The recent release of the Thrive by Five Index is a landmark moment for South Africa. The index is South Africa’s first nationally representative survey of preschool children that provides a barometer for child development outcomes for children aged four and five.
The index bolsters reports that early childhood development activists have been highlighting for years: early childhood is the single greatest opportunity to invest in human development, and children across the country are suffering the consequences of a lack of investment and support.
Our failures will stay with us for years to come. The index shows that two-thirds of our young children are failing to thrive and are unlikely to achieve their potential. Furthermore, the differences in developmental outcomes are not arbitrary, with stark differences between poorer children and their wealthier peers. These barriers are difficult to remediate and most children who experience early problems will struggle because they are not receiving the support required to thrive in the education system and beyond.
Children’s early problems are compounded and ensure that less is learned in school, and that children are less capable of handling the demands of a competitive economic environment. Early learning difficulties lead to school dropout, poor matric results, repeated school years and a less effective system for preparing young people for the world. The minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, highlighted this at the launch of the index, stating that a house is limited by the strength of its foundation. Good quality early childhood development is the foundation upon which all future thriving is built.
The results for fine motor coordination and visual motor integration and the results for emergent numeracy and maths are of particular concern: 65% of children are falling behind or are far behind. Early learning and stimulation either at home or in good quality early learning programmes can address these deficits. But more than 3.2 million children aged five and under have no access to any form of early learning programme, and of the 2.5 million children who do, only 626 574 children receive government subsidies, which allow poor neighbourhoods to sustain these programmes at a decent level of quality. It is not surprising then that our children are falling behind.
Stunting rates for children are persistently very high since democracy, with on average a quarter of children displaying signs of stunting. These figures are in line with the index, which shows a stunting rate of 25%. This rate is very high, and is a sign of both chronic malnutrition and infection, and a significant reduction in life opportunities for children. (Since democracy, studies on South Africa’s stunting rates have varied between 35% and 25%. Because the Thrive by Five Index focuses specifically on four to five-year-olds, it is not directly comparable to these previous studies, but the results are in a similar range.)
The Real Reform for ECD campaign calls for nutritional support to be delivered to all early learning programmes, and supports the call for a maternity support grant as part of the solution for addressing this unacceptable and persistent national problem.
The index is an opportunity. For the first time we have the data we need to get the country behind the importance of quality, inclusive and holistic early childhood development services. It is an immense moral failing that we allow the brilliance of our youngest children to be squandered. Expanded access to affordable, quality early learning opportunities must form part of the solution. The campaign for Real Reform for ECD welcomes the basic education department’s support for this index. We now call on the department to do what is necessary to respond and endorse the following five reforms for early childhood development:
1) We need a one-step registration process for ECD providers and different types of ECD providers must be regulated differently;
2) All children attending any type of ECD programme should be able to access the early learning subsidy if they need it;
3) Simpler, adequate health, safety and programme standards must be in place and must be accessed through one process;
4) It must be made clear that you can get conditional registration if you can’t meet all the registration requirements and MECs must support providers to meet requirements and report on their systems of support; and
5) The infrastructure needs of the sector must be supported.
These reforms will ensure more vulnerable children are able to attend early learning programmes and ensure that more children receive the early learning subsidy. This is a first step to ensuring that services are able to provide nutrition and stronger quality of care and stimulation for vulnerable children, which, in turn, allows children to thrive by five.
We now have indisputable evidence that the difficulties for the majority of children in South Africa start before school. The National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy states that:
“The government is responsible for taking all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures necessary to secure the realisation of the universal early childhood development rights of all children.”
We must work together to realise this vision for the sake of our children and for the sake of our nation.