OPINION: Early childhood education vital
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International research on early childhood development (ECD) shows that there is a growing realisation that the provision of quality services has great significance in determining the trajectory of a person’s life. Globally, countries are reshaping and repurposing their education systems to prioritise the role that education should play long before children reach Grade R.
Policymakers have realised the opportunity cost of neglecting this area of a child’s development, and have subsequently shifted the emphasis to providing ECD services as an investment in the education and education potential of children. Research further shows that the window of opportunity lies between the age of 0 and 4.
Undoubtedly the time has come for parents, communities, business, NGOs and the government to invest the most into the development of children if they are to have the capacity to reach their full potential despite their socio-economic status.
Furthermore, evidence-based research shows that the best known benefits of quality ECD services for children’s growth, health, cognitive performance and personal and social well-being justify its provision by the state from a human rights perspective. Closely tied to this additional individual and social benefits that accrue over the longer-run term justify the early intervention by the state and making ECD a public good. To this end the South African government has recognised its responsibility in bridging the gap of inequality with a special focus on children through enabling legislation and policies. As the ECD white paper states, the primary responsibility of the care and upbringing of young children belongs to parents and families.
However, due to the inequality of income distribution, and because ECD is a public good, which has benefits that spill over from families to society at large, it is the responsibility of the state to subsidise and assure the quality of ECD services provided in the country.
It is against this backdrop that as South Africa marked Child Protection Week this year, the National Department of Social Development launched a campaign with the theme: “Funding Every Early Childhood Development (ECD) Service to Enable Registration”, underpinned by the slogan Vangasali, Tsonga expression meaning “Every Child Counts”. It is intended to ensure that ECD centres register their programmes or services.
This begs the question what is an ECD service or programme? Official documents state that these programmes offer “early learning opportunities and support to children from birth until the year before they enter formal school”. They include, but are not limited to:
Community-based play groups operating for specific hours;
Outreach and support programmes for young children and their families/ caregivers, at a household level;
Parenting support and enrichment programmes; support for the psychosocial needs of young children and their families;
ECD programmes provided at partial-care facilities and at child and youth-care facilities, as contemplated in section 93 (5) of the Children’s Act. These could be toy libraries or mobile ECD programmes, play groups, child-minders or crèches.
Mokoena is director for research and policy in the Gauteng Department of Social Development. He writes in his personal capacity.