/ 5 April 2019

Simple solutions for SA’s ECD dilemma

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)


Any parent or care­giver will know the sense of wonder that comes with watching a young child grow. Yet, although the sheer speed at which infants visibly develop can leave us breathless, the growth that is hidden from sight is perhaps even more remarkable.

In the early years, the brain grows at an astonishing pace. As children interact with the world around them, endless new connections are forged in their brains. These connections will form the very foundation of living and learning — of language, of thinking, of social and emotional competence. Yet the extent to which young children develop these essential skills depends a great deal on whether or not they have access to certain types of experiences.

It is self-evident, but worth emphasising, that this time in a child’s life only happens once. It is a unique developmental window that will not come around again for today’s under-fives. This means the pressing challenge facing our government is how to scale up early learning opportunities quickly. Not a 10-year strategy or a 20-year strategy, but a today-and-tomorrow strategy.

Home- and community-based early childhood development (ECD) programmes, such as crèches and playgroups, are part of the answer. Unlike ECD centres, these types of programmes can be set up quickly and easily. Because they are delivered out of existing premises, they are not hampered by the lead-in times of new infrastructure projects or by the acute land shortages in many poorer communities. And by harnessing the talents of underemployed women across the country, they can work in conjunction with government employment schemes to create the much-needed pipeline of new ECD practitioners.

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This is not poor provision for poor children. It is fatal mistake to confuse quality with setting in ECD. Research tells us that good child outcomes can be achieved in many different types of ECD programmes — purpose-built ECD centres, home-based crèches, playgroups, childminders, mobile services and others.

What matters is the presence of quality, and the components of quality have very little to do with the physical structure in which the programme is delivered.

Instead, studies have shown that the ingredients of quality in ECD fall into two groups: system factors, such as good training, appropriate adult-child ratios, sufficient dosage (attendance) and suitable play materials; and secondly, programme factors, in particular quality adult-child interactions and a definite, structured routine that includes playtime, storytelling and physical activities.

It goes without saying that all ECD programmes also need to provide a safe and healthy environment for children. But, again, this does not rely on the setting. What is more, there can be a tendency in government for a focus on health and safety to eclipse the other ingredients of quality. This results in a system that sanctions and even supports ECD programmes where children are safe and fed — but not stimulated or nurtured.

The government therefore needs to go beyond merely tolerating home and community-based ECD programmes in the system, and instead adopt funding strategies that encourage this essential provision that helps to build quality. Here are five reasons why this would be good news, not only for our poorest communities and children, but for society as a whole.

The pro-children case: Our law and Constitution say that the best interests of the child must be of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child. Children who attend home- and community-based ECD programmes have the right not to experience discrimination and to benefit from the same funding and oversight given to other types of programmes.

The pro-poor case: Home- and community-based ECD programmes are often the only way that poor children can access appropriate learning and development opportunities. Land shortage and tenure issues in many urban areas will continue to mean that of necessity more ECD programmes must be run out of existing premises. In rural areas, lower population density often makes it less viable to build new ECD centres.

In addition, recent figures show that about 2.5-million of the poorest under-fives live in households where no adult is employed. This is a staggering figure. Because formal centre-based ECD provision is likely to be unaffordable for their parents, free or low-cost home- and community-based programmes might be the only way of ensuring that these vulnerable children are not denied access to early learning opportunities.

The pro-women, pro-employment case: It is a government priority to support more women to work and to be economically active. Women who work at home and in community-based ECD programmes are able to develop their skills and to generate an independent income. Last year’s presidential jobs summit set ambitious targets for the creation of new jobs in ECD, and home- and community-based programmes will have an important role to play in achieving those targets.

These types of programmes also create essential childcare places for women who want to go out and work. Forcing women to stay at home because of a lack of childcare not only undercuts gender equality, it is also bad for the economy, constraining a significant part of the workforce.

The pro-enterprise case: Home- and community-based ECD programmes not only create direct employment, they also contribute to the government’s goals of supporting micro enterprises. They are an example of micro enterprises that are easy to set up (low initial investment is required) and that are relatively low risk (as demand is predictable). Crucially, they enable economic activity within the poorest communities.

The pragmatic case: There are many pressures on government spending and it will be challenging for the government to achieve its goal of universal access to ECD on current budget forecasts. If significant funding is diverted into large infrastructure projects, less money is available for the direct subsidisation of new and better places.

In addition, ECD is a market-led sector that is still dominated by private providers. Until and unless the state becomes a universal provider, parents will continue to choose what types of ECD programmes they wish their children to access, and providers will continue to respond to that demand. Because ECD is a public good, the government’s role is to provide support and funding to ensure the best possible quality of provision, whatever the setting.

For today’s under-fives, the alternative to home- and community-based ECD provision is not a Rolls-Royce option not quite yet in place; it is no provision at all.

Government funding strategies that are unduly focused on purpose-built ECD centres will come at the cost of widening access gaps now, and it will be poor children who lose out most. The early years of a child’s life are a time of huge opportunity — and huge risk. We cannot afford to leave any child behind, and home- and community-based ECD programmes are an essential part of the solution.

Grace Matlhape is the chief executive of SmartStart, the national early learning social franchise. Rebecca Hickman is an early learning consultant. SmartStart is an early learning social franchise, taking quality and affordable early learning opportunities to children across South Africa. Visit smartstart.org.za