Early childhood development ‘remains an orphan’
Experts baffled as to how this portfolio will be moved to the basic department department, as promised by the president
Education experts are in the dark about an announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa to move the early childhood development portfolio from the department of social development to basic education.
Those surveyed by Times Select say there is no quick fix for the problems facing SA’s young children, many of whom receive no education before Grade 1. The treasury’s 2019 budget also did not give funding for these priorities announced by the president, an economist said.
Ramaphosa announced in his state of the nation address last week that early childhood development centres (ECD), often referred to as crèches or nursery schools, would now fall under the education department’s supervision.
He also said two years of early childhood education or nursery school would become compulsory. “This year we will migrate responsibility for early childhood development (ECD) centres from social development to basic education, and proceed with the process towards two years of compulsory ECD for all children before they enter Grade 1,” said Ramaphosa.
But Stellenbosch education economist Nic Spaull noted in the Financial Mail that finance minister Tito Mboweni’s budget allocations did not address Ramaphosa’s commitment of two years of compulsory early childhood development for all children before starting primary school.
The treasury allocated the early childhood conditional grant, used to subsidise ECD centres, to the department of social development, not education, according to budget expenditure documents.
Equal Education’s Rone Macfarlane said: “There is no clarity on when or how the shift to the department of education will take place.
“It also remains entirely unclear how two years of compulsory ECD for all learners in the country will be funded when the ECD grant is to remain almost stagnant over the next three years, barely keeping up with inflation.”
In budget documents the treasury said that by the end of 2017/18 it had subsidised 60,307 poor children’s early childhood education through the grant. It expected to continue allocating R1.4bn over the next three years. Linda Biersteker, head of Unesco’s Cape Town-based early learning research unit, said discussions about the department of education taking over have been going on for a while and it was a “positive move” in the long term. “But in the short term ... it is not clear to anybody I have asked how this is going to work.” The department of social development receives money so it can give subsidies to registered early childhood centres and poorer children, but there is no “specific” information on how the department of education will take over this subsidy process.
UCT adjunct professor Eric Atmore, who runs the Centre for Early Childhood Development, said the change of departments has “been a long time coming”.
“The ANC conference at Nasrec in 2017 called for [the education deptartment to take over]. But we can’t really say if it is a good decision.
“Where the portfolio is located does not matter until there is political will to meet the needs of young children. The decision will not advance young children unless the issues facing them are addressed.”
Atmore, a social worker by profession, said it didn’t matter which part of the government took over subsidising creches. The bigger problem was that the creches that needed money most didn't get it. The government provides a platform for registration of crèches and provides subsides to 25% of centres, he said. Many can’t get registered for funding because their infrastructure is too poor, he said. “The common factors at many ECD centres are untrained adult [teachers], watery soup, a lack of nutritious food, no educational resources and no learning programmes.”
David Harrison, CEO of the DG Murray Trust, an NGO for early childhood education, agreed: “Obviously, very poor communities can’t meet infrastructure requirements for crèches to register in order to meet the funding requirements.”
He wrote that the move would make sense because “early learning is the educational orphan in South Africa, attracting only 1-2% of the total budget for public education”, and bringing it under the ambit of the basic education department could increase this in the future.
He said the department of education taking over did not mean it must provide early childhood development at schools.
“Schools are in no way ready for a four-year-old.”
He added that communities must continue to provide crèches for young children but needed training, materials and financial support, and teachers from the state.
“The established network of crèches is not reaching enough children. The logical thing is to continue to build the network.”
He said “half of the 15,000 current early child development practitioners are unqualified and need training”.
In 2018, Statistics SA released a report on early childhood education, using data it had collected.
This showed that half of the poorest 20% of all children did not attend nursery school or crèche, while 40% of the children in the highest household income quintile attended early childhood development facilities.
Asked about how the change would take place and why funding was still going to the department of social development instead of education, education department spokesperson Lumka Oliphant said:
“The department acknowledges the pronouncement of the policy on early childhood development to shift it from the department of social department to the department of basic education. The two departments have already started with meetings to finalise a migration plan to be considered by the two respective ministers. The migration plan will take into consideration the role that social development will continue to play in the provision of ECD.”