Early childhood development (ECD) is universally recognised for its concern with the foundation years of life, focusing on the holistic development of a child’s potential. It is during the first six years of a child’s life that much learning takes place and is developed.
The early years influence a range of education, health and social outcomes. Research has shown that investment in early childhood is the most powerful investment a country can make, with substantial returns over a person’s lifetime and for society as a whole.
ECD has become a key component of education provision globally. By providing quality programmes, children are given a head start in life that enables them to progress through formal schooling and to exit having completed school successfully. In South Africa, early and appropriate provisioning is a critical mechanism to breaking the cycle of inequality and can reverse the effects of poverty and deprivation.
Despite this evidence, the provision of early childhood development has largely been of little concern to government. With an election ahead of us, it is appropriate to ask of our main parties: What is your ECD policy? Each of the three dominant political parties has included ECD in its election manifesto.
The ANC election manifesto states that it will extend the core responsibilities of the department of basic education to include the provision and monitoring of ECD, providing a comprehensive package of ECD services, including “birth registration, social assistance, parenting support and quality early learning”. It will regulate guidelines, norms and standards for ECD, and set the employment targets in the sector over the next five years.
It intends to develop a plan to take care of the first 1 000 days, from pregnancy until two years of age. During this time, pregnant mothers will receive good nutrition and antenatal care visits from an early stage. The baby will have good nutrition, immunisation and constant monitoring of growth. It will work to achieve universal access to two years of ECD programming, which would equate to two years of compulsory preschool enrolment for four- and five-year-olds.
The ANC promotes innovation and different models for delivering home- and community-based ECD.
The Democratic Alliance manifesto states that the party recognises the role played by ECD and the effect it can have on a child’s success or failure in primary and secondary education. The party highlights the importance of ECD centres in providing this foundation, stating that access to quality ECD centres is the “vital first rung of the opportunity ladder and opens up access to further opportunity later in life”.
To ensure that children are appropriately prepared to enter the foundation phase of their schooling, a DA national government would implement a per-child grade R subsidy from the state to all public schools; develop a more formalised curriculum for grade R teaching based on research on the cognitive development required to prepare a child for success in grade 1 and beyond; and improve collaboration between the departments of basic education and social development to develop a national network of early childhood education centres for children from birth up to the age of four.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) plan to make universal provision for ECD programmes available and will make it compulsory for children from the age of three and upwards to be enrolled in an ECD centre for free. They promise to develop “a common ECD curriculum focusing on nutrition programmes, book reading and storytelling, and other land-based activities to enhance children’s understanding of their surrounding environment”.
Under an EFF government, all ECD practitioners would be employed on a full-time basis, with full pay and pension contributions. Finally, the EFF will train an additional 40 000 ECD practitioners by 2021.
The parties’ manifestos focus heavily on the role of ECD centres as the main mechanism to reach children and ensure quality early learning. This approach to ECD is short-sighted because 70% of children in South Africa are not in any form of early provision.
None of the political parties’ manifestos address the role of parents in ECD. This is discouraging because parents play an essential role during this phase even if children don’t attend an ECD centre.
Both the ANC and the EFF state that they will implement compulsory preschool enrolment, beyond grade R. If introduced and done correctly, this would have huge benefits for children. But it will be enormously challenging and fiscally difficult considering that the state would also have to ensure further provision of ECD facilities to an estimated five million children and the country would need about 30 000 additional teachers — but as a country we produce fewer than 5 000 ECD teachers each year.
The issue here is the idea of “compulsory” enrolment and what that would entail. Why should preschool education be compulsory if the home environment or noncentre-based programmes can provide equal stimulation? Access to quality is key — not compulsory attendance.
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced during his 2019 State of the Nation address that responsibility for ECD will move from the department of social development to the department of basic education. Currently, there is tension between the two departments; they work in silos with little co-ordination, collaboration and coherence. Each department has its own ECD policy, resulting in fractured responsibility, cohesion and co-operation, and are unable to implement a coherent, integrated and comprehensive ECD policy.
This will not be solved by moving the responsibility for ECD to the department of basic education.
The ANC is the only political party to state that it will provide a comprehensive package of ECD services to children. Comprehensive and integrated ECD policy and programmes are critical and should include education programmes, healthcare, safety, nutrition, immunisation and other child-centred services to provide for the holistic development of the young child.
Migrating ECD to the department of basic education has put ECD in the spotlight and is a chance for change. A challenge for the ECD sector is that this move could illustrate a policy shift in line with the dominant global discourseabout ECD as an investment for future economic productivity.
This narrow understanding of ECD emphasises a child’s performance in meeting strict, defined outcomes, often focused on “school- readiness” and preparing children for the economy.
This may be to the detriment of social justice, equity and holistic development.
It also codifies early learning, oversimplifying the complex nature of children’s learning experiences. This is something that the ECD sector needs to be aware of and combat.
It is simply not good enough for politicians to kiss babies at election time. It is time that political parties hoping to secure our votes show that they are serious about meeting the needs of children by having the political will to provide the resources and funding required in these most important early years.
Jessica Blom is a master’s student in the department of social development at the University of Cape Town. She works for the Centre for Early Childhood Development. Eric Atmore is the director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development and is adjunct associate professor in social development at UCT