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Breakthrough for early learning as Education Department embraces non-formal venues

Breakthrough for early learning as Education Department embraces non-formal venues
The authors write that recognition of te informal sector's role in early childhood development can lead to brighter children and more jobs simultaneously. (Photo: Sebabatso Mosamo/Sunday Times)

The new strategy projects the need for 115,000 new early learning venues for 2.9 million 3-5-year-olds by 2030, but it acknowledges that these children must be reached now in community-based centres, informal playgroups and the homes of day mothers.

The Department of Basic Education’s new strategy for early learning displays the type of thinking that could get us out of the inequality trap. This human-capital-wasting trap is well known: over half of our children are not ready to learn by the time they start school.

They begin at a disadvantage and fall further and further behind. Ultimately, about 40% of learners drop out of school before completing Grade 12, joining the ranks of the millions of unemployed who in turn cannot afford to send their own children to preschools.

The department’s new strategy projects the need for 115,000 new early learning venues for 2.9 million 3-5-year-olds by 2030, but it acknowledges that we cannot wait for new buildings, and these children must be reached now in community-based centres, informal playgroups and homes of day mothers.

Until better facilities are in place, we must extend access to quality early learning in every setting where children are being cared for.

Implicit in this new approach is recognition of the role of the informal sector in growing the social economy. Not only can children learn in informal settings, but emergent early childhood development (ECD) practitioners can be upskilled and can earn a better living through a combination of parent fees and public subsidies. This means that expanding ECD can contribute to brighter children and more jobs at the same time.

Children who participate in quality early learning programmes are more likely to thrive at school and develop their full potential. Yet, only about half of the poorest 40% of 3-to-4 year-olds attend such programmes, up from roughly two-fifths a decade ago. At this rate, it will take another 40 years for all poor children to benefit from out-of-home early learning.

Funding and quality learning

This slow rate of progress is due to two main factors. First, public funding for early childhood development is seriously inadequate. Second, the focus has been on the ECD facility rather than the quality of the early learning experience for children.

Many of our poorest children are excluded from receiving subsidies because they attend programmes in buildings that don’t meet the norms and standards required of registered ECD facilities. Health and safety concerns are paramount, but the irony is that these children would be healthier and safer eating and learning in a small corrugated-iron shack with a fenced-off outdoor area than playing on the streets while their mothers look for work.

Early learning programmes like SmartStart have shown that it is possible to provide quality early learning for children in structures in informal settlements and rural areas that don’t meet the standards of a formal ECD centre. Not only are these children kept safe in these basic facilities, but they also make significant strides in their physical, socio-emotional and brain development.

These evaluation findings from SmartStart and other early learning programmes in South Africa have major implications for the way we design and fund them.

Make no mistake, a minimum threshold of health and safety is non-negotiable and an important prerequisite for these programmes. Beyond that, however, we should be more concerned with the quality of the child’s experience than the existence of a separate kitchen with an extractor fan, as some municipalities require.

While other local authorities are not as stringent, few have adopted guidelines for provision that reflect the reality of where most poor children live.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa making progress towards early childhood development goals, education officials say

It is recognition of this reality that makes the Department of Basic Education’s new strategy for ECD so exciting. Its leaders now clearly realise that we have been trapped by our own thinking. It is the child, and not the facility structure, that should centre our efforts to expand access to quality early learning.

While ECD centres are ideal and can house a lot of children, they are expensive to build and maintain, and it will take many years to finance and construct enough of them.

The National Integrated Policy for ECD of 2015 sought to break the monopoly of funding for centre-based models of provision, but it was never put into practice. The number of children subsidised by the state in ECD facilities has only grown from 488,000 to 627,000 over the past decade — that’s still just over a quarter of all eligible 3-to-5-year-olds.

A big reason for this is the difficulty practitioners have in meeting all the requirements to register their ECD centre to access state funding, a challenge that can now be overcome by shifting our attention to what’s most important, namely the child.

Critical development

The DBE’s new strategy also emphasises the importance of child development in the first two years of life, when cognitive and language development are at their fastest. It acknowledges the limited role of the school system in this age group, emphasising instead the importance of parents, working with the Departments of Health and Social Development, and forging new partnerships with civil society.

The biggest weakness of the strategy is its lack of detail on nutritional support, even though it is described as a critical feature of high-quality early learning programmes.

This weakness is unsurprising, given the state’s broader failure to secure adequate nutrition for children, but we hope to see an extension of the school feeding scheme — in an appropriate form — into early learning programmes as well.

Of course, all these plans need more money, but it is encouraging that the government is now looking for the most cost-effective strategies that centre on the child and recognise the role of the informal sector for greater reach and impact.

Private foundations such as those we represent will never be able to fund programmes at sufficient scale, but we can show how things can be done better and work with the government to make an even stronger case for public investment in early childhood development. DM

David Harrison is the CEO of the DG Murray Trust and Bernadette Moffat is the Executive Director of the ELMA Philanthropies (Africa), the advisory service to the ELMA Group of Foundations.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • How long will it take the local councils to respond, I wonder? Registering for all that are required for compliance of a new preschool, takes years first at the Council, then huge expenses in terms of Council bulk fees, etc and only then can a preschool apply to Department of Education.

  • Jeremy Clampett says:

    This is a pleasing and overdue development that has the potential to have a significant positive impact on the education of our nation.

  • sue.wildish says:

    Re: The biggest weakness of the strategy is its lack of detail on nutritional support. It would make sense for organisations like SmartStart & Elma, to factor Meal provision into Playgroups, Homegroups, Day Mothers and ECD Centres into their strategies. Both organisations have access to high-level, high-worth funders and grant makers – who are not always reachable by organisations like ours. Education without accompanying nutrition to incentivise attendance, ensure participation and learning absorption, is to naught. Once that narrative is incorporated and then promoted by big name, well connected/respected organisations like Elma, SmartStart (and DGMurray Trust) it will become the norm for Nutrition to be factored into educational grant making. Micro-Distribution of the food – especially into playgroups is expensive, and something that requires careful consideration/grant inclusion. We deliver the food to the door of NPOs running community playgroups – but distributing five packets of porridge here, and four packs there – especially in extreme rural settings, increases the price per meal exponentially. Our excellent current funding partners help us to reach 82,000 children with a fresh, varied, nutritionally fortified each school day – and we have a waitlist of 52,000 children who are still hungry. And we know there are more. Sue Wildish, Managing Director, The Lunchbox Fund

  • Since the political transition in 1994, there have been 30 early childhood development policies, strategies, programmes and plans developed by government. Not one of which has ever been implemented properly or fully. Government and the various departments have no political will at all to meet the needs of young children. All the funds that have been stolen by politicians and public officials (see the Zondo Commission report) could provide every preschool child with a quality early learning programme in a good facility. Eric Atmore

  • CK Berg says:

    A truly insightful piece that goes way beyond the usual the usual critique so commonly uttered by high sanding educational professionals who have yet to figure out why 80+% of S-African school kids cannot and customarily do not read. The piece does not mention the crucial role of the parent in the child’s early development. Reading for instance, most commonly is promoted by the parent/family/home environment in the very first instance. Kids who cant/dont read, in all propability have parents/family/households who cant/dont read. It is not purely a teaching issue. Most of all, research now shows that those who cant/dont read most probably suffer from lack of mental growth & development. How are our non readers fairing in subjects like maths & science? But here’s the real thing: eNCA reported some time in 2023 that over 300 KZN councillors were found to be illiterate (could not read or write). This piece is infinitely important in setting a real basis for far more meaning & productive future discussions (around ECD & public education generally). Congrats to DM editors, who are strongly advised to promote and advance such insights. Our Neuro & Psycho analysists have a big role to play here. In the academia today everybody is shouting “engage in transdisciplinary scholarship”. The HSRC now has a special division devoted to “Impact”, since the fanatical “publish or perish” (i.e., publication for its own sake) does not appear to produce the required results or outcomes. The longtime issue of education in South Africa effectively cannot be resolved in the absence of a more visible presence of/collaboration with the broader health/bio/child psycho/neuro sciences fields. Here we learn that being read to – in infant stage, and even before – can measurably increase child inquisitiveness, which in turn is key to heathy brain growth and development. Are S-African parents reading to their children? No books at home? Then, are our children visiting the local town library (where such is available, and many townships now do have access to well-functioning, well resourced libraries)? Certain scholars/observers are claiming Poverty is the main issue. But this piece here, clearly contradicts that view (not that “poverty” in and by itself is not an important issue in the broader debate). Cuban school children, across grades, ages and learning areas record fairly stunning achievement levels, yet the income levels of their parents quite typically range from 10 to 20$US/month. Thanks again to the authors for pointing out some of the really core issues S-Africa has thus far failed to consider or address on appropriate, national level. Educational scholars, from across fields, are strongly encouraged to take heed of the key points raised here, and subject such to due scholarly scrutiny, that prospectively could enhance government policy. And last, the government’s decision to address this specific topic (ECD, broadly), must/should bring some measure of hopefullness to the entire population, despite all the graft and fraud – of the past and ongoing. In sum, there is no other way to begin to address S-Africa’s historical education problem, than by critically exploring and understanding the child’s very early stages of development. Scholars especially, and social observers and analysts generally, are strongly encouraged to respond to this pertinent piece.

  • About time Generation 2030.

  • I am doing ECD since 1997,I live in a area,where money is important and the child is not.Kids stays for hours in small spaces,up to 80-220 children.When ventilation do they have or even education.Kids,eat,watch TV and sleep.
    When I see there little faces passing my home,that is into torturing camps,reminds me of kids in hell.
    I am heart broken as these families also getting children and they cannot afford it.Creches making a money business from innocent children.For me personally it’s like child torture camps.I had law enforcement,I spoke to grassroots and all it get said,the kids are in safe keeping.But what happens when that child grows up and giving up????on life.It started at parents going cheap,and teaches or owners looking at the dollar sign and not the child’s well-being

  • I love reading your articles

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