Nolwandle Mthombeni | Early childhood: The silent casualty of Covid-19

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Nolwandle Mthombeni
Nolwandle Mthombeni
  • Curro, the largest private education group, has said that under-performance in its early childhood development centres led it to consider phased closures.
  • It is not alone in this predicament – creches have had the highest dropout rate during the pandemic.
  • But the first five years of a child's life are critical for future learning, so it is essential that the ECD industry must survive, says the author.


The decision around the reopening of schools has been a contentious one, even with the government receiving the necessary sign-off from medical experts.

Confirmation from the numerous experts has not removed the concerns amongst many parents around the low risk. Despite learning having resumed in its many forms, there is still a significantly lower enrolment in Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres, more commonly known as creches and daycare centres. Many parents have not sent their children back to creches, preferring instead to keep them home.

That option exists because the schooling system is only compulsory from the age of seven years old, during which time children enrol in grade one.

Closure of creches

Curro, the largest private education group, recently indicated that following the plight and underperformance of the ECD portion of their schools, relative to other segments, they were looking to close some of their creches in a phased manner.

Creches had the highest dropout rate, with many parents opting to return the children only next year. The declining enrolments are not unique to Curro, as the entire industry is facing the same challenges.

Standalone ECD centres do not fall under the Basic Education department; instead, they fall under the Department of Social Development. As expected, their reopening has been less of a priority compared to schools. Unlike formal schooling, there are no set curricula to be adhered to under ECD programmes. Age is one of the primary determinants in progressing to the next class.

Online learning not an option

With the lockdown in place, online learning has emerged amongst many schools to save the academic year. This, however, is not a viable solution for younger children attending ECD centres. Toddlers, for example, are still developing sensory skills such as speaking and touching, so as a result, they require physical contact.

ECD centres were, therefore, unable to provide a service that parents were willing to pay for during the more restricted stages of the lockdown.

Another well-known role of ECD centres is to take care of children while parents are at work. Parents having to work from home have had to take on the arduous task of juggling work and the demands of their children. However, the fear of Covid-19 has many biting the bullet a little bit longer. The result of this is that many centres will operate below capacity for many more months to come.

Ramifications

With the industry coming under severe pressure, it is worthwhile to consider what ramifications a decision like that of Curro’s will have. Although ECD programmes are deemed valuable, they aren’t mandatory, which means that the industry will always be vulnerable to high churn in enrolments. The pandemic has resulted in subdued demand that is likely transient, especially with many parents indicating a willingness to resume sending children to creches next year.

Additionally, the supply effects are likely to be permanent, as several centres will shut down involuntarily. The above means that the ECD industry will struggle to grow in the medium term.

The first five years

Many studies have shown that the first five years of a child’s life are the most important, as there is a level of growth and development that occurs during this stage that builds the foundation for future learning.

ECD centres play a crucial role in this development. The predominant narrative around ECD centres is that they are places where working parents leave their children, and where children receive the necessary stimulation.

The perceived role of these centres in our society should be more encompassing, given the importance of those early years of a child’s development. Imagine the narrative and marketing around ECD programmes changed to also consider that they are where children begin their journeys as astronauts or world-renown entrepreneurs.

With the closure of more ECD centres on the horizon, it has meant that the industry will need to put up a bigger fight for their place in society. This is exacerbated by the subliminal message that a large corporate like Curro sends in choosing to allocate fewer resources to this segment. The decision in itself may be financial, but it underscores the value placed on the foundation phase for learners enrolling in its schools.

In a world where we are still fighting Covid-19, it is unfortunately not the opportune time to try to convince society of the relevance of early childhood development. Nor is it about alleviating fear amongst parents that is warranted when death is involved.

Saving the industry

We do, however, need to come up with ways to keep the industry alive and relevant. Some initiatives can be embarked on in the meantime to get the ball rolling. One action, for example, is the industry partnering with major book retailers or local libraries on the formation of children’s book clubs that cater to all ages.

These book clubs will provide parents with the guidance and access to the appropriate reading material specific to their children’s ages. Several parents working from home will rely on Google to confirm whether their child’s developments are in line with their age group. This provides an opportunity for the ECD industry to intermediate Google and offer online assessments or check-ups for parents wanting tips or guidance on activities around the development.

There is a level of expertise that providers of ECD programmes have, that can be leveraged into providing multiple services for parents. Doing this will enhance the relevance not only of the ECD centre itself but also the industry.

ECD centres should also consider offering more options around attendance, while the demand is low. If it is financially feasible, there should be a consideration in giving parents more flexibility on when and how long they want their children to be at daycare. Another possible business model is one of offering pop-up classes on weekends that focus on specific learning areas. We have seen this concept work with gyms, food, and clothing, and it can be replicated with ECD programmes.

If there is going to be one good thing that can come of this pandemic, it should be more innovation and creativity. We should come up with new ways to create longevity to all industries affected.

Education is especially important, and I hope society can place a more significant emphasis on those first five years of a child’s development. Going forward, we should find ways to grow, not shrink, the industry.

Nolwandle Mthombeni is an analyst at Mergence Investment Managers. Views expressed are her own. 

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