Maverick Citizen


Scaled-up early learning programmes are key to South Africa’s economic success

School attendance from Grade R is now compulsory, according to a new amendment to the Schools Act, published by the Department of Basic Education. Previously, attendance was compulsory only from Grade 1.

While this is a positive step in terms of ensuring South African children receive some form of early learning, we have only scratched the surface of what is necessary to truly make an impact. 

The first five years of a child’s life are essential to developing social, cognitive, emotional and language skills that form the foundations for learning, academic performance and economic participation. The extent to which these skills are developed relies on access to certain early learning experiences and interactions. Children living in previously disadvantaged communities are often deprived of this. On an individual level, this creates gaps in knowledge and ability, which compounds inequality as children age.

In South Africa, every year an estimated 1.24 million children between the ages of three and five do not attend an appropriate early learning programme. As a result, a significant portion of the country’s population is missing out on key developmental milestones that are crucial to success at school and beyond. By closing the early learning access gap, we can begin to create more equal foundations for every child — this will contribute to an economically and socially successful generation of South Africans.

Access to early learning programmes in underserviced communities is limited for a number of reasons, including the complex legislation processes involved in setting them up. For example, to register an early learning programme, the building you use must meet certain requirements. This can make it difficult for those in informal and other low-income communities to register and receive subsidies from the government. As a result, children are left out.

Where early learning programmes do exist they often do not deliver the key relevant outcomes for children. This can be the result of a lack of equipment and play and learning materials, as well as low levels of practitioner knowledge and training. Many practitioners also cannot access formal early learning qualifications due to their cost and prerequisites.

Improving the economy, increasing employment opportunities and reducing the deficit are national priorities. Solving these challenges starts with investing in South Africa’s greatest resource: its people. Quality early learning and development programmes for children — especially those growing up in disadvantaged communities — can foster valuable skills, strengthen our workforce, grow our economy and reduce social spending.

Over recent decades, high-income countries have treated investment in early childhood development (ECD) programmes as an economic investment first and foremost. Their premise is that universal access to early learning unlocks growth potential in three key ways: it enables labour-market entry for parents by providing them with a safe place to leave their children while they work; provides direct employment and social enterprise opportunities for women; and unlocks the future labour market potential of children.

By emulating this approach and placing more emphasis on early childhood development, South Africa has an opportunity to make a positive short-term impact on families — especially those in impoverished communities — and a long-term impact on the country’s financial wellbeing. This will help boost the country’s supply of skilled workers needed to grow the economy. 

early childhood development

In South Africa, every year an estimated 1.24 million children between the ages of three and five do not attend an appropriate early learning programme. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

Economists tell us that the return on investment for every rand spent on the early years is substantially higher than for every rand spent on primary, secondary or tertiary education. That return is calculated in terms of the lifelong personal gains for the child, as well as the social and economic gains for society. The dividend comes in the form of higher tax yields and lower spending on welfare, health and crime. With this in mind, it is safe to say that the economic benefits of these interventions far outweigh the investment costs. Taking a proactive approach to cognitive and social skills development through investments in quality early childhood programmes is more effective and economically efficient than trying to close the gap later in life. 

While the government recognises the need to make early learning more accessible — as established by the National Development Plan, which aims to achieve universal access to quality ECD by 2030 — there is room for NGOs and private organisations to help. At SmartStart, we’ve successfully tested a model for early learning at scale which will play a significant role in helping the government provide ECD to more children. 

Taking into account the realities of the South African context, our aim is to create a precedent for accessible, affordable, quality early learning that can be applied across the country. Instead of competing with other ECD providers, we hope to assist and collaborate with existing ECD sites, so that we can reach more families — and help more children to achieve success. 

To help vulnerable families with both childcare and access to appropriate learning opportunities, our programme requires minimal setup. The programme is designed to be delivered within existing premises, including home and community-based settings. This way, we can help practitioners to provide early learning at an accessible, affordable and efficient rate. 

It is widely accepted that education is the key to securing the future of South Africa. It is our responsibility as parents, caregivers and leaders to ensure this key is shared with every young person in the country. Currently, a concerning number of our children enter the schooling system unprepared for the tasks they will be required to complete. With the large-scale roll-out of accessible and affordable early learning, we can begin to build a better future for every child — and the country as a whole. DM/MC

Sane Mdlalose is an experienced pan-African strategist with more than 24 years’ commercial experience in a number of industries, including FMCG, the financial sector, healthcare, facilities management, building and construction and cash management. SmartStart operates in all nine provinces and has built a network of more than 90,000 parents and caregivers, whose children are enrolled and active in one of SmartStart’s programme formats. To date, the organisation has trained more than 10,000 franchisee candidates — the majority of whom are women — and set up more than 8,800 of them in micro social enterprises to fill the gap in early learning service provision — to the benefit of more than 98,000 children across the country. By 2030, we aim to reach 750,000 children between the ages of three and five annually.

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