‘Young children tend to be last on the list of allocating resources’

Pam Picken is retiring after more than 40 years in the early childhood development sector. Picture: supplied

Funding for early childhood development needs to be prioritised to give children the best possible chance of a good education, says Pam Picken, of Meadowridge, who is retiring after more than 40 years in the sector.

Ms Picken entered teaching in the 1970s – first high school pupils and then preschoolers. Later, she joined Tree (Training and Resources in Early Education), a non-profit organisation, and was the director for 12 years before stepping down in 2011. Since then she has been involved with the Do More Foundation.

She is a recipient of the Sanlam/Sunday Tribune Bridge Builder Award from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and was nominated for the Shoprite/Checkers Woman of the Year Award in 2005.

Ms Picken says she would like to see funding prioritised for early childhood development.

“If we can get it right for our young children, we form the foundation of our nation’s human resources development,” she says.

“In the early years, there is exponential brain growth and development. Children achieve 90% of their brain growth and development by the age of 5, and the very important stage for getting it right is dependent on loving relationships, good nutrition, access to health care and lots of early stimulation. If we could get it right for our young children, then we wouldn’t face these horrific stats that 82% of our children cannot read for meaning by Grade 4 at age 10.

“Sadly young children tend to be last on the list of allocating resources. The Western Cape government really has taken the expertise and the experience that sits in the sector very seriously. So there is hope, but when we sit with these massive budget cuts, ECD just gets pushed to the back of the queue every time and that needs to change.”

Ms Picken says she had been fortunate in her career to have stood on the shoulders of giants, most of them women.

“When I came into Tree ECD it was that time of dramatic change to a democratic society and many of the NGOs were activists against the apartheid government and were funded by agencies like USAid and other external donors. And with a change to a democracy, many of those funds were switched to government’s reconstruction and development programme. It led to the collapse of some organisations and the near collapse of others. Tree was one of those that faced near collapse.

“I came in naive, green and passionate about early childhood. There were literally physical fights between women over jobs because they had had to go through a massive retrenchment process. So I turned to other leaders in the sector, of whom there are a number of amazing women. They freely and generously gave of their time and expertise to help us through that crisis. Slowly we rebuilt, and we made sure we were focusing on the right things, the children in vulnerable communities. And as we rebuilt and gained our reputation, we went from strength to strength.”

She says the Do More Foundation – which supports ECD centres in rural communities and has various nationwide programmes directed at improving nutrition, early learning and providing parent/caregiver support – has also grown substantially in recent years.

“Already we’ve expanded in the last year from four to eight deep rural communities. This year we have begun to start on another seven, so that will be 15 in total. We are feeding about 35 000 children a day in early childhood programmes.”

The foundation’s CEO, Warren Farrer, says Ms Picken will be greatly missed.

“Pam personally coached me and helped me realise the impact we can make by focussing on the early years. Our foundation owes so much to Pam, particularly where we are today, what we have done, how we have thought about our work and how we operate.”

Ms Picken says she now plans to focus on leadership development in the sector.

“People often confuse leadership with management, which is much more around skills and managing people, finances and systems. Leadership is about unlocking the potential within, and I just love it.”