First, SONA, now the budget. When will access for preschools and daycares be prioritised?

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The government needs a new strategy and now is the time. Photo: Getty Images
The government needs a new strategy and now is the time. Photo: Getty Images

A month ago, the Early Childhood Development centres (ECDs) expressed concerns around a brief mention of the sector during the State of The Nation Address (SONA) by president Cyril Ramaphosa, stressing the need to be heard and provided with better provisions in the next sitting.

However, it turns out that even the allocated budget is below inflation. 

Sane Mdlalose, Acting CEO at SmartStart a non-profit organisation, is calling for the government to increase budget allocations moving forward to ensure the country can realise its vision of universal access by 2030.

SmartStart is focused on increasing access to early learning for children aged three to five. 

Read: Universal access by 2030? We need to rethink early childhood development.

An average growth rate of 1.7%

Mdlalose says that as an enabler of early learning, SmartStart fully supports the government's plan to achieve universal access to early education by 2030. But if year-on-year budget increases stay at the current level, Mdlalose foresees this goal being off track.

She believes that there is a need to see a significant increase in budget allocations for ECDs to realise this vision.

R1.1-billion has been set aside for ECD subsidies to provide and increase the number of children accessing subsidised ECD services for the 2022 to 2023 period.

But, Mdlalose says that of this budget, R97.9-million is allocated for maintenance improvements to support ECD providers and to pilot new, low-cost ECD centres, representing an average growth rate of 1.7%, one of the lowest growth rates in the basic education budget.

Recalling the president's speech during SONA about a month ago, Mdlalose notes that the government promised to work harder to ensure South African pupils get the quality education they need.

Still, she says that the main challenge for the government lies in figuring out how to create these opportunities and improve access.

According to Mdlalose, at least one million South African children do not have access to any form of early learning, which is an issue that all people, including our communities, interested organisations, and government, need to address before moving forward.

She says that access to early learning programmes is limited, especially in under-serviced communities, for several reasons, including the complex legislation processes involved in setting them up.

Making an example of this, Mdlaliso says that if we look at a simple thing such as registering an early learning programme, complications such as meeting specific building requirements arise.

She says it is difficult for those in informal and other low-income communities to register and receive subsidies from the government, resulting in children being left out.

Mdlalose notes that cost is another factor since many South African parents and caregivers cannot afford schooling for their children from such an early age – even at a nominal rate.

She says that the economists tell us that the return on investment for every rand spent in the early years is substantially higher than for every rand spent on primary, secondary or tertiary education.

This, according to Mdlalose, should encourage government and corporates to invest in early learning and subsidise programme attendance for those in need.

Must read: We speak to pre-school owners about their transition to DBE governance

With the move from the Department of Social Development to the Department of Education by April 2022 for South Africa's ECD sector, Mdlalose says this allows the government to relook at how the industry is structured and make changes necessary to improve the development of children and the quality of early childhood education.

Despite the contribution of many non-profit organisations and dedicated ECD practitioners, Mdlalose says that the dial has barely moved in terms of improved access to quality ECD.

Mdlalose says the knock-on impact on educational outcomes and jobs and businesses are substantial but underappreciated.

She stresses that more of the same approach will not change our children's rights and our economy's necessities. 

Mdlalose proposes that now is the time for the government to have a new strategy.


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