between three research chairs at the University of Johannesburg and the Centre of Excellence in Human Development at the University of the Witwatersrand. More than 300 people attended the symposium on July 19 and 20 to learn about and discuss the findings from a CoP model the sought to fast-track child well-being outcomes for early grade learners in five public schools in the City of Johannesburg.

This multi-disciplinary team approach involved teachers, social workers, nurses and school psychologists in the assessments and interventions. They conducted multi-level developmental assessments of 162 children in grades R and 1 in 2020 and 140 children in 2021; all the children who took part were beneficiaries of the Child Support Grant. The same children were assessed a year later when they were in grades 1 and 2, respectively.

The project aimed to address hunger, material deprivation, parental engagement in learning, psychosocial well-being, caregiver mental health and child health while also improving learning outcomes in maths and language. The CoP solutions align closely with national goals and the Sustainable Development Goals: poverty, hunger, health and education.

Prof Mary Metcalfe, a renowned educationalist, policymaker, and innovator in her keynote address praised the CoP as being a very significant study as a foundation for micro- and macro-level analyses and scale-up initiatives. She said that a practical approach to children’s well-being is urgently needed, and this need will grow as the effects of the economic downturn on families’ lives become more pronounced.

She also focused on the need to emphasise the specific role of teachers (as in the CoP study). She said: “It is difficult to teach a child who is having major problems with their well-being. Teachers must be seen as important partners who serve as both identification and intervention points. The focus must be on the competence of teachers; while they are not therapists, all teachers would benefit from a deeper comprehension of how to respond to the complexity of well-being demands in their teaching and knowing when a referral is necessary.”

In her closing remarks at the symposium, Professor Leila Patel, DSI/NRF South African Research Chair: Welfare and Social Development at the CSDA, emphasised the value of a “transdisciplinary and systemic approach” such as the CoP in disrupting “cumulative and corrosive disadvantage”.

An extensive body of research has shown the lifelong value of improving children’s learning, psychosocial wellbeing, health and nutritional outcomes. If these factors are not addressed, Patel said, there could be “far-reaching negative short and long-term effects in adulthood”. These include people’s earning capacities, the kinds of jobs they’re likely to have – and their overall sense of happiness.

One key value of the CoP was its localised nature, Prof Patel said: “The CoP is located at the school, family and at community levels. This provides an entry point into the life space of the child to address both proximal challenges, those that are closer to the child and the family, and the more distant ones that are embedded in the wider systems that need to work best to achieve the outcomes we seek.”

This and similar work is occurring in a challenging situation, with a tremendous gap between the intention of existing policies and actual implementation. Patel identified under-resourcing of school level services, limited or no funding for social work services and poor coordination between service partners and agencies as being among the hinderances to policy implementation.

She was optimistic about the CoP’s value and its future trajectory: “It is evident from our engagements that the CoP approach focused on child well-being outcomes is a worthy endeavour – and one which is already provided for in education policies in South Africa.”

The National Research Foundation, which funded both the CoP and the symposium, has approved funding for a further two years after an external review confirmed the project’s success. This, Prof Patel said, would enable the researchers to track the same children longitudinally over three years from 2020 to 2022. The CoP approach will also be tested at the Ndlovu Care site in Moutse, Groblersdal, Limpopo – an important opportunity to see how the approach plays out in a rural environment following its initial focus on urban schools.

“The CoP is growing, and more and more partners are keen to continue the conversation to bring about real and tangible changes in the lives of children and their families.”

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