Educators welcome the call to extend compulsory education, but caution it would cost dearly.
An extra two years of formal, compulsory schooling for all South African children is a fantastic idea, experts in the field of education and early childhood development say, but a new salary bill of at least R5-billion a year is only one of the problems that will have to be overcome.
The national development plan, finalised this week, calls for children aged four and five to be included in the basic education system, effectively creating two new grades in primary school.
The plan, from Trevor Manuel's national planning commission, was published in draft form in November 2011, but the final version was handed to President Jacob Zuma only this week following consultation. The preschool provision was not in the draft.
The benefits of such a preschool system have long been accepted, but many are sceptical that it could be properly implemented, even in the two-decade time frame with which the plan deals.
The two new grades would have an intake of about one million children each, which implies a need for 100 000 teachers at an ideal class size of 20 children. At the lower end of current preschool education, unqualified teachers are paid about R4 000 a month. Even at that rate, which would be unlikely to attract the best-qualified teachers, the state would have to cough up R5-billion a year in salaries, not counting the cost of training teachers, infrastructure, learning materials, administration and miscellaneous expenses.
"You need a learning-rich environment and that kind of thing is expensive," said Mark Potterton, the national director of the Catholic Institute of Education. "One of the big problems we have at primary schools now is that there isn't playground equipment for most of these kids. You can keep kids in a room and keep them occupied and call them schools, but that won't necessarily bring about the changes you want."
Then there are the dangers of getting it wrong.
"You don't want to squeeze vulnerable children into an environment that further marginalises their development potential," said Hasina Ebrahim, an early childhood development expert at the University of the Free State and deputy chair of the South African Research Association for Early Childhood Education. "We don't have grade R right yet. We have access, but access to what?"
Even so, Ebrahim is encouraged by the proposal. She said it was proof of the recognition of the importance of preschool education, as well as organisations such as Equal Education.
"A lot of young people are growing up in homes where they have very little stimulation and early cognitive functioning is underdeveloped," said Equal Education deputy general secretary Doron Isaacs. "It's important to establish the principle and policy, which the plan is trying to do, then address practical questions."
The plan, like a wide array of international development organisations, considers preschool education key to decreasing antisocial behaviour, keeping more children in school until matric and improving overall results.