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Experts call for bigger early childhood development budget ahead of Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement

Experts call for bigger early childhood development budget ahead of Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement
An increased budget of R4.9-billion for early learning subsidies would not only allow an additional 322,000 children in early learning programmes to be supported, but would also ensure an increase in the subsidy amount from R17 to R19.68 per child per day. (Photo: David Harrison)

The Ilifa Labantwana early learning programme has proposed a three-year acceleration plan for early childhood development funding ahead of the 2022 Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement.

The overall budget allocation for early childhood development (ECD) in South Africa should increase from R5.1-billion to R7.4-billion over the next three years. This investment in ECD would see a significant increase in the number of children in early learning programmes supported by the government’s ECD subsidy. 

Laura Brooks, an economist at Ilifa Labantwana, presented these and other findings from Ilifa’s latest research brief at a webinar about public funding for early childhood development on Monday. 

Ilifa Labantwana is an ECD programme working to secure an equal start for all children living in South Africa through universal access to quality early childhood development services.

 

“There’s mounting evidence that suggests that [in] achieving universal access to quality ECD services for all children, there’s a massive opportunity to address structural and gender inequality in South Africa,” said Brooks.

“The reason we’ve done this research, and the reason we’re having this conversation … ahead of the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement, is we’re really hoping to see some commitments towards an acknowledgement of the importance of investing in early childhood development.”

Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana will table the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement, or “mini budget”, in Parliament on Wednesday. The midterm budget indicates how the government intends to allocate the upcoming national Budget.

While Brooks acknowledged that there were unlikely to be massive investments in ECD in the next medium-term expenditure framework, she emphasised the importance of building momentum in public budgets now to reach an objective of universal access to quality ECD services in the next 20 years.

Of Ilifa’s proposed 2025/26 budget of R7.4-billion, 70% of the funds would go to delivering and supporting early learning programmes, and the remainder would be used for home-visiting programmes for pregnant women and the youngest children, according to the research brief.

An increased budget of R4.9-billion for early learning subsidies would not only allow an additional 322,000 children in early learning programmes to be supported, but would also ensure an increase in the subsidy amount from R17 to R19.68 per child per day.

Currently, about 25% of children in SA under five years of age attend early learning programmes, less than 40% of whom are subsidised by the government. 

“Fewer than 627,000 children aged 0 to five benefit from this [early learning] subsidy, which amounts to R2.8-billion,” according to the research brief.


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Improving subsidy value and access

Brooks pointed out that while the early learning subsidy per child per year is R4,488, the real value or purchasing power of this money has degraded over time due to inflation, meaning the value in real terms is about R3,500.

The issue of linking state social grants such as the ECD subsidy to inflation is a crucial one, said Michael Sachs, an adjunct professor at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“From government’s point of view, if you explicitly link an expenditure item to an inflation target, you lose … the flexibility to erode the value of things when you judge that that is necessary; but in a sense, that’s exactly why you have to fight for inflation linkage — so that that flexibility diminishes,” he explained.

Michael Sachs, an adjunct professor at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. (Photo: Oscar-Gutierrez)

Many ECD centres are deterred from applying for the ECD subsidy because of the stringent requirements for registration, says Elizabeth Ninan, a senior education specialist at the World Bank. Centres need to be registered to qualify for the subsidy.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Early childhood development centres in SA continue to struggle with registration and access to subsidies

“The application for the subsidy itself … varies by province. So, there’s no standardised guidance on how to apply for the subsidy,” said Ninan.

“I think trying to deal with some of those red tape and bureaucracy issues is important, so that when there’s additional financing in the sector, new ECD programmes are able to come up quickly and [are] able to target the poorest [children].” DM/MC

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