Panyaza Lesufi | A new era in early childhood development: Let's invest in our collective future

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"About 180 000 ECD teachers work with about 2.5-million children; and they are in direct contact each and every day." Photo: Getty Images
"About 180 000 ECD teachers work with about 2.5-million children; and they are in direct contact each and every day." Photo: Getty Images

"When the democratic government assumed power 28 years ago, it identified early childhood development (ECD) as a potential strategy to redress the inequalities of apartheid. However, with decades of well-funded apartheid preschools and years of underfunded township elementary education centres and voluntary kinder-gardens, the notion that an educated populace is a foundation for a strong and just society has continued to elude the Rainbow Nation," writes Panyaza Lesufi.  


Fortunately, after years of research and policy formations, including the National Integrated Early Childhood Policy (NIECDP) aimed at providing needed information, prioritising solutions to facilitate social change and ultimately address poverty and inequality, improve the development of children and the quality of early childhood education, from April 1, 2022, the ECD sector will no longer be run by the Department of Social Development (DSD), but by the Department of Basic Education (DBE).

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

So why should the ECD sector be run by the DBE and no longer by the DSD?

In line with many other countries that have moved from viewing ECD less as a child protection function and more as an early learning function that is led and coordinated by national ministries of education, this shift is a purely administrative process where functions, or roles and responsibilities, are transferred from one minister to another.

This will mean that the DBE will become responsible for everything that the DSD was responsible for in delivering, funding, registering, monitoring and supporting the ECD sector.

Quality ECD narrowed the achievement gap

This move does not take away the fact that multiple studies conducted all over the world indicate that quality early childhood education results in a narrowing of the achievement gap, increased brain development, lower retention rates and special education placements, and increased growth of both academic and social-skill acquisition for children participating.

Connecting neuroscience, economics, and early childhood, Pat Levitt, director of the Neuroscience Graduate Programme at the University of Southern California, says early experiences affect the brain's architecture.

Levitt argues, rightly so, that just like building a house, when it comes to brain architecture, it's better to get it right the first time than to try to fix it later.

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

Regulating ECD Sector practices

A Project Management Team consisting of officials from the DBE and DSD and technical advisors and workstreams have taken Levitt's advice and worldwide research to heart and engaged various experts and looked at required norms and standards, systems and funding processes to register ECD programmes, as well as regulate the ECD sector practices.

From April 1, the DBE will lead the implementation of the National Curriculum Framework, National Early Learning and Development Standards, the National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy and The Policy on Minimum Requirements for Programmes Leading to Qualifications in Higher Education for Early Childhood Development Educators.

Consistent research demonstrates that quality early learning programmes reduce disadvantages and result in fewer behaviour problems, improve school outcomes, increase high school graduation rates and reduce criminal activity.

ECD Programmes long-term benefits

Investing in early childhood education and a high-quality learning experience for our youngest generates long-term benefits and returns to students enrolled in the ECD programmes and the community.

It is worth restating that based on evaluations of well-conceived programmes, the first few years of a child are essential in so far as character development is concerned.

It has been demonstrated that children who participate in ECD programmes tend to be more successful in school, are more competent socially and emotionally, show better verbal, intellectual and physical development during early childhood than those not enrolled in high-quality programmes.

Indeed, time and time again, research has shown that children who lack literacy and language skills by third Grade will not catch up.

Studies and research have argued that for every cent invested in particular types of early childhood programmes, the government saves money by not having to spend additional funds on future social and educational services for the children who benefited from the programme. Therefore properly funded programmes will keep you, the taxpayer, and money.

Indeed, it is common knowledge that children who enjoy quality early childhood education are likelier to graduate from high school, pursue higher education and earn higher lifetime salaries and benefits. They're also less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, commit crimes or rely on public assistance.

Also see: 'Where is the money?': Preschools and daycares protest over stimulus fund non-payment

Other benefits include:

  • Higher intelligence scores.
  • Less Grade repetition and lower dropout rates.
  • Improved parent and child relationships.
  • Economic self–sufficiency in the future.

Indeed, shifting the ECD function from DSD to DBE will boost the quality of early childhood development.

Streamlining the continuum of education

The DBE has developed a 10-year sector plan to ensure that all ECD programmes providing early learning and development opportunities are registered and funded by the DBE by 2030.

From an international perspective, no doubt consolidating early learning within the DBE would streamline the continuum of education and create positive pressure for greater resource allocation to ECD as a mechanism for preventing the educational disparities we currently see in the Foundation Phase grades and beyond.

The DBE will become responsible for ensuring universal availability, adequate quality, and equitable access to inclusive learning opportunities for children aged birth until the year before they enter formal school.

Indeed, the DBE will fulfil this responsibility through the development, delivery, regulation, registration, quality monitoring, improvement and evaluation of early childhood development programmes.

Strong family values and ECD

High-quality early childhood programmes can be life-changing. We applaud the dedicated teachers and early childhood advocates who work tirelessly to give children a strong start in life.

Across our nation, about 180 000 ECD teachers work with about 2.5-million children; and they are in direct contact every day. As parents, let us remember that it is not their job alone.

When both home and early care and education environments are safe, responsive, language-rich, and support a variety of learning experiences, children thrive.

Of course, as educators, we understand that all parents want to foster positive, healthy growth and development in their children.

Still, not all have equal access to the resources that make it possible. The vitality of any nation is driven by the commitment and engagement of its people.

An engaged citizenry, a culture defined by solid family values, drives the dynamism of parents and communities.

When parents know what to look for in their child's development and what to do to support it, they are better able to meet the needs of their children. Improved parenting skills also enhance employability and economic stability.

The power of proactive parent- ECD teacher partnerships will direct the trajectory of our children's education toward success in school and life.

Let us heed the advice of business magnate, software developer, investor, author, and philanthropist, Bill Gates when he said: "The first five years have so much to do with how the next 80 turn out."

Let's invest in early childhood. Let's invest in our collective future.

- Panyaza Lesufi is a Gauteng Member of Executive Council for Education


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