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The future of preschools in the balance

Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

The future of preschools in the balance

Other educational institutions have reopened, but ECD centres largely have not, says the writer. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle)

Covid-19 might mean the end for most preschools in South Africa. The Department of Social Development isn’t helpless.

There has never been a better time in South Africa to buy second-hand preschool equipment. All early childhood development (ECD) centres in the country have been closed since March. Without parents’ fees they are struggling to pay salaries, rent, and loan repayments. And without additional funding, many will struggle to recover from their losses during school closures, and then comply with Covid-19 health standards when they do reopen. A survey conducted a few months ago estimates that as many as 30,000 ECD centres are at risk of closing permanently, leaving nearly 175,000 teachers unemployed and an estimated 1.5-million children without access to early learning and care. The second phase of this survey is currently under way. 

In a recent podcast, we tell the story of one preschool, and explore the challenges of saving this sector. Thokozani Together, which serves nearly 100 families in Khayelitsha in the Cape, has remained closed since March. They have been without income, and their teachers without salaries, for nearly six months. Although the High Court ruled that independent preschools would be allowed to reopen from June, to do so they need to purchase the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This is currently unaffordable for them.

However, their main worry when they reopen is student numbers. Many of the families of the children in their preschool work in the informal sector, which has been devastated by the countrywide lockdown. They estimate that only 50% of children may be able to return to class, which would make their centre financially unviable. “We may as well remain closed”, says Mhlangabezi Masizana, who runs Thokozani Together with his family.

Yet a key challenge is how the government could actually help this sector.  The vast majority are not formally registered with the Department of Social Development (DSD). Although DSD provides a small subsidy for registered centres, most do not meet the formal health and safety requirements to be eligible. As such, a key challenge is embarrassingly basic – DSD would not know where to deposit the money. This leaves Thokozani Together, which has been trying to register for the past decade, without a lifeline.

There is money available, however. This month, DSD announced that it would direct R1.3-billion towards employing “youth compliance monitors” to check whether preschools were adhering to Covid-19 health measures, rather than supporting these schools directly. This beggars belief, and civil society has been united in their outrage. An online petition by the Covid-19 People’s Coalition protesting this decision has already attracted more than 10,000 signatures.

DSD may have a few options as they try to navigate how to support an informal sector. We explore these options in our podcast with Zaheera Mohamed of Ilifa Labantwana. She argues that even unregistered ECD centres are not entirely off the map. Many, perhaps most, are part of ‘ECD Forums’. These are umbrella associations of local ECD centres (both registered and informal), which are frequently used by DSD to communicate with the sector and provide access to social workers. In June 2020, DSD and the Nelson Mandela Foundation launched the Vangasali Campaign, which undertook to help informal ECD centres meet the registration requirements for the subsidy. In the Western Cape, Ikamva Labantu has been tasked with helping centres register since 2016. These could be essential channels for DSD to use to identify and support legitimate centres even if they are unregistered.

The pandemic has exposed structural issues with the governance of the ECD sector. The fundamental problem is that the government is reliant on an informal, unregistered, and unfunded sector to deliver a service that should be essential. Up until the current crisis, DSD’s primary concern has been how to ensure that these centres are accountable to the state. Now, the state needs to consider what responsibility it has towards many thousands of community leaders who have been delivering a public service without support, and the millions of families that depend on them. DM/MC

David Jeffery is a Senior Consultant at Oxford Policy Management, specialising in the role of non-state actors in education.

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