Effective Early Childhood Education (ECD) can help South Africa's children break free of the poverty cycle. Yet fewer than half have access to it. The National Development Agency's (NDA) new Adopt an ECD campaign aims to change that, with the help of the private sector.
Early childhood development programmes have been recognised as one of the most powerful tools for breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty in South Africa.
Research has found that children who participate in well-conceived ECD programmes tend to be more successful in school, are more competent socially and emotionally, and show higher verbal and intellectual development during early childhood than children who are not enrolled in high quality programs.
However, only 43% of children under the age of five are exposed to an ECD programme at home, a centre or elsewhere, and there are large disparities across provinces, according to the South African Human Rights Commission.
According to the 2011 census, there are more than 5.6-million South Africans under the age of four; this leaves around 3.2-million children excluded from effective ECD programmes. In most cases, poverty is the reason why so many children are left behind in terms of their physical, intellectual and emotional development. This impacts on their school performance and ultimately, on their adult lives.
Dr Vuyelwa Nhlapo, chief executive of the NDA, says children need to benefit from holistic ECD programmes from birth to the age of four.
"Too many children are going to basic day care that offers no real stimulation. Many others simply stay home until they go into Grade R. This is a problem, particularly in rural and poverty-stricken areas. Due to poverty, these children are being deprived of the opportunity to develop in line with their peers and this has a lifelong impact."
Kick-starting a brighter education
In a bid to give the nation's children a better start in life, the NDA is launching the Adopt an ECD campaign, which urges individuals and organisations to step in to help address the problem.
The NDA has introduced an online portal at — www.ndacampaigns.co.za — offering information about the campaign, and options for individuals and organisations to pledge their contributions to ECDs.
Selected ECDs in each of the nine provinces are profiled on the portal, with information on their resource needs and financial status. Contributions could take the form of financial support, a donation of much-needed facilities and equipment, or other assistance.
Nhlapo notes that whatever individuals and enterprises are able to contribute will make a difference. "It might be something as simple as painting their buildings or helping with small renovations, donating learning materials or supporting the training of the ECD practitioners.
"There will be varied contributions, and an ECD programme might be adopted by more than just one company or government department," she says.
There are already 123 sites targeted for the Adopt an ECD launch, but more organisations can apply to be added to the programme. Childcare facilities hoping to benefit from the programme can also approach the NDA via the site.
Committing all sectors of society to improve education
The NDA, a public entity listed under Schedule 3A of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA), was established by the National Development Agency Act and reports to Parliament through the minister of social development.
With its primary mandate to contribute towards the eradication of poverty and its causes, the NDA already contributes to the ECD sector by working to support food security and infrastructure at ECD sites and strengthening the institutional, leadership and management capacity of ECD sites. But the NDA has limited resources at its disposal.
Through the year-long Adopt an ECD campaign, the NDA hopes to mobilise the departments of basic education and social development to resource infrastructure development, curriculum development and ensure compliance with approved norms and standards.
It aims to create a database of public and private donors who have made significant investments in the ECD sector and profile indigent ECD sites and link these ECD sites with potential donors.
The programme will also provide programme management support for beneficiary sites and create a platform for dialogue on resource flows to the ECD sector. Nhlapo says the initiative is in line with the government's focus on education and poverty eradication.
However, there has never before been an integrated project of this scale in South Africa; aiming to unite government, business and individuals in a common goal to educate and develop young children through integrated processes.
At the end of its first year, the NDA and stakeholders will take stock of the project and determine a way forward. However, Nhlapo says, based on initial responses, she is optimistic that it will be successful. There are encouraging signs that both public and private sector are eager to assist in developing the nation's children, she says.
"We have been pleasantly surprised at the early response," she says. "Even before the initiative launched, we received pledges of support."
The NDA believes that with sufficient support, the number of children who do not have access to ECD can be cut by at least half over the next year.
Nhlapo says: "The Adopt an ECD Campaign is aimed at involving more partners in creating holistic ECD centres and helping ECD centres to offer holistic development for our children, so ensuring that children are well prepared to join the formal education system and that they can 'hit the ground running'.
"South Africa needs to extend opportunities for learning and growth for all our children. They are in need of resources to enable them to realise their full potential as equal and competent citizens of our country."
Nhlapo notes: "Education is one of the single most important factors in eradicating poverty. Education opens doors. We believe if there is any investment worth making, it is in our children. We call on all partners to work with us as we tackle this mammoth challenge to make a difference and change the lives of our children for the better."
• 57% of South Africans under the age of five do not attend registered ECD centres.
• Holistic ECD programmes prepare children for formal schooling, and help them perform better at school.
• Many childcare centres do not receive funding from government, partly due to their inability to meet required norms and standards.
• The South African government has prioritised early childhood development (ECD) as an integral part of addressing the legacy of apartheid education policies since 1994.
On the wish lists
The wish lists of the Early Childhood Developments profiled on the Adopt an ECD site range from full renovations to surprisingly basic supplies. Among the common resource needs are:
• Practitioner training
• Educational materials
• Plates and cutlery
• Cooking utensils
• Food gardens
• Gardening equipment
• Playground equipment
• Mattresses and blankets
Pledges can be made at www.ndacampaigns.co.za