If education is to be a success, children need to enter school with the ability to learn. Investment in early childhood development is the most powerful investment in human capital that a country can make, with compounding returns as skills beget skills. There is now an extensive body of evidence that effective early childhood development improves cognitive scores and learning outcomes at school, and if taken to scale, can reduce the schooling gap by more than 1½ years.
A critical understanding is that the educational trajectory of children is largely determined before they enter school. Schooling enables children to capitalise on the foundations laid down in the first five years of life; intensive remediation can overcome part of the deficit, but the extent of divergence between high and low achievers mainly depends on the differentials established in the first two years of life.
In South Africa, several critical aspects of early childhood development are already in place, including relatively good access to health care, the child support grant, and means-tested State subsidisation of children in registered early learning centres. However, some critical aspects are missing, and there is considerable opportunity to improve health, educational, social and economic outcomes if:
- The prevalence of nutritional stunting is significantly reduced;
- There is intensified focus on parent responsiveness and child stimulation in the first 1000 days of life; and
- There is opportunity for quality early learning for every child.
The recent South African Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES-1) of children aged 0-14 years, showed that 15.4 % were stunted, 5.4% were underweight and 2.9% were wasted. Of particular concern was the level of stunting in children 0-3 yrs (26%).
Brain development (in terms of synaptic connection) for language, sensori-motor and cognitive function peaks in the first year of life. Yet there is a major programme gap for children aged 0-2 years that other countries have successfully filled with home-visiting and children’s playgroups.
Despite an increase in the number of subsidies to early childhood development (ECD) centres, still only a third of young children are exposed to formal child care or education outside of the home. Among the poorest 40% of our population, that proportion drops to one fifth.
What needs to be done?
Implement a population-based framework for planning ECD that has clear coverage targets for service delivery. The current system of provision is blind to the majority of young children who are outside the system. It only ‘sees’ the children who are in registered ECD facilities.
Define a clear-age differentiated strategy for early childhood care and education, implement through different modes of delivery (antenatal mother-support groups, home-visiting in the first six months of life and for all children at risk, children’s playgroups and centre enrichment).
Establish a public funding formula for non-centre-based programmes, to support community-based programmes as well.
Ensure sufficient human resource capacity (practitioners and programme-managers), through a process of central planning in response to targets for reaching universal national coverage by 2020.
Strengthen national strategies to respond to critical gaps in current programme, including:
o Nutrition (implement a national strategy for children under five, involving stronger home-based support and food/income supplementation in cases of underweight and early stunting)
o Parenting support programmes – implemented through pregnant women support groups, home visiting and child playgroups
o Quality early learning – strengthening storytelling/language development; play, critical thinking, creativity and exploration; and the conceptual building blocks for literacy and maths.
The implementation of an effective early childhood development strategy will require additional public resources. However, there is strong economic evidence that ECD is the most efficient and cost-effective long-term strategy for building South Africa’s workforce, leading to economic returns of between 7.8 to 17.6 times the initial investment; a significant increase (>40%) in earnings potential, and catch-up in earnings potential to normal children after early nutritional intervention in stunted children.
Current national public spending on early child care and education is about R1.5 billion per annum. Additional funding is required to implement a zero-stunting strategy for children under two years of age, to expand services for children aged 0-2 years of age, and to double coverage of early childhood care and education over the next five years.
The South African Integrated Programme of Action for ECD 2013 – 2018 has identified the setting up a co-ordination mechanism for ECD as a high priority. Without a single national structure responsible for early childhood development, we are unlikely to significantly improve nutrition, education and related social outcomes.
Further education and training colleges will be required to scale up their provision of appropriate practitioner training, and to ensure a system of articulation between Level 5 training and the B.Ed degree.
The South African Programme of Action for ECD – Moving Ahead (2013 – 2018) was approved by Cabinet on 18 September 2013; A process of consultation and design of a national policy and programme for ECD has been commissioned and will be concluded by February 2014; A curriculum for 0-4 year olds has been drafted and gazetted for public comment.
The scale-up of early childhood development requires significant public private partnership to expand services and innovate. Key areas of development and innovation include:
- Trialling different methods of scale-up, such as social franchising;
- Development of a quality-enriching early learning programme incorporating the elements described in section 2.3 above;
- Expanding access to nutritional support for children with early stunting or who are underweight;
- Strengthening the role of further education and training colleges through partnerships with non-government resource and training organisations with expertise in practitioner training; and
- Increasing exposure for very young children to ‘science and exploration kiosks’ and other learning enrichment programmes.
If the foundation in Grade R is not solid, the benefits for learning later on will be negatively affected. We need to ensure that the foundation is solid so that we can build a nation of children who can read, write and count.
Our goal is clear. It is to ensure all children have access to a quality Grade R programme. We’ve done very well as a democratic state to broaden access to Grade R, post-1994.
In 2012, the total funding for Grade R was over R3 billion.
KwaZulu-Natal is one of the provinces that have achieved near universal access. It has the highest number of learners in Grade R in the country than any province, at 189 169 learners.
In 1999, South Africa had only 156 292 learners in Grade R. By 2012, the number had increased to 767 865. There are more than 22 000 Grade R classes in our schools.
As you know, early intervention and stimulation of young children maximise their potential. The early years are critical for the acquisition of skills and concepts laying the foundation for lifelong learning. These include acquisition of language, perception and motor skills required for learning to read and write. It’s our collective responsibility to invest in ECD.
My Department’s approach to ECD is based on clear policies and legislative framework, including the constitutional mandate to promote rights to primary education. We’re guided among others by the National Education Policy Act of 1996 and the South African Schools Act of 1996 that promotes access, quality and democratic governance in the schooling system.
We welcome the South African Human Rights Commission’s Charter of Children’s Basic Education Rights which also captures the essence of early childhood education.
The 2001 Education White Paper 5 on Early Childhood Development provides for full participation of 5 year olds in a reception grade and for improvements in the quality of programmes, curriculum and teacher development.
In respect of Early Childhood Development, the National Development Plan underlines the need for access for all children to at least 2 years of pre-school education.
The Grade R programme is one of our critical interventions for improving people’s lives. Through this programme we aim to ensure that children are well-prepared for formal schooling.
Broadening our ECD programme supports the national drive towards job-creation and skills-development particularly for women. There was an increase from just over 20 000 Grade R teachers in 2009 to around 22 000 Grade R teachers in 2011.
A major task is to improve quality. This Grade R unit advances this goal of delivering a quality service to the young.
We are aware more needs to be done to sustain the increased access and to improve quality of the educational experience for children.
We recognise the challenges of teacher training, working conditions and supply of skilled practitioners.
We have developed a plan to address deficiencies in the system and to support all initiatives geared to promote quality Grade R programmes.
We accept the task of ensuring that Grade R teachers are paid well and know what they are supposed to do.
Working with provinces and districts, we will ensure that teachers teach children every day, that learners have and use textbooks and workbooks, that the curriculum is covered, that learners have transport and lunch and that they are screened and supported where they need additional support.
Together with education partners and stakeholders, including parents and guardians, we must ensure that all children come to school regularly. If we work together we can do more to make a difference in the lives of children, here and elsewhere.
As government departments, we will continue working together to provide integrated service delivery.