Martin Scholtz

Martin Scholtz, who served as Interim Project Manager for the new University of Fort Hare Early Childhood Development Centre of Excellence, reflects on this new partnership’s first year of development.

New Partnership Focuses on Early Childhood Development

The last year saw the launch of an ambitious educational project based at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. The goal: to address the key questions and challenges related to Early Child Development (ECD) in South Africa with the goal of improving the educational and life outcomes of the country’s youngest and most vulnerable children.

The project is a partnership between the University of Fort Hare, Wheelock College — a Boston institution known for its programs in early childhood education — and South Africa Partners. It has several bold facets: the building of a new physical facility to house the University of Fort Hare Early Childhood Development Centre Of Excellence; expansion of UFH’s academic focus across disciplines to include the 0-4 age range, and partnership with government, the non-profit sector and underserved communities to translate academic investment into better quality ECD for a larger number of children and families.

The challenge is stark. Twenty years into South Africa’s transition to democracy, the majority of very young children in the country are still not served by public support systems that should be promoting their educational, health, nutritional, or social wellbeing. The project aims to establish rigorous intellectual engagement led by the academic community to improve the situation.

Martin Scholtz has been the project’s manager for its inaugural year. Scholtz is a long-time educator: He taught at Sisekelo High School in Swaziland and at Bridge House College, and served as CEO for 12 years of The President’s Award for Youth Empowerment, an organization that provides self-development mentorship to teenagers and young adults. 

“My role was to translate the business plan and funding proposals into functioning activities of people coming together,” says Scholtz. Here, he talks about how the first year unfolded.

Can you summarize the problem that this project is trying to fix?

The University Of Fort Hare Early Childhood Development Centre of Excellence is really a response to the need for quality teacher education in the ECD space and the need for a research capacity within the university with a focus on ECD. Broadly, the center is a response to the need within South Africa for quality outputs.

The statistics are sobering — more than half of the 6.3 million children under five in South Africa in 2012 were living in poverty. Only about one in six of those children were expected to be served by Early Childhood Development centers in 2013.  

South Africa is large, with significant parts of the country that are rural, and has such diverse income brackets — I think we’ve got one of the biggest discrepancies between rich and poor in a single country. Providing Early Childhood Development that is relevant to the context these young kids are in is really important. And so the idea is for the Centre to become a thought leader in Early Childhood Development in marginalized communities in South Africa, driven by a South African reality.

The Centre will be a physical space for academic learning and research. We hope that all the stakeholder groups that we have engaged so far will feel ownership, from government departments to the ECD community, to academics from around the country and around the world. The idea is that this will be the place that will train new teachers and will become the go-to place if you want to know anything about Early Childhood Development in rural areas of South Africa.

What were the highlights of the project’s initial year?

We set up governance and operational structures. We had an implementation and evaluation team that was made up of representatives from Wheelock College and South Africa Partners and Fort Hare, and we met on Skype on a monthly basis. We set up two working groups: the first is a transdisciplinary working group, made up of a diverse group of faculty from Fort Hare, ECD practitioners, and government – including social development, education, and health officials, and the second is a transdisciplinary research group, also made up of a diverse group of stakeholders.

What’s really unique about the Centre is not just the collaborative approach between the government, the academics, and the Early Childhood Development community, but also the trans-disciplinary focus. We’ve got Fort Hare law faculty who are looking at legislation around children, we’ve got agricultural sciences involved, we’ve got psychology and social work involved, all in addition to education. We’re really trying to look at the child as a holistic being, so to speak, and not just in a single dimension. It’s been really exciting seeing so many faculty who want to work outside of their silos to contribute something significant.

How did all these organizations work together? What happened in those first months?

We have had three government departments on a provincial level coming together with university faculty as well as Early Childhood Development practitioners all in one room. This creates a real opportunity for developing a common sense of what we need to do as a country.  It’s about sharing the bigger vision of what the Centre wants to achieve, but also understanding the value of what each of those stakeholder groups brings.

Initially it seemed unwieldy. I must admit that I remember the first meeting that we had, I thought, “oh dear, I’m not sure where we’re going to go with this,” because it just seemed as though everybody was on a different planet. But we haven’t seen egos or power struggles, which can often characterize a multi-stakeholder group. It was more a case of, “why are we here, what are we trying to achieve — if we can all get our heads around that, and move beyond the politics of our own organization, that’s great.”

And members of each of those stakeholder groups have requested to be part of different working groups. So their voices are heard, their opinions are heard, their contributions are being incorporated into the documents and processes that are developing.

How did it work having Wheelock College and South Africa Partners as out-of-country collaborators?

It’s challenging, working collaboratively across continents. Part of it is simply the time difference: when people in Boston are starting their day, we in South Africa are at the tail end of ours. And when you get people on the tail end of the day they’re not firing on all cylinders.

But that said, Wheelock has brought a lot to the partnership in the way that they have worked with Fort Hare faculty. They’ve been very conscious of not imposing ideas that might work in the States but might not work elsewhere. They’ve been very good at listening. Wheelock engaged with this multi stakeholder group in South Africa to get a sense of what the issues were, and they really were open to that. That was very exciting.

South Africa Partners has been a critical component in helping facilitate this whole thing. It helps having a group that’s not necessarily directly involved but does understand the context. The staff at South Africa Partners, people like Mary [Tiseo] and Carol [Jackson Cashion], they understand South Africa, they’ve spent time in South Africa, and they’ve been particularly helpful in managing the partnership with Wheelock. They’re able to help broker that space in between the States and South Africa, where there are cultural things, or organizational things, or just seeing the bigger picture.

Wheelock has a great reputation in early childhood education. That must be valuable.

Yes. Wheelock also does work in other regions like in Singapore and the Caribbean, and although we’re not necessarily looking for solutions from beyond South Africa, it really helps to have a global perspective on what’s possible and how to do things in different contexts.

Wheelock academics have visited South Africa to talk about the kinds of material that need to be developed for new degree courses at Fort Hare. Another visit was focused on needs assessment research in the communities that the Centre is likely to engage with. The Fort Hare academics and faculty members who have engaged with Wheelock have been very positive about that relationship.

What’s most exciting about what’s ahead, and where do you think the challenges will be?

You know, development work in South Africa is a path. One of the challenges is going to be to meet the expectations we have set up — you have to deliver on what you say you’re going to deliver on.

Very strong leadership is going to be needed. Development work in South Africa is potentially politicized, and you need to have a strong head to look beyond the politics. But there’s loads of potential, and if there’s strong leadership year by year, then I think ten years down the line the Centre could really be something very significant.

We build partnerships with purpose.