File picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)
Cape Town – The South African Early Childhood Review 2019, an annual measure of progress in early childhood development (ECD) service delivery, has found that more than one million 3- to 5-year-olds are excluded from ECD programmes across the country.

South African children living in poverty were also far less likely to attend a preschool than their wealthier peers, with these children likely to start school at a distinct disadvantage, which carried lifelong consequences, the authors said.

“The cost of ECD programmes is a big reason poor children can’t attend them,” said co-author and executive director of Ilifa Labantwana, Dr Colin Almeleh.

The review found that more than 4.5 million, or 65%, of children under 6, were living in poverty, defined as living in households surviving on less than R1138 a month.

“Brain development is very sensitive when children are young. The ability to succeed in school, and later in life, is built on these early foundations. Research shows that children who attend at least two years of a high-quality ECD programme are more likely to start school on track,” review co-author and executive director of Innovation Edge, Sonya Giese, said.

“Without access to quality preschool programmes, South Africa’s poorest children are starting school on the back foot. In an assessment of 500 children enrolled in 10 different early learning programmes, only 29% were developmentally on track for their age,” she said.

Despite the country’s middle- income status, South Africa was also found to have high levels of child malnutrition, with about 15% of infants born with low birth weight.

“We also found a strong correlation between children’s early learning scores at age 4-6 and their nutritional status and psychosocial well-being,” Giese said.

“Stunting rates in South Africa are actually higher than countries with lower national incomes per capita such as Ghana and Tunisia,” she added.

Access to social grants for children was found to be lagging behind the targeted uptake levels and the grant amount of R547 lower than the food poverty line, rendering childcare services a luxury for many.

“The easiest way to address exclusions for children is to ensure that they are enrolled in the grant from birth,” the review said.

Authors found that interactions between parent and child in the first few years of life were especially important for early language, cognitive, and socio-emotional development.

For this reason, early learning interventions needed to include well- designed and contextually appropriate programmes to encourage responsive and interactive parenting.

In his 2019 State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the responsibility for the management of ECD programmes would shift from the Department of Social Development to the Department of Basic Education.

An additional year of preschool (Grade RR) would also be made compulsory for all children.

“This is an opportunity to provide government funding to cover the full cost of a quality ECD programme,” Almeleh said.

The South African Early Childhood Review 2019 is a joint publication between Ilifa Labantwana, the Children’s Institute at UCT, the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency, Grow Great and Innovation Edge.