Opinionista Robyn Wolfson Vorster 23 June 2020

Can South Africa’s Early Childhood Development sector be saved?

Few errors made during government’s lockdown planning will have as serious consequences as its failure to plan for Early Childhood Development. It took the Department of Social Development three months following the Covid-19-related closure of ECDs to even begin disclosing reopening plans. For many, it may be too late.

Ask anyone involved with educating small children and they will tell you that preschool is one of the happiest places imaginable. Where else can you spend your day immersed in the busy, noisy, joy-filled world of little voices, giggles, songs, imaginative games and tall tales? Where else can you be Batman at breakfast and a butterfly at tea, a pirate one minute and a puppy the next?

But since 17 March 2020, Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres have fallen silent. Many will never reopen. Community adverts over the last week are full of nursery schools selling off their play equipment and resources as many have come to the end of their financial resources and have given up hope of recovery. And those are the resourced ones, most ECDs are located in poorer communities and they ran out of resources weeks ago.

So how did we get to this point? Key factors include poor planning by the Department of Social Development (DSD), slow response times, government’s lack of appreciation for both the realities facing South African families and the importance of ECD (this despite it being the DSD’s flagship project), and historical problems related to the registration of ECD centres.

What seems clear is that when government closed ECDs in March 2020, it had no plan for when or how they would reopen. As late as 30 April 2020, the Minister of Basic Education (DBE), Angie Motshekga answered a question at a press conference about when ECDs will reopen by saying that the question had “come out repeatedly”, but that they had “not given it full consideration”.

Mothsekga’s speech came a day after her counterpart Lindiwe Zulu, Minister of Social Development, addressed the nation. In that speech, the minister failed to mention anything about ECDs, including how and when they would reopen, or how they would be supported while closed. 

Her only reference to ECDs related to food provision. “We are also in conversation with our Treasury and other parts of government to examine how we can improve the support that we provide for children, including how to address the gap that has been created by the suspension of the feeding programmes we were providing at ECD centres and schools.”

Disturbingly, it is an undertaking that neither minister has delivered on.

Astonishingly, the first real mention of ECD by the DSD came on 11 May 2020 (almost two months after the president’s announcement about schools closing) when Zulu addressed the nation about Level 4 provisions. She announced that ECDs would remain closed during Level 4, but that the DSD would “continue to ensure that whenever a decision is made for this sector to open, it is Covid-19 ready in order to protect the children and the staff working at these facilities”.

She did, however, specify that the national department would “allow provinces to continue paying subsidies in order to fulfil their administrative responsibilities and payment of stipends”.

The move was widely commended, but there is a contrasting view that continuing to pay subsidies was the very least that the department could do to keep the sector afloat.

This argument proposes that money for subsidies had already been budgeted and allocated by the DSD, and ECD expenses including salaries, rent and utilities did not change during the lockdown. Many ECDs were also still using the portion of the subsidy ring-fenced for food (which varies between provinces but is approximately 40%), to keep children, and often their families, fed during the lockdown.

Moreover, it is common knowledge that government subsidies of R15 per child per day (rising to R17) are too low to sustain ECDs and not wide-reaching, especially given their intended target: South Africa’s poorest children. Only 700,000 of the approximately 2.7 million children in ECDs benefit from government subsidies. Subsidies must therefore be supplemented by fees.

But the Covid-19 crisis has put fees at risk. The minister’s 11 May 2020 statement came after the release of a comprehensive research report by some of the biggest coordinating and advocacy groups in the ECD industry. It indicated that 99% of ECDs had fee payers who were unwilling or unable to pay fees, 83% hadn’t been able to pay full staff salaries, 96% reported that their income was not enough to cover their operating costs and 68% worried they would not be able to reopen after the lockdown. The rather bleak conclusion was that in April 2020, the risk of mass ECD closures was already evident.

Yet despite the obvious danger of delays in reopening for this sector, and the equally obvious anxiety it was experiencing, it took a further 10 days before anyone from the DSD actually disclosed (albeit not publicly) when ECDs would reopen (as opposed to when they wouldn’t). In the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee meeting on 21 May 2020, DDG for Welfare Services Connie Nxumalo answered a question about ECD to say that the department had proposed a phased approach to the reopening of ECD centres to the National Coronavirus Command Council beginning in Level 1. She said it could be Level 2 at the earliest, but likely only Level 1.

The department’s doggedness to only restart ECD at Level 1 may explain why it waited until 26 May 2020 (a full two months after lockdown started), to set up the eight workstreams (data, monitoring, assessment, support packages, protocols for reopening, general Covid-19 awareness, programme redesign and practitioner training), it needed to craft a reopening plan.

But even then, it still didn’t brief the ECD providers on a timeframe for reopening. So, when the DBE gazetted directions about the reopening of schools on 29 May 2020 and stated that ECDs could resume on 6 July 2020, the sector breathed a sigh of relief. Or at least it would have, if it wasn’t for the fact that on the same day, the Acting Director-General for Social Development, Linton Mchunu, issued a directive saying that ECDs “shall remain closed” (emphasis in original document) “until such time that a decision is taken and communicated about their reopening under any of the five alert levels”. The DSD has since clarified that only ECDs attached to schools will reopen on 6 July 2020.

After months of no communication, the confusion left already vulnerable ECD providers reeling.

To make matters worse, the DSD justified its decision to delay reopening because it claims that the plan is “in the best interests of the child”. Given that ECD is government’s flagship project for changing the destiny of vulnerable children, the impression created was that the risk to children of reopening must be substantial for it to keep ECDs closed.

But is it?

While safety is a critical consideration in the care of small children, it would be wrong to reduce best interests to safety. Not only are ECD initiatives the key to ensuring that vulnerable children stay in school longer, they are also a source of regular food. And since neither minister has made good on the undertaking to find a substitute for the NSNP and ECD food provision, many children are missing both stimulation and nourishment.  

We can also question if Covid-19 is children’s biggest safety risk. While the minister of basic education has been rightly criticised for reducing ECD to childcare (something that does not bode well given that her department will soon be exclusively responsible for Grades R and 00), many ECD programmes provide a safe space for children while their parents are at work. And since being a stay-at-home parent is a privilege very few South Africans can afford, it was crucial that government didn’t open the economy without making a plan to care for smaller children while their parents work.

According to a research study completed by Van der Berg and Spaull, “almost one million children (974,000) below the age of six have no other adult caregiver in the household except a working parent”. The authors therefore propose that “hundreds of thousands of these children would be left home alone in households without an adult caretaker if their employed caregiver was forced to return to work to earn an income and sustain her family”.

It makes the DSD’s adamant stance on not reopening ECDs until Level 1 bewildering. Do they believe that parents have the luxury of not going back to work because their children are at home? Do they think that parents will risk losing their jobs to stay home with children who they may not be able to feed as a result?

It’s an impossible dilemma. Most parents would not leave their children home alone, so it is forcing them to compensate for the lack of ECD services. In a country with horrifying levels of child rape and murder, it’s common knowledge that hundreds of children are playing unsupervised in the streets in informal settlements, many parents are “illicitly” sending their children to relatives and neighbours, and even more troublingly, reports have emerged about centres reopening “illegally”, and unregulated black market ECDs with no health and safety oversight or police clearances appearing overnight.

It seems short-sighted to keep children safe from Covid-19 only to expose them to neglect, abuse, starvation or other dangers. Children have already been hurt or died since their parents returned to work on 1 June 2020. In an interview about the continued closure of ECDs, one provider shared two tragic stories, one about a child who had drowned in a bucket and another about a child burned by boiling water while in an older sibling’s care. These are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

What makes the DSD’s decision to delay reopening even more incomprehensible is that the DSD must have access to the same scientific information guiding the DBE and independent schools’ decision-making. Increasingly, studies recommend sending under 10s back to school first because they appear to have the least risk of contracting or passing on the virus. And while some argue that small children cannot grasp physical distancing, it would be inaccurate to say that this is harder to manage in private and non-profit ECDs than in schools.

The result has been almost farcical: social media was full of photos of Grade Rs returning to Independent Schools on 8 June 2020, and children in government ECDs are scheduled to return on 6 July, but the DSD is still claiming that it’s too dangerous for children at private ECDs to be at school.

So, if ECDs based at schools can reopen, if the DSD knows, or at least should know, about the crisis in ECDs and the overwhelming risk of their mass closure (there can be no excuse for not reading the Bridge et al report); if children are at greater risk of starvation while ECDs are closed; if they are lacking the stimulation needed to prepare them for future learning; and if children risk injury or death while they are at home, with neighbours or in makeshift ECDs, how can the DSD possibly argue that continued closure is in children’s best interests?

It can’t. But it does have a dilemma, because the National Coronavirus Command Council instructions require accountability that Covid-19 precautionary measures are adhered to whenever a sector of South African society is reopened. This is possible at schools because the DBE is (in theory) monitoring compliance. But the DSD has a far greater monitoring challenge. Most ECDs in South Africa are still unregistered, making oversight difficult.

According to Lizette Berry, Senior Researcher from the Children’s Institute, prior to the crisis, “69% of 3-5-year-olds (or 2.5 million) were attending a group-based learning programme or a Grade R class (based on general household survey data)”. But the Bridge et al report contains a rough estimate that “1.5 million children are in unregistered ECD facilities”.

This has created major difficulties for the DSD, and perhaps we would be sympathetic to its plight, except that industry groups have been warning the DSD for the last 15 years that the registration requirements were too stringent, too difficult to achieve and needed to be amended. 

Prerequisites, including the need for the title deed for the property in which a centre operates, are so prohibitive that many simply cannot comply. Quoted in a recent Daily Maverick article, Zaheera Mohamed, early childhood development financial officer at Ilifa Labantwana bemoaned the “government’s impossible compliance requirements. They want to force Sandton standards on an informal sector.”

As recently as 2019, debate around the Children’s Amendment Bill focused on the missed opportunity that the Bill presented, given that the department could have used it to simplify registration requirements and ensure that more ECDs were supported, and more learners subsidised. But although the DSD has been in discussions about creating an enabling registration framework (to replace the current prohibitive one), for years, its delay in making these amendments has been a huge contributing factor to this crisis.

On the plus side, addressing the registration challenge is a topic for one of the eight workstreams created to help ECDs reopen. Simplified registration requirements may therefore be one positive outcome of the Covid-19 crisis. Another was the DSD’s launch of the Vangalisa Campaign on 2 June 2020 (which means “No one left behind”).

Vangelisa’s stated objective is to provide the government with data about the: “thousands of unregistered ECD services and non-centre based ECD services, including mobile services. These services form an integral backbone of ECD service delivery in the country,” is states.

In the document, government also acknowledges its role in assisting unregistered ECDs “to meet registration requirements” and that “ECD provisioning” is “a community-based driven service and a public-private partnership”. The stated purpose of the database is to provide ECDs with government relief measures to which they are currently not entitled because they are unregistered.

Vangelisa is a commendable initiative, but there are some notable problems with it. First and foremost, the department is the regulatory body for ECD programmes so it should already have this content. Secondly, while the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the challenges faced by the ECD community, unregistered portions of the community have always needed government relief, so why only compile the database now? 

It is also unclear about how the notoriously understaffed department is going to process this information as rapidly as is required. Finally, if (as seems the case), this database is designed primarily to help the DSD ensure Covid-19 compliance from the sector (which is a valid consideration), why wait until 2 June, after much of the economy had already reopened, to begin compiling the data? Surely, it was much too late?

Peacock, Parker and Ally, who bemoan the fact that “the first engagements on how to open ECD programmes happened more than two months after the announcement of the lockdown” confirm that, “as it stands, no publicly available plan exists – no time frames have been committed to – and DSD appears to have only recently begun grappling with complex issues surrounding the reopening of ECD programmes. If our experience of the DBE is anything to go by, this will require time and urgent sector input.” 

It’s a concern echoed by Berry, who questions if the DSD has “allowed sufficient time to develop robust protocols and adequate plans for countrywide assessments, support, adaptation and resourcing of ECD programmes?”

Ideally, the department should have simplified its registration criteria years ago, compiled an up-to-date database of all ECD providers, started making plans for the sector’s reopening when ECDs closed on 17 March 2020, secured finance to help the sector stay afloat and to assist with PPE across ECDs (not just for the most marginalised ECDs), obtained additional resources to help with monitoring compliance, and been in a position to resume ECD programmes when the schools and economy reopened at the beginning of Level 3.

But, none of this happened, and many fear that regardless of how good the DSD’s final plan is, if it delays much longer, there will be few ECDs left to support. The key to saving ECD is therefore as much about urgency as it is about strategy.

If reopening depends on Vangelisa, the department critically needs to get ECDs listed and preferably registered using vastly simplified criteria. It also needs to find ways to financially support the sector and provide PPE, a challenge given the department’s well-documented lack of funds. Failure to do so will be catastrophic, not only putting thousands of children at risk of being left without adequate supervision, but also leading to the closure of many more ECD centres, leaving vulnerable children without opportunities for development, daily meals and safety.  

And to compound the crisis for small children, government won’t be able to use school-based ECD programmes to compensate if the financial cost of delayed reopening does result in mass closures. A recent study completed by Symphonia about how the crisis will impact School Governing Bodies (SGBs), revealed that SGBs at both no fee and low fee primary schools employ between two and three teachers, most of whom are Grade R teachers, a grade which is only partly funded by the DBE. Schools are anticipating that many of these SGB-employed teachers could lose their jobs. The upshot is that Grade R at schools may also be in jeopardy.

Van Der Berg and Spaull’s summary is key: “After reviewing the evidence, it is our view that keeping children out of school is not in the best interests of the child. Consequently, all children should return to schools, crèches and ECD centres without any further delay. The profound costs borne by small children and families as a result of the ongoing nationwide lockdown and school closures will be felt for at least the next 10 years.”

There are finally some positive signs emerging. The DSD announced on 21 June 2020 that ECD staff can return to prepare facilities, and sent out forms and checklists for ECD programmes (including unregistered ones), to complete. But the same document specifies that no children can return until a date to be gazetted by the minister, and all forms and content still need to be processed and compliance monitored. If government is committed to ensuring that “no child is left behind”, let’s hope its efforts aren’t too little, too late. DM

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