/ 15 May 2024

Mr President, don’t ignore six million vulnerable children

'Poor children slip down the early childhood development childcare ladder — they don’t climb up that ladder
'Poor children slip down the early childhood development childcare ladder — they don’t climb up that ladder

Dear President Ramaphosa,

About a year ago, you wrote a piece on early childhood development (ECD) in your weekly newsletter, titled “ECD holds the key to our future”. You highlighted the pivotal role that ECD centres and programmes play in South Africa.

As the ECD sector, we welcomed your comments. Notwithstanding your fine words, the real test of your view lay in implementation and action, which was and still is critically needed. Former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma made similar comments about ECD when they were in office — with little benefit to vulnerable young children and their families.

Your newsletter followed on you opening an ECD centre in Bizana, Eastern Cape, where, in your words, you were “deeply touched by the dedication of the centre’s staff to supporting the community and its children”. You went on to say that the commitment of the ECD centre’s staff “is so important because early childhood development centres play a pivotal role in our nation’s development”.

In your written piece, you said the government has taken up the task to improve ECD and make resources available for centres to run suitable activities for children. We welcomed this and applauded you.

But you now need to be informed of the real situation on the ground as it affects the ECD sector: the 42,420 ECD centres; with about 198,000 ECD principals, teachers and other staff; and the 1.66 million children who attend these centres.

About 30% of children from birth to the age of five attend an ECD centre. The quality of ECD centres is generally poor and this is linked to the socio-economic capacity of the communities in which these ECD centres are based. The best-quality ECD centre infrastructure is found in affluent areas. ECD centres in poorer areas face a contrasting reality. These are the ECD centres, staff and children who live in poverty with little to no support from the government, untrained teachers, limited age-appropriate education equipment, a basic meal of little nutritional value once a day — if at all — and salaries as low as R300 a month. This is outrageous given the valuable work that they do.

These are also the 60% of ECD centres that are not registered, meaning they are not compliant with the Children’s Act regulations or with the complex and burdensome municipal by-laws and regulations that pertain to these centres. They will never be eligible for the government’s subsidy of R17 a qualifying child per day for 264 days a year. To qualify for the ECD subsidy, the parents’ joint income must be less than R7,600 a month, or less than R3,800 for a single parent.

In your newsletter, you made the erroneous comment that the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill proposed that it be compulsory for all children to receive two years of ECD provision before the start of grade one. What you were referring to is making grade R a compulsory year for all children, and this was welcomed and supported. As an aside, the ECD sector, through various activists, first made this recommendation more than 20 years ago, but it was not acted upon.

So, what is the reality for the ECD sector and our youngest children? The recent Thrive by Five report informs us that only 35% of children entering grade one are ready for school. This means that two-thirds of five-year-olds are not thriving, with 6% seriously not thriving. 

Extrapolating from the recent ECD Census, we see that about 70% of children do not have access to a formal early learning programme before they enter grade one. This means these children enter formal schooling with little preparation to acquire the early literacy and numeracy as well as life skills that are an important part of the foundation phase of formal schooling and children’s early development.

Part of this ECD reality is that only 33% of ECD centres receive the ECD subsidy, 60% of ECD centres are not registered, just about half of the ECD teaching staff are qualified, and 23% of ECD centres have no books for children. You should be shocked.

There is a major flaw in the information that you are given by your ministers and staff about ECD. Three years ago, in October 2020, you made R1.3 billion available to the ECD sector as part of an ECD Employment Stimulus Relief Fund to help ECD centres to recover from the loss of income during the Covid-19 pandemic. We now know that less than 19% of this amount reached the ECD sector. 

Of the R1.3 billion, R712 million was held back by the treasury because the national department of social development could not get a coherent plan together. The final amount received from the treasury for the ECD sector was R588 million, of which R496 million was allocated to support ECD teacher salaries for 116,578 teachers. By 31 March 2022, only R245 million had found its way to ECD teachers and other staff. This was caused by the cumbersome and bureaucratic application system put in place by the incompetent social development department responsible at that time. The government has been cagey in not making these figures publicly available. This is understandable given that it shows an appalling lack of concern for children. 

Responsibility for ECD moved to the department of basic education on 1 April 2022, and our hopes are that this department will be more competent and caring.

President Ramaphosa, you should instruct the basic education department to retrieve the missing R1 billion from the treasury and to distribute it as intended. 

Your second focus should be to substantially increase the shockingly low ECD subsidy of R17 for children that is payable to registered ECD centres. As a comparison to the above, our government spends R363 a day on each prisoner. 

For each rand spent on a vulnerable child at an ECD centre, the government spends R21 on a prisoner. This is a disgrace.

Parents contribute about R10.2 billion each year to the economy by way of ECD fees. About 198,000 jobs, overwhelmingly for women, have been created by communities at no cost to the government — not one cent.

President Ramaphosa, we are informing you that there is a vibrant, skilled and talented non-profit sector working in ECD. This sector has many decades of experience and competent individuals who can make ECD opportunities a reality for every child. You have to lead from the front and you have to get the basic education department to work closely with the nonprofit ECD sector.

Our country has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and we have an excellent National Integrated ECD Policy, which the cabinet approved in December 2015. The sad reality is that this policy is not being implemented, simply because there is no political will or budget allocation to do so and we do not have sufficient numbers, with some exceptions, of skilled, competent and committed public officials to implement the policy. 

To meet our commitment to the documents South Africa has signed, and to the current ECD policy, you must instruct the treasury to substantially increase funding for ECD. Currently less than 3% of basic education expenditure is targeted at ECD. This has to change in the interest of and for the wellbeing of our youngest children.

Mr President, the ECD nonprofit sector is ready to follow your Thuma Mina request.

We must remember the profound comment by Oliver Tambo: “A country, a movement, a person that does not value its youth and children does not deserve its future.”

President Ramaphosa, the future of early childhood development in South Africa is in your hands.


Eric Atmore

Professor Eric Atmore is the director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development.