Maverick Citizen


South Africa’s education crisis – the importance of early childhood education

South Africa’s education crisis – the importance of early childhood education
The government currently spends only about R6,000 per child per year on early learning programmes. This is less than a quarter of the R25,000 per learner it spends on basic education. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

Learning starts long before children enter school – and so do learning backlogs. If South Africa is to solve the long-standing problem of poor and unequal education outcomes, the government will need to invest more time and resources into increasing access to high-quality early learning opportunities.

This week saw the release of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2021 results. Sadly, they show that the disruptions to schooling due to the Covid-19 pandemic reversed a decade of improvements in reading, with 81% of Grade 4s unable to read for meaning in any language. South Africa had the largest decline in PIRLS scores out of 33 participating countries. 

Not all learners were affected equally. English and Afrikaans schools (generally fee-charging schools) did not experience a decline in reading results between 2016 and 2021. This means pupils in no-fee schools, who were already at a disadvantage before the pandemic, were affected disproportionately by school closures. As predicted, the pandemic increased inequality in learning outcomes between poor and wealthier children. 

While the urgency of the need to recoup learning losses cannot be overstated, catch-up programmes will not solve our education crisis. Learning outcomes have been unacceptably poor and unequal since long before the pandemic, and efforts to catch up lost learning time will – best-case scenario – only take us back to the pre-pandemic situation. Before the pandemic, it was already the case that children in no-fee schools achieved vastly poorer learning outcomes than children in fee-paying schools.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: 

From bad to worse: New study shows 81% of Grade 4 pupils in SA can’t read in any language

Op-Ed: The PIRLS debacle – literacy, language and standards in schools in South Africa

Massive disparities in school quality undoubtedly play a role in producing these unequal learning outcomes. But local studies are beginning to show that learners from poor socioeconomic backgrounds are already at a disadvantage before even starting formal schooling. 

The Thrive by Five study, which assessed the developmental outcomes of a nationally representative sample of 5,570 four- and five-year-olds, showed that while 58% of children in the wealthiest quintile of early learning centres were developmentally on-track, this proportion was 38% among children in the poorest quintile of early learning centres. It is important to note that the study only assessed children who were enrolled in early learning programmes, which amounted to about a quarter of South African children under six years of age. The true extent of this inequality is therefore likely to be much more pronounced. 

These findings are echoed by the results from Roots and Shoots, which assessed 587 children in 75 primary schools in the Western Cape using the same Early Learning Measurement tool used in Thrive by Five. Children were assessed in the first term of Grade R to determine which skills backlogs they arrived at school with. 

The results showed that 59% of children in no-fee schools were developmentally on track. This proportion was 93% among children in schools charging fees in excess of R3,000 per year. The study is unique in that it will follow the same learners from the beginning of Grade R through to Grade 3. It is the first study in South Africa that will be able to trace learning outcomes in Grade 3 back to the beginning of formal schooling. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pirls findings point to a lame-duck minister of education and a generational catastrophe

What these studies show is that South African children do not start school on equal footing. The severe inequalities we see throughout the schooling system have their roots in early childhood, the period during which the human brain is growing fastest and is most responsive to opportunities for learning. 

Children arriving at school with developmental backlogs need to make up these backlogs before they can benefit from the learning opportunities offered at school. Without access to high-quality early learning experiences, the majority of South African children will spend their entire school careers playing catch-up. 

Tackling disparities

The scope to improve early learning outcomes is massive. The government currently spends only about R6,000 per child per year on early learning programmes. This is less than a quarter of the R25,000 per learner it spends on basic education. We have yet to see the government’s stated prioritisation of early learning materialise in budget allocations to the sector. Increasing access to high-quality early learning programmes is another clear area for improvement.

But the sector will need more than cash and increased enrolment, otherwise we’ll see the same disparities in the quality of early learning programmes that characterise primary and secondary schooling. Young children need access to a broad range of learning opportunities both at early learning centres and in the home. 

Here we can learn much from the efforts of civil society organisations. To highlight just two: 

WordWorks, an NGO that focuses on early language and literacy development, provides high-quality training and materials to pre-Grade R teachers and their parents. They also provide free resources on their website, which were developed by experts specifically for the South African context. 

Recognising the importance of access to children’s books for child development, Bookdash publishes African storybooks in all 11 South African languages, and distributes these books to young children for free using innovative distribution sites such as clinics and hospitals. They also have a free online library where all their books can be downloaded. 

Learning starts long before children enter school. Failing to invest in the early years means much more must be spent later to make up for backlogs established in early childhood. While the government has expressed its commitment to targeting the early years, we have seen very little in terms of actual plans to provide all South African children with high-quality early learning experiences. This is despite the fact that interventions in early childhood have the potential to put socioeconomically disadvantaged children on entirely different trajectories. Failing to recognise this means failing South African children at the starting gate. DM

Heleen Hofmeyr is an education researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University.


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