Maverick Citizen


Early learning centres get a ‘SmartStart’ and children are winning

Early learning centres get a ‘SmartStart’ and children are winning
Maria Schoeman, co-owner of Toekoms Ster early childhood development centre in Strand, Cape Town, leads the class in a morning song. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

All children deserve access to a quality early learning programme, but in South Africa, the need outweighs the supply — particularly in lower-income communities. Early learning nonprofit, SmartStart, is working to close the access gap by providing support and training to those seeking to get centres off the ground.

The results of the ECD (early childhood development) Census 2021 showed that of the estimated 6.7 million children under six in South Africa, only about 25% were being taken care of at an early learning programme on any given day. Given the importance of development in the early years, this points to a need for considerable expansion of the country’s ECD sector. 

One local organisation, SmartStart, is contributing to this expansion by providing support and training for prospective ECD practitioners working to get home- and community-based centres off the ground.

“Obviously there’s a big crisis around access – over a million children either don’t access any early learning programme before school, or the ones they do attend are inappropriate,” said Justine Jowell, programme design and development lead at SmartStart.

SmartStart, early learning

SmartStart has over 7,100 ‘SmartStarters’ – being early childhood development (ECD) practitioners who started their programmes through the SmartStart training process – operating small, independent programmes across the country. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

There is a “double barrier” to setting up an ECD centre in South Africa, as the infrastructure required is not attainable in many communities, and once a centre is set up, it often falls short of the standards needed to access the state early learning subsidy.

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

“SmartStart was set up as a [means of] trying to look for… a quality solution that’s relatively quick and affordable to set up and deliver across the country, so that we can bring in as many children as fast as possible into early learning,” said Jowell.

Using a social franchise model, SmartStart works with organisations across South Africa to recruit and train those who are interested in starting their own early learning centres.

SmartStart signage

SmartStart was founded with the intention of finding a quick and affordable way to set up and deliver quality early learning programmes across South Africa. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

“[Participants] have to meet certain recruitment criteria. Then if they do, they get their initial training, which helps them to understand how to set up a quality programme [and] how they will deliver it,” explained Jowell.

Those who complete the training receive support in setting up their own ECD centres. SmartStart field workers, known as “coaches”, check on the basic health and safety standards at each site.

“[SmartStart practitioners] are supported by their coach, their infield worker, to deliver a quality programme,” said Jowell. “Then, within three to six months, the quality of their programme is assessed through a rigorous in-field visit. If they meet that standard, they then are fully licensed under SmartStart and then they join our network completely.”


SmartStart has field workers across South Africa, known as coaches, who monitor the basic health and safety at early childhood development centres under the SmartStart umbrella. These coaches also provide practitioners with support in developing a quality programme. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Lidia Moletsi, owner of Adorable Juniors SmartStart ECD in Coronationville, Johannesburg, completed her initial SmartStart training in 2016 and has since completed a business skills course with the organisation.

“SmartStart gives you free five-day training, where you will receive some educational toys and a stipend of R1,000 to support your business, and a club coach for moral support,” said Moletsi.

“I am forever grateful for them… as of now, I don’t get any funding from the government. I work hand-in-hand with SmartStart and the parents to create a better future for our children.”

Naomi Schoeman along with her mother Maria Schoeman

Naomi Schoeman (left), along with her mother Maria Schoeman (right), has received training and support from SmartStart, a social franchise that seeks to increase access to quality early learning programmes. The pair run an early childhood development centre in Strand, Cape Town. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Another ECD practitioner, Naomi Schoeman, started her own centre — Toekoms Ster in Strand, Cape Town — two weeks after receiving her initial training from SmartStart in 2019. SmartStart provided R700 per month in financial assistance for the first 12 months of operations, and continues to provide a R500 per month stipend.

Schoeman’s centre now provides early learning support to 28 children between six months and six years old.

“The reason I started [the centre is] I was working very long hours, and no one was there… for my child, to help my child with his homework,” she said. “I want to help someone [the way] no one was helping me. I want to help that person because I know the struggle.

“If I can save one child every week… I will do it every day for the rest of my life.”

Gunning for growth in ECD

There are over 7,100 “SmartStarters” — those who received training through SmartStart — operating small, independent ECD programmes across the country, according to Jowell. Many are partnered with government or private sector stipends.

“Those that are operating in quintiles two and three, we’ll give them a startup subsidy, which can be between a year or two years of subsidy per month to help them establish their programme, develop a customer base, get the understanding of the community and… become a trusted provider,” she said.

With limited sector-wide funding to enable access to early learning, the ECD sector is often market-led, according to Samantha Maasdorp, network strategist at SmartStart. Programmes are therefore established in areas where caregivers can afford to pay fees.

“We take the view that all children should have equal access to quality care, and we’re population-led. So, we go and set up programmes where others effectively don’t,” explained Maasdorp.

“We take a community-led approach to seeking out women… who match criteria that we believe are required to indicate to us that there is a latent capability and capacity. And our work and the work of our network is then to unlock that capacity, unlock their capability and set these women up for success.”

In many of the lower-income areas where SmartStart operates, women are already active within the “care economy”. However, this work is not always appreciated by the broader community.

“In our work, and working with partners… we see the childcare space as really holding a huge number of meaningful employment enterprise opportunities,” said Maasdorp.

Enabling those who want to start ECD centres not only provides additional opportunities for practitioners, but for caregivers in the community as well, she continued.

“For caregivers — particularly women — who want to work, we’re creating a space where they can leave children, knowing that they’re safe and cared for, and being well-equipped in their early years.” DM/MC


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