File photo: Brendan Magaar / African News Agency (ANA)
This year’s State of the Nation address may have radically changed South Africa’s prospects for education and economic growth. For the first time, there is a clear commitment to early childhood development (ECD), which is globally recognised as the most powerful investment in human capital that a country can make.

At last there is real opportunity to get things right for young children, whose cognitive and emotional development has been sorely neglected by the democratic state.

The president announced the introduction of a second year of compulsory early learning before school and the transfer of responsibility for ECD from the Department of Social Development to that of Basic Education (DBE). It is a move that makes a lot of sense, for several reasons.

First, the brain’s development is largely shaped in the early years of life, and poor literacy and numeracy outcomes in South Africa stem largely from a poor foundation of language development and nurturing learning and care.

Second, early learning is the educational orphan in South Africa, attracting only 1-2% of the total budget for public education, and bringing it under the ambit of Basic Education could encourage more efficient allocations of public funds over time.

Third, it would be easier to align early learning curricula and practitioner training with service needs if these activities were all housed within the same department.

However, the proposed transfer is not without major risk, and if done badly, would seriously compromise efforts to ensure that all children have access to quality ECD.

Notwithstanding the appeal of seamless learning for children from 4 - 18 years of age, this option is not feasible in the context of most communities in South Africa.

Some schools have successfully introduced pre-Grade R classes, and the educational benefits are plain to see. Typically, though, these are better-off schools where children come to school by car. Picture children aged 4 walking several kilometres to school on a dark winter’s day. Then arriving at schools where, according to the latest national study of progress in reading and learning (PIRLS 2016), bullying is a problem experienced by 42% of children every week.

Then needing to use a toilet which is too big for them - or even a pit toilet, which poses even greater risk.

Transport issues aside, each school would need to designate a separate fenced-off area with special classrooms and bathrooms adapted for size.

Given the infrastructural challenges experienced in schools across South Africa, any decision to bring very young children on to unsuitable school premises would open constitutional challenges and create a raft of reputational and management problems. 

Furthermore, children aged 3 to 6 need loving care, good nutrition and early learning in equal measure, and it should be clear that “function migration” to DBE cannot simply mean “extending school” down to preschool children. It means building a service that combines care, nutrition support and early learning, and links them to parental engagement and child protection.

The fundamental flaw in the organisation of ECD in South Africa is not its position in one government department or the other, but the lack of co-ordinated provision of services to children. Currently, child nutrition, early language development and inclusion of children with disabilities are everybody’s responsibility - but practically nobody’s responsibility.

Fortunately, the answer is staring us in the face. The most effective national ECD programmes around the world have been organised through a dedicated national agency, reporting directly to a specific ministry or the presidency.

This is what South Africa needs too. Unfortunately we have a history of creating large and lazy agencies, and we must learn from that experience.

However, an ECD agency could be kept lean - the centre would provide strategic direction and technical support, while provincial agencies would purchase services and ensure quality control. In this way, and in keeping with the Constitution, municipalities could also bid to provide a healthy mix of ECD services.

It would also allow for the funding of a continuum of ECD programmes from playgroups for 2- to 4-year-olds to formal centres for older children. It would be a serious mistake to ignore younger children and focus only on the pre-Grade R year, because children’s brains don’t develop backwards.

In fact, a child’s brain is most receptive to cognitive and language development before the age of 3.

This model of provision would be most responsive to the reality of ECD provision, which is different to that of the public health or education sectors.

Almost entirely, early learning services are privately provided (subsistence entrepreneurs and non-profit resource and training organisations).

They are financed through a blend of public subsidies and private money, and further supported by a massive network of social capital across communities. 

Many centres also provide quality Grade R programmes under the supervision of about 90 resource and training organisations across the country.

This vast community-wide network provides the logical platform on which to expand early learning to all four year olds.

A reality check is that an extra year of preschool would require an extra 25 000 trained ECD teachers - which the country simply does not have.

If a compulsory pre-Grade R year were suddenly introduced in schools, it would suck ECD practitioners out of their community organisations as they moved to schools for higher pay. Younger children would be the losers.

Coupled with an accelerated national human resource plan for ECD, a system of local bidding should keep the system stable and allow it to grow at the same time.

Of course, the big risk of tendering is corruption, but that is a risk the country must now learn to manage. Many other countries have done so.

Despite the fact that we do not have enough trained practitioners, there are existing platforms ready to scale up. In anticipation of the political commitment to ECD, coalitions of funders and civil society organisations have designed quality playgroup and centre-based programmes which allow licensees to work as “first-rung” practitioners.

Based on the experience of these programmes, it would not be unrealistic to extend early learning to another 300 000 children over the next three years, even as the details for the transfer of responsibilities to DBE are hammered out.

Harrison is the chief executive of DGMT, a foundation committed to developing South Africa’s potential (www.dgmt.co.za)

Cape Times