When the minister of social development introduced the 2020 Children’s Amendment Bill “to further provide for funding of early childhood development programmes”, it was seen as a step in the right direction to bring about meaningful change in the sector. The Bill has, unfortunately, brought about more uncertainty and instability.
Early childhood development (ECD) is defined as a comprehensive approach to programmes and policies for children from birth to seven or eight years of age. Its purpose is to protect the rights of children, allowing them to develop their full cognitive, emotional, social and physical potential.
Legislation pertaining to the regulation of ECD in South Africa is in the Children’s Act. The Act deals with a number of issues relating to children, including ECD programmes and development services. Instead of providing stability and security for the practitioners, the Act has long occasioned a number of challenges to the sector.
As early as 2008, the government identified ECD as a national priority to be advanced through the intensification of the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). This elevated status was to have ensured that ECD received the highest priority in the government’s programme action. In reality, this has not been the case. With its multitude of functions and objectives, ECD’s primary role is to provide the necessary foundation for a child’s long-term development. It is therefore crucial for the future of this country for the government to get the regulatory framework right, considering the current lack of proper policy direction regarding ECD.
Several announcements have been made by the government about its commitment to ECD. For example, the 2015 National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy emphasises that ECD is a critical part of a child’s development and that it is beneficial for the child, the child’s family and society — a widely accepted notion. The policy highlights the government’s recognition of ECD’s importance, stating that government recognises early childhood development as a “fundamental and universal human right to which all young children are equally entitled without discrimination”. This ring hollow considering the state of ECD and the legislative reforms proposed by the Bill.
In its current form, the Bill fails to address issues ECD practitioners have been grappling with. The Bill fails in the following four key areas:
Complicated registration process.
The 2019 South African Early Childhood Review noted that the majority of children are born into environments that contribute to a reduction in their chances to realise their full potential. This is typified by insufficient access to high quality maternal, new-born and child health services and nutrition; inadequate living environments; lack of security and social protection; and limited opportunities for quality, early learning and stimulation. As a result children experience malnutrition, toxic stress, and are at an increased risk of substance abuse, criminal behaviour, risky sexual behaviour, and reduced economic potential when they are older.
Many ECD centres operate in these environments and the practitioners who run these do not have access to adequate resources. Submitting documents to the department of social development for registration or compliance purposes is difficult. The Bill makes no effort to streamline the registration process and it does not recognise that practitioners have limited access to the resources necessary to compile an application. For example, to operate an ECD centre, a practitioner needs to register for three items: non-profit organisation status, a partial care certificate, and Early Childhood Development Programme certification.
The Act fails to give effect to the ECD infrastructure provisions in the National ECD Policy. In chapter 9 of the policy, it is explicitly stated that “an adequate and accessible physical environment and infrastructure is required to support scaled-up and effective delivery of inclusive, quality early childhood development programmes and services”. The Act and the proposed amendments provide no guaranteed infrastructure support to ECD centres in low-income areas to meet the aims of the policy.
The Bill’s proposed exclusion of funding for infrastructure at partial care facilities if they are “private homes of registered non-profit organisations, private homes in general, business properties or properties not owned by a non-profit organisation”. The majority of ECD centres operate on privately-owned land and require funding and support for their infrastructure needs. Appropriate toilets for small children and secure fencing are examples of infrastructure needs. The exclusion of funding for infrastructure in instances where the ECD centre is on private land, as introduced by the Bill, must be rejected.
ECD to poor communities does not remain compulsory
The Act requires that funding for partial care facilities in poor areas be prioritised. Section 78 (4) of the Act provides: “The funding of partial care facilities must be prioritised (a) in communities where families lack the means of providing proper shelter, food and other basic necessities of life to their children.”
The Bill proposes changing this requirement into a discretionary power. This obligation to prioritise poor neighbourhoods must remain mandatory. Clause 35 (c) of the Bill, which seeks to amend section 78, states that it seeks “to clarify that the MEC may prioritise and fund partial care facilities in poverty-declared wards”. By diluting the obligations of the state to support children in need, much needed funding and resources will not be available to support ECD centres in low-income areas. The Act must therefore be amended to clarify that all children in need shall qualify for an ECD subsidy.
Simpler, adequate health and safety programme standards
The Act is not clear on who is responsible for developing health and safety standards for ECD programmes and ensuring compliance with them. Municipalities often have their own requirements that are inaccessible to practitioners. The health and safety standards they use to assess the centres are not distributed to the schools and they only become aware of these standards when the officials visit their centres to assess them. It would be in the best interests of the child if the Act would have a provision detailing clear health and safety standards and they be made available in all official languages.
The proposed changes in the Bill do not address the problems in the ECD sector. Although these are still only proposed changes, we hope that these issues will be taken into consideration so that meaningful change can happen. Among the changes that need to be taken into consideration are the need for: a one-step registration process, support for the infrastructure needs, low-income areas remaining a priority, and simpler, adequate health, safety and programme standards in place assessed through one process and available in all official languages.