Maverick Citizen

ECD OP-ED

President Ramaphosa must ‘lead from the front’ to improve SA’s early childhood development services

President Ramaphosa must ‘lead from the front’ to improve SA’s early childhood development services
President Cyril Ramaphosa (Photo: Gallo Images / Jeffrey Abrahams)

Early childhood development centres across the country are grappling with poverty and a lack of resources. President Cyril Ramaphosa needs to ensure a significant increase in funding and political will for the improvement of this pivotal sector.

President Cyril Ramaphosa recently wrote a piece on early childhood development (ECD) in his weekly newsletter, with the title “ECD holds the key to our future”. He highlighted the pivotal role that ECD centres and programmes play across South Africa. This was his first commentary on ECD since he became president in February 2018.

We welcome his comments and see them as very positive. Notwithstanding his fine words, the real test of his views lies in implementation and action, which is critically needed. Former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma made similar comments about ECD when they were in office – to no benefit to vulnerable young children and their families.

The president’s newsletter follows on him opening an ECD centre in Bizana, Eastern Cape, where he “was deeply touched by the dedication of the centre’s staff to supporting the community and its children”. He went on to say that the commitment of the ECD centre’s staff “is so important because early childhood development centres play a pivotal role in our nation’s development”.

In the president’s written piece, he says that government has taken up the task to improve ECD and make resources available for ECD centres to run suitable activities for young children.

The president needs to be corrected and informed of the real situation on the ground as it affects the ECD sector: the 42,420 ECD centres; about 198,000 ECD principals, teachers and other staff; and the 1.66 million children that attend these centres.

In the larger scheme of things, about 30% of young children in South Africa, aged birth to five, attend an ECD centre. The quality of ECD centres across South Africa is generally poor and this is directly linked to the socioeconomic capacity of the communities in which these ECD centres are based. 

The best-quality ECD centre infrastructure is in South Africa’s affluent communities. ECD centres in poorer communities, such as Quintiles 1 to 3, face a contrasting reality. 

These are ECD centres that live in poverty with no support from government, untrained teachers, limited age-appropriate educational equipment, a basic meal once a day – if at all – and appalling salaries as low as R300 per month. 


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These are the 60% of ECD centres that are not registered, meaning they are not compliant with the Children’s Act or with municipal by-laws and regulations, and will never be eligible for the government’s meagre subsidy of R17 per qualifying child per day. To qualify for the ECD subsidy, the parents’ joint income must be less than R7,600 per month, and less than R3,800 if a single parent.

In the president’s newsletter, he makes the erroneous comment that the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill – currently before Parliament – proposes that it be compulsory for all children to receive two years of ECD before the start of Grade 1. There is no such thing in the bill. What he is referring to is making Grade R a compulsory year for all children, and this is welcomed and supported across our country. As an aside, the ECD sector, through various activists, first made this recommendation more than 20 years ago, but it was not acted upon.

So, what is the reality for the ECD sector and our youngest children? The recent Thrive by Five report informs us that only 35% of children entering Grade 1 are ready for school. This means that two-thirds of five-year-olds are not thriving, with 6% seriously not thriving. 

Extrapolating from the recent ECD Census, we see that about 70% of young children do not have access to a formal early learning programme before they enter Grade 1. This means that these children enter formal schooling with little preparation for the early literacy, early numeracy and life skills that form such an important part of the Foundation Phase of formal schooling.

Part of this ECD reality is that only 33% of ECD centres receive the ECD subsidy, 60% of ECD centres are not registered, just about half of the ECD teaching staff are qualified, and 23% of ECD centres have no books for children to page through at all. As our president is prone to saying: he should be shocked.

There is a major flaw in the president’s information about ECD. Two years ago, in October 2020, the president made R1.3-billion available to the ECD sector as part of an ECD Stimulus Relief Fund. Today, less than 19% has actually reached the ECD sector. 

An ECD practitioner works with children at Kopanang early childhood development (ECD) centre in the rural Nquthu District of KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo: Ilifa Labantwana)

Of the R1.3-billion, R712-million was held back by National Treasury because the national Department of Social Development could not get a coherent plan together. The final amount received from National Treasury for the ECD sector was R588-million, of which R474-million was allocated to support ECD teacher salaries for 116,578 teachers. A further R41-million was not rolled over at the end of the first financial year of the fund. 

By 31 March 2022, only R245-million had found its way to ECD teachers and other staff. This was due to the cumbersome and bureaucratic application system put in place by the national Department of Social Development and the outsourced Project Management Office.

Government has been extremely cagey in not making these figures publicly available. This is understandable given that it shows a complete and appalling lack of concern for young children by the incompetent National Department of Social Development at the time. 

Responsibility for ECD in South Africa transitioned to the Department of Basic Education on 1 April 2022, and our hopes are that this department will be more competent and more caring as it relates to our youngest children.

The president should instruct the Department of Basic Education to retrieve the missing R753-million from National Treasury and to distribute it as intended. 

His second focus should be to substantially increase the shockingly low ECD subsidy of R17 per child per day for 264 days of the year that is payable to qualifying ECD centres. 

As a comparison, our government spends R400 per day for 365 days of the year on keeping each prisoner in a prison across the country. 

For each rand spent on a vulnerable child at an ECD centre, government spends R32 on a prisoner. This is a disgrace.

ECD is a pivotal area in South Africa, as our president says. Parents contribute about R10.2-billion each year to the economy by way of ECD fees. About 198,000 jobs, overwhelmingly for women, have been created by communities at no cost to government – not one cent.

The president must be informed that there is a vibrant, skilled and talented non-profit sector working in ECD. This sector has many decades of experience and highly competent individuals who are able to make ECD opportunities a reality for every young child. 

The President has to lead from the front and he has to get the Department of Basic Education to work closely with the non-profit ECD sector. Very positive signs of this are emerging in the Western Cape Education Department, but our information is that the other provinces have struggled since the transition in April this year.

Our country has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and we have an excellent National Integrated ECD Policy, which Cabinet approved in December 2015. 

The sad reality is that this policy is not being implemented simply because there is no political will to do so and we do not have sufficient numbers, with some exceptions, of skilled and competent public officials to drive the policy. 

To meet our commitment to the documents South Africa has signed, and to current ECD policy, the president must instruct National Treasury to substantially increase funding for ECD. Current estimates are that less than 2% of Basic Education expenditure is targeted at ECD. This has to change radically in the interest of and for the wellbeing of our youngest children.

Mr President, the ECD non-profit sector is ready to follow your Thuma Mina instruction.

We must remember the profound comment by the late Oliver Tambo: “A country, a movement, a person that does not value its youth and children does not deserve its future.”

President Ramaphosa, the future of early childhood development in South Africa is in your hands – let’s do it. DM

Eric Atmore is Extraordinary Associate Professor in Education Policy Studies at Stellenbosch University and Director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development. 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    We don’t need ECD. We need to start from where we should have been in 1994 and secured and made education the biggest investment the country ever made. 2022 is not the time to be making speeches about education unless they are speeches about our last 28 years of exceptionalism in this field. Arms deals, train deals, X5’s, and Guptas came first. The ANC is a disgrace. Cyril, you are busy creating your own legacy. Its already a disaster. Try to turn it around and be remembered for something truly worth celebrating.

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