Maverick Citizen


Limited state subsidisation remains a key challenge to delivering quality learning programmes

Limited state subsidisation remains a key challenge to delivering quality learning programmes
Thousands of early learning programmes in South Africa - particularly those in underresourced areas - struggle to run properly due to limited financial assistance from government. (Photo: iStock)

Investing in the learning of young children can contribute towards breaking cycles of poverty in society. However, quality early learning programmes are dependent on consistent and accessible state subsidisation – a possibility that remains out of reach for many practitioners in early childhood development.

Every day in South Africa, hundreds of thousands of young children walk or take taxis to crèche, daycare, day mothers or playgroups. Their parents trust that their children’s intellectual, physical and emotional growth is being nurtured with quality care and early learning. 

However, thousands of early learning programmes – particularly those in underresourced areas – struggle to run properly because of limited financial assistance from government.

Lindiwe Zulu runs an early childhood development centre for 120 children and 12 staff in Soweto, Gauteng. In 2022, between April and August, the Department of Basic Education did not pay her early childhood development (ECD) subsidy. During this time, Zulu could not pay her staff their full salaries and struggled to feed the children in her care. 

One of her teachers could no longer pay rent and lost her accommodation, while others couldn’t pay their monthly expenses. Zulu is constantly uncertain about whether she can afford to continue running her centre. 

South Africa has one of the world’s highest levels of unemployment. The urgency of taking action to increase the coverage and quality of early learning programmes in the country cannot be overstated. Access to early learning programmes is not only an investment that enables children’s potential to contribute to the country’s economic growth, but also a mechanism for creating jobs for practitioners, who are predominantly women. 

Despite the government’s commitment to universal access to early learning by 2030, challenges still remain. These include inconsistent funding for the sector and the underrecognition of the fundamental role home and community-based programmes play in providing access to early learning programmes for vulnerable children. 

Funding is essential to provide quality care

Quality childcare requires money, and state subsidisation of this service is necessary to ensure that it can be provided where there is significant poverty. 

The ECD “per child, per day subsidy”, allocated by the state, is meant for children from low-income families whose parents are likely to struggle to pay fees that would cover the full cost of their early learning. 

Access to the subsidy is essential as it helps to lower the cost of programme fees, ensuring that more caregivers can access these important programmes, while also providing a consistent stream of funding that can help improve their quality. It is often the main source of income and a lifeline for the ECD programmes that these children attend. 

Nobel Laureate and American economist James Heckman has shown that investing in young children’s learning can make a significant impact in breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty. However, these impacts only exist when early learning programmes are of sufficient quality. This level of quality cannot be achieved when early learning programmes operate without sufficient levels of income. 

Shockingly, only 33% of early learning programmes, or 668,518 children, received the subsidy  in 2021. The value of the subsidy itself is low. 

While the average cost per learner per day in the state-funded primary school system is R96 per day from that national fiscus, a child attending a full-time, registered ECD centre is subsidised R17 per day. To access the miniscule subsidy, ECD practitioners have to contend with laborious registration processes to meet unrealistic standards.

Furthermore, 55% of South Africans live below the poverty line and while most families value childcare, many cannot afford fees even if these are low. The 2021 National ECD Census highlights this and notes that of the surveyed ECD programmes, the average fee per child per month was R509 – more than the child support grant of R410 per month. 

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The case for home and community-based programmes

Free or low-cost home- and community-based programmes are likely to be an important way of ensuring that some of the most vulnerable children can access early learning opportunities. Positive child outcomes depend on the presence of quality rather than on the particular modality (or setting) of an ECD programme. 

Home-based programmes often serve underresourced communities and are relied upon by vulnerable families for both childcare and access to appropriate learning and development opportunities. Yet, there has been insufficient recognition by the government of the vital role these kinds of early learning programmes can play. This has led to exclusionary and inconsistent approaches to their registration and funding. 

In addition, there is a lack of clarity over whose responsibility it is to register and fund small home-based ECD programmes – often managed by day-mothers or child-minders – with six or fewer children. These programmes find themselves caught in legal and funding limbo, despite their inclusion in legislation such as the Children’s Act. The lack of clarity means the ECD subsidy fails to reach and benefit poor children. 

Building on shifting sands

Early learning programmes provide a much-needed service for families and communities, even though they are provided by private entities. While ECD principals must make significant investments in order to develop their early learning programmes, and to become registered, they have no guarantee that they will receive any state support in providing reliable, quality care for young children. 

Not only is this imbalance in power inappropriate and disempowering, it has direct consequences on the lives of the principals of early learning programmes, the practitioners who work there, and ultimately the children that they serve. Without consistent, predictable funding, it is almost impossible to run a high-quality early learning programme.  

Even those who run early learning programmes that are registered and serving children who are eligible for the subsidy cannot rely on government support. Historically, many have been told that registration and eligibility does not guarantee subsidisation. 

This is because in the Children’s Act, the MEC for social development merely has the option to provide funding for ECD programmes. It is still not a requirement for the state to subsidise registered ECD programmes. 

This stands in direct contrast to the provisioning of basic education, where the South African Schools Act states that the MEC must provide funding for “public schools for the education of learners”. 

Despite the ECD function shift from the Department of Social Development to that of Basic Education, programmes that are registered and subsidised can still go months without receiving payment from provincial education departments (PEDs). 

While subsidised early learning programmes must sign service-level agreements with the PED, which specifies the responsibilities of both the programme and the department, dates related to payments from government are not kept to. In some instances, these payment dates are missed without any explanation as to why, or clarification of when funding will become available to the early learning programme. 

Programme registration lasts between three and five years. Those who are registered and subsidised must re-register within three months of their registration lapsing. This process can take months to complete. Despite this, ECD principals need to continue managing staff and providing for children. 

*Patricia runs an ECD centre in Worcester in the Western Cape, which has been receiving a subsidy for 32 of the 45 children who attend the programme. Her programme was registered, but because of paperwork and municipal delays, she is struggling to re-register within the three-month timeframe. 

Despite the fact that not all children’s parents can pay fees, Patricia has accepted these children into her programme and does not want to turn them away. Without the subsidy, Patricia has lost three staff and has been searching for donors who can help subsidise the food costs at her centre.

Strengthening our foundations 

Many early learning programmes cannot be delivered or sustained without government subsidisation. Crèches, educares, preschools and day-mothers struggle simply to exist when there is inconsistent funding. Principals are stressed and anxious, staff are losing their housing because they are unable to continue paying their rent and quality of food for young children is degraded – all because money is insufficient or inconsistent. 

These are not conditions that will allow the focus on delivering high-quality programmes that will help to break intergenerational cycles of poverty. When a principal unexpectedly loses tens of thousands of rands from their monthly budget, the staff and children they are committed to caring for are the ones who ultimately suffer. DM/MC

Kayin Scholtz is the ECD resource hub manager for the DG Murray Trust. Hopolang Selebalo is an advocacy lead for SmartStart. Both organisations are members of the Real Reform ECD steering committee. 

*Patricia requested to remain anonymous out of concern for her work.


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