The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is a rallying cry for lobbyists, a bottom line for campaigners to improve the conditions under which so many children live and suffer. Protecting the rights and integrity of young children against hunger, exploitation and abuse, and insisting on their right to education, seems a clear-cut and incontrovertible cause. But implicit in many of the claims for children is an idea of universal childhood, a view that what children need in the way of love, care, nurturing and education is unproblematic. The problem is to provide what is necessary, not to discuss what it is.
Some voluntary organisations, most notably Save the Children Fund, have been looking at the cultural contradictions in our understanding of early childhood development. They have been trying to get together teachers and other workers in early childhood from areas as diverse as Nepal, the West Bank, and the UK to discuss how work with children might differ from country to country. They have issued a policy document, Starting Young, which emphasises the wide range of approaches necessary.
Recent research suggests that cultural expectations are an extremely powerful determinant of how children behave, and what is considered normal in one setting is regarded as abnormal in another. For example, in the West we prize and encourage in children what one leading researcher has described as self-confident loquaciousness; but such eagerness by young children to speak and advance their own point of view would be regarded as a sign of immaturity in many African communities.
South Africa raises particularly interesting questions about what is right or necessary for young children because there are two systems side by side which up to now have mixed very little: western-style, well-equipped, free-play nurseries for white children run by well-trained white teachers; and township nurseries, impoverished, controlling in their methods, run by minimally trained women from the local community, and exclusively attended by black children.
Instead of being a continent apart, the two worlds of white and black, rich and poor, ownership and dispossession, mono-lingual and multi-lingual, urban and rural, settled and migrant, are in direct, daily confrontation, with the terrible history of apartheid between them.
In South Africa, most facilities for young children aim to provide care and education (rather more advanced than in the UK where they are separate) and are called "educare centres". Two recent reports, the World Bank Report on Early Childhood Development in South Africa, and the Interim Policy for Early Childhood Development, from the Ministry of Education, give the bare facts. Compulsory school begins at the age of six, although there has been a high drop-out rate at the end of the first year and subsequently. There are about 6 million children under school age, in a population of about 40 million, and 82 per cent of these young children are black.
The funding for educare was grossly unequal. Since the democratic government was elected, there have been efforts to equalise the amounts spent and the opportunities available to children. A talented new director-general for early childhood education, Salaama Hendriks, has a top-ranking post in the Ministry of Education. Each of the new provinces has had to produce an educare plan for children with social welfare departments, local communities, advocacy groups and unions. The school starting age has been lowered, and a new pre-school year for children aged between five and six has been introduced, which can be completed either within a school, or at a part-subsidised educare centre.
There is not much free money, but where possible it has been redirected. There will be a national scheme of vocational qualifications, and educators will be able to obtain a qualification based on their workplace competence rather than relying exclusively on their academic ability. The process of change is a model of democratic accountability where all "stake holders" get a chance to express their views.
But not everyone is enthusiastic about these changes. The arguments against change are that the education system is irredeemably tainted by years of apartheid, and it will take many years to upgrade teachers and challenge mind-sets. Until that time, it is better to keep young children out of it. Despite the predilection for early school entry in the UK, there is no firm evidence that starting school early leads to better results later on. As one of my black informants put it: "School is a heavy yoke for a child to bear. "
But most of the current ideas and ideologies concerning early childhood development are derived from Anglo-American norms about individuality and competition and nuclear family existence - a way of behaving and living alien to many African children.
As an observer visiting many of these black educare centres I was struck by the extent to which educators and carers shared an uncomplicated view of the importance of maintaining the smoothness of group life that was at odds with our own relentless individualism.
Children are deferential towards and respectful of adults, and the cheekiness and chattiness, the sense of self-importance and self-will we associate with childhood, are simply not there in the way we assume for white children. Activities which rely on a group effort, such as singing and dancing and storytelling, are far more successful in the black educare centres. For instance, the musicality of the singing is quite stunning to someone used to the banality of nursery rhymes and toneless squeaks of children in the West.
Post-apartheid, should these cultural differences be over-ridden? The white model nurseries are so exactly like their Western counterparts, they have a view of nurseries as a kind of in-house toy supermarket where children have freedom to explore and experiment in an environment richly equipped with playthings. Most black educare centres are nothing like this. They have much poorer adult-child ratios, they are for the most part in poor accommodation, in windowless, waterless huts, they are often book-less and toy-less, and they offer a different sort of regime.
The educare centres are undoubtedly necessary, given the numbers of women who work, but the widespread assumption by many of the non-governmental organisations which provide educare training and act as advocates for early childhood development is that in a fairer post-apartheid world the black centres would aspire to be more like the white nurseries, and more money would enable them to mirror their values and standards.
Robert Serpell, a psychologist who has spent many years in Zambia, has pointed out: "The potential of carelessly transplanted forms of day care for disrupting indigenous cultural values and practices is more subtle and less conspicuous than the use of an alien language, yet possibly still more profound."
In the meantime, the occasional black child crosses the township divide and attends the white MontessoriHigh ScopePiagetian educare centres - most notably those provided by enlightened employers, such as BMW and the supermarket chain Pick 'n' Pay. The process is never reversed; there were no white children in any of the black educare centres. The question is, does it matter that white norms are paramount? Is that what black children should aspire to in the new South Africa?
Helen Penn is senior research fellow at the Institute of Education, London University.