South Africa has set itself the ambitious target of achieving universal and equitable early childhood development (ECD) by 2030, with plans to provide every child up to five years of age with a minimum of two years of preprimary school exposure before they enter basic schooling.
As the foundation phase in the education value chain, ECD has been found to deliver lasting benefit to pupils, particularly the poor and disadvantaged. Research shows that pupils with sufficient exposure to ECD have better attainment levels and cognitive abilities, and that the return on investment in ECD programmes can far exceed that of economic development projects.
For parents, and women in particular, ECD can facilitate economic and social inclusion as it enables them to take up jobs instead of having to look after children at home.
Much of South Africa’s education challenges, marked in part by poor literacy and numeracy aptitude, as well as high attrition rates, can be attributed to limited-quality foundation-phase education. Just over a third (two million out of six million) of the children eligible for ECD enrolment have access to out-of-home early learning centres that offer quality educational programmes.
Enrolment and access levels are acutely and undesirably lower for children in poor communities, where early education interventions are needed the most.
A larger proportion of the children fortunate enough to be enrolled are cared for in home- or community-based facilities that are poorly structured and equipped, and thus unsuited to providing quality education-oriented ECD programmes. A recent audit found that 70% of ECD facilities are not suited to providing the necessary level of services.
The glaringly high levels of ECD under enrolment are not a reflection of a shortage of facilities, but instead an indictment of policy failure. There are as many ECD centres as there are ordinary public schools, and yet the former accommodates about two million children and the latter caters for more than 12 million.
More than 4.8-million – 73% – of ECD-eligible children live within a 5km radius of an ECD centre and yet parents opt to keep their children at home or delay enrolment at least until grade one.
This raises the question of whether parents are attuned to government’s policy goals and whether the policy intentions are accompanied by the necessary effort to activate concomitant actions among those responsible for early learner development.
Many parents are deterred from enrolling their children at ECD facilities because of prohibitive costs. The sector is almost entirely self-funded by school fees and donations that are inadequate to build and operate “fit for purpose” facilities, whose average monthly fees per child range from R20 to R350.
Government provides an operational subsidy of R15 a day per indigent pupil, a subsidy restricted to facilities that comply with the norms and standards on infrastructure, but entirely abdicates itself from financing the very infrastructure that serves as a basis for accessing the subsidy. To qualify for a government operational subsidy, ECD facilities must comply with legislative requirements for adequate basic needs, building design and regulations, and accessibility for children with special needs.
It is unrealistic, self-defeating and unfair to expect ECD facilities to meet these requirements when there is no identifiable government programme for financing the construction of new facilities, upgrading and maintaining existing facilities, and improving access to adequately structured and equipped facilities.
The sector relies on the benevolence of selected local councils and government departments to use some of their unspent funds to provide infrastructure.
Communities have heeded the constitutional call to honour children’s rights by establishing thousands of ECD facilities, which by default render statutory obligations, in turn, to government.
For many people, this essential and basic human right has become a source of livelihood as they respond to the perennial problem of under-servicing by government.
Individuals and communities arbitrarily establish small and unviable ECD facilities in close proximity, in private homes, churches and community halls, creating unnecessary competition for resources and a false sense of infrastructure backlogs.
Instead of regulating the proliferation of these facilities through planning, government instead often threatens them with closure and does not allow them to register. As a result, many ECD centres continue to operate illegally, and many children are excluded from accessing the quality ECD services they need.
It is vexing that ECD is regarded as one of South Africa’s apex developmental goals, but at the same time remains the only public service where government takes a less active role in building the necessary enabling infrastructure.
The rest of the public education schooling system enjoys greater support for infrastructure financing, giving the impression that the foundation phase is less important or delinked from the rest of the system.
Various factors influence government’s inability or reluctance to finance ECD infrastructure. National, provincial and local government are concurrently responsible for ECD, but their respective roles are unclear.
This is partly because of policy ambiguities over which sphere of government is responsible for funding ECD and partly because legislation prohibits government from directly funding community and privately owned ECD facilities. As a result, there is no coherent framework for financing ECD infrastructure.
Government needs to provide a full or partial subsidy for constructing and/or upgrading community or nongovernmental organisation-based facilities, as well as private ECD facilities in poor areas.
The national and provincial departments of social development must urgently develop a well-co-ordinated and integrated ECD infrastructure sector plan because, without one, piecemeal interventions will continue to distort the distribution of funding and reinforce inequities.
Unless government takes active responsibility for ECD facilities, the benefits of ECD for children, the schooling system and the economy at large will not be fully realised.
Ramos Mabugu heads the Financial and Fiscal Commission’s research and policy division, and Eddie Rakabe manages its fiscal policy unit.