Too little money for the big ideas

Early Childhood Development (ECD) in South Africa has come a long way since the inception of Ntataise about 25 ago. In 1980, when the organisation started, ECD opportunities and preschools for children in disadvantaged rural areas were virtually non-existent. The need was overwhelming and the input from the government of the day was minimal.

Ntataise, meaning ‘to lead a young child by the hand”, is an NGO based in the Free State. It offers ECD training and development programmes in disadvantaged communities. Fourteen ECD NGOs are affiliated to Ntataise and make use of its training programmes and resources. Ntataise and its network have reached about 10?000 women and more than 300?000 children over the past 25 years. This is one homegrown initiative that, through the years, has risen to the challenge — that of providing ECD programmes and preschools for children who would otherwise have had no access to this care and early stimulation during their most formative years.

Prior to 1994 and to a continuing degree today, the responsibility for the provision and development of ECD programmes for children in disadvantaged communities rested on NGOs, the women living in these communities, the corporate sector and foundations that provided the necessary funding.

Today, South Africa has a government that acknowledges the importance of ECD, and which has implemented a number of successful initiatives in this regard. The Education White Paper 1 on Education and Training (1995) defines ECD as being ‘an umbrella term that applies to the processes by which children from birth to at least nine years grow and thrive — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, morally and socially”.

Local and international research has shown that children’s early years are critical for their development. Research has further shown that timely and appropriate interventions can reverse the effects of early deprivation. One way of achieving this is by increasing access to ECD programmes, especially for poor children. Exposing children to appropriate early stimulation, nutrition, health and care through a range of services has many benefits, which can reduce the later need for costly medical, remedial and welfare services.

There are still considerable challenges regarding the provision of ECD in South Africa, specifically for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Department of Education is currently concentrating its ECD resources on Grade R — but what about children in the younger age group? According to an audit of ECD in South Africa commissioned by the Department of Education in 2000, 16% of children younger than six years were enrolled in the 23 400 sites identified in South Africa. The same audit found that of the 54 503 practitioners working with children in ECD sites, 12% were qualified, 23% had no training at all and 88% required additional training.

The provincial departments of social development make a per capita payment of between R2 and R6 per month per qualifying child at registered and qualifying ECD sites. However, this subsidy is not automatic and it is estimated that only 20% of the 23 400 sites identified in the national ECD audit receive a subsidy. The subsidy is not sufficient to cover the costs of a basic but good-quality ECD programme, and those preschools that do not receive it have to rely on contributions from parents, many of whom cannot afford even minimal fee levels.

One of the major challenges therefore facing ECD in South Africa is funding. There are not enough ECD programmes of an acceptable quality to reach the vast majority of children in the 0-6 age group. The quality of many of the existing sites is poor.

Ntataise and other NGOs continue to have a significant impact on the ongoing provision of ECD training to preschool practitioners operating in disadvantaged communities. But funding for this training remains a problem. Parents, caregivers, the donor community and individuals do not have the capacity to provide ECD on the scale required. Only the government can do this.

The learnerships initiated by the government are one means of providing funding for training, but the roll-out of learnerships needs to be speeded up. Consideration also needs to be given by the government to raising subsidies and making it available to existing preschools.

For ECD to become a reality and for children in disadvantaged communities to get a foundation for life-long learning, there needs to be a concerted effort by the government, business and all others involved in the development of young children to ensure that the provision of ECD in South Africa grows significantly in the years to come.

Jane Evans is the director of Ntataise

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