Children’s rights are enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution. The country’s apex law, in Sections 27, 28 and 29, guarantees children’s rights to basic education, health, food, care and social assistance. Sadly, the daily reality for millions of South Africans differs greatly from the protections promised by the Constitution. Close to two thirds of children – a total of 12.2 million, most of them African and Coloured – live in poor households that struggle to meet basic needs for nutrition, clothing, and shelter. This has consequences far beyond childhood, both for individuals and society more broadly. It may manifest in poor mental and physical health outcomes as well as poor school performance and high drop-out rates, among other outcomes.

But the situation is not hopeless. Promoting child well-being outcomes by, for instance, investing in children’s nutrition and health, is widely held to be an important social investment in developing human capital that could yield long-term benefits for individual children and society more broadly by contributing to economic development, social cohesion and political stability. For this to happen, though, different sectors must collaborate and cohere around shared goals. This is what prompted the SARChI Chair in Welfare and Social Development and the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) at the University of Johannesburg to create the Community of Practice for Social Systems Strengthening to Improve Child Well-being Outcomes study.

South Africa has a number of mechanisms that are intended to improve child wellbeing outcomes, including free basic education and primary health care, the Child Support Grant, and the National School Nutrition Programme. A range of other welfare services are also available through both state and civil society organisations. However, children may still fall through the cracks of service provision. The Community of Practice (CoP) project is a response to the fragmentation of service provision and the lack of functional cooperation between the health, welfare and education sectors that serve children. This sort of fragmentation has been seen in many countries elsewhere in the world. We believe that collaboration between sectors could help in the search for innovative solutions that are suited to our local context in South Africa.

The COP is made up of several partners. They are:

  • The SARChI Chair in Welfare and Social Development
  • The SARChI Chair in Integrated Studies of Learning Language, Science and Mathematics
  • The SARChI Chair in Education and Care in Childhood
  • The City of Johannesburg
  • The Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA)
  • The University of Johannesburg’s Nursing Department and its Engineering Management Department
  • The national Department of Education
  • The DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development at the University of the Witwatersrand
  • Childline Gauteng; FAMSA National
  • Mould Empower Serve (MES)
It will initially run for two years. It is a multi- and trans-disciplinary project, involving different sub-fields like social work, sociology, psychology, educational psychology, education, mental health, nutrition, primary health care, community nursing, and public health and school health care services. In total, the CoP will involve collaboration between researchers and practitioners in approximately ten disciplines and sub-fields of established disciplines. The study is targeted at children in the foundation years of schooling, Grades R and 1. This is the age when the foundation for learning mathematics is laid. Without this foundation children are less likely to progress successfully. Early interventions tailored to children’s needs in poor families during this development stage could have positive long-term benefits for children, their families and communities.
Goals and objectives
The CoP study has five goals and nine objectives. These are in line with both global and local targets such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Agenda 2063 aspirations of the AU and the National Development Plan (NDP 2011). Of the 17 SDG goals, four relate specifically to child well-being while three focus on the structures, which provide an enabling or disabling context in which to achieve these goals.
The goals are to:
  • Establish a CoP to strengthen and promote functional collaboration between the health, welfare and education sectors serving children and families for improved child well-being.
  • Work together to develop and test a digital tool to assess and track child well-being.
  • Based on assessment in (2) to design, implement and evaluate the appropriate cross- sectoral and interdisciplinary local level solutions to combine ‘cash transfers and care’ services and learning opportunities for children in disadvantaged communities.
  • Produce knowledge about the practice of inter-sectoral collaboration for better outcomes for children.
  • Make recommendations to government and non-governmental partners about the potential of integrated social systems strengthening solutions for better social outcomes for children and families.
The study’s objectives are to:
  • Design, test and implement the Child Caregiver Well-being Tracking Tool (CCWTT)
  • Develop generic overarching solutions and action plans to step up child well-being outcomes across the social sectors.
  • Develop, implement and assess the effectiveness of a community-based mathematics and reading development model that includes children and parents.
  • Conduct a baseline assessment study on the mental health of children in their foundation years of schooling and develop assessment guidelines.
  • Determine the factors that contribute to the risk of mental health problems in children and identify factors that contribute to building resilience.
  • Conduct a health and nutrition assessment of the children; devise appropriate primary health care solutions and assess the effectiveness of such solutions.
  • Review, adapt, implement and evaluate a community-based child and family strengthening intervention.
  • Assess the potential of cash transfers and an integrated family intervention on child well-being outcomes.
  • Assess the effectiveness of the CoP approach used in this study to strengthen integrated service provision (Cash Transfers – that is, social grants; care services, health, nutrition,education, welfare and social work services) for better social outcomes for children.

Research methodology

Two levels of CoP will be established as part of the study. The first is an Advisory Level CoP (ALCoP), which will be made up of the Chairs and partners. The second level consists of Local level CoPs (LLCoP), made up of practitioners at community level.

A mixed methods design will be used, with the quantitative component informing the qualitative component at each stage. A pre-test post-test research design will be implemented, in which a child wellbeing assessment will be conducted. The data from this assessment will inform the collaborations between local level partners, who will meet regularly to plan integrated service delivery and reflect on lessons learned. The qualitative component will be exploratory in nature and will seek to draw lessons about what works in a CoP setting.

The LLCoPs will operate in a pre-selected local school in each of the City of Johannesburg’s five poorest wards. Sampling for the CCWTT data collection will involve randomly selecting one Grade R and one Grade 1 class from the participating school in each community. This should yield a total sample of 400 children across the five schools. The sample will include all the children in the selected classes. The assumption is that from this wider sample of 400 children we would be able to identify the children who are potentially vulnerable and in need of support.

The Child Caregiver Well-being Tracking Tool

The CCWTT will be developed initially by the SARCHI chairs and academic collaborators in consultation with practitioners in the respective communities. The tool will be used to assess how children are faring in learning, health, nutrition and growth, resilience, and psychosocial wellbeing. It will also be used to assess how the sampled children’s caregivers are faring in relation to their family and social functioning, child-caregiver relations, behavioural management, monitoring of children’s progress, engagement in schooling, meeting of basic needs and mental health. The tool will include validated scales such as the Child and Youth Resilience Measure (child version) and the Strengths and Difficulties questionnaire as well as anthropometric measurements conducted by PHC nurses. Learning assessments developed by the SARCHI Chair in Education and Care in Childhood will be responsible for conducting the psychometric assessments. The pre-test and post- test in number concept development and reading, using standardised tools for the children in the sample drawn from the five school population, will be conducted by the SARChI Chair in Integrated Studies of Learning Language, Mathematics and Science in the Primary School.

The CCWTT will be developed as a digital online tracking tool in which fieldworkers can enter information electronically, and vulnerable/ at risk children red flagged for referral to appropriate community