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

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"At least a million children are not in ECD programmes." Photo: Getty Images.
"At least a million children are not in ECD programmes." Photo: Getty Images.

The South African government has an objective that by 2030, every young child in South Africa will be able to access quality early childhood development (ECD) programmes.

This is commendable, but what can we do about the 3.5 million children who cannot access ECD programmes?

Government and civil society need to rethink their strategic approach to ECD and create a more holistic approach to children's needs for stimulation and care.

Empowering parents to lead their children's early development is a necessary part of the strategy to achieve this goal.

ECD has been a 'hot topic' for the South African government recently. In his 2019 State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that ECD would migrate away from the Department of Social Development and be housed within the Department of Basic Education (DBE) as of April 2022.

The Basic Education Minister said this change includes "strategically ramping up the provision of ECD."

On top of this, the DBE has set an admirable objective: to ensure universal access to quality ECD programmes for all young children across South Africa by 2030.

Read: 'I wonder what it will take?': Preschools and daycares want to be prioritised during elections

In 2021, DBE's budget was raised by almost R4 billion from last year - although the budget will decrease again in the next two years.

However, as Dr Monica Stach, Chairperson of the National ECD Alliance, pointed out, "we have a very ambitious goal to have universal access [to ECD] by 2030 ... there is at least R34 billion gap in the financial commitment by the government to achieve this."

Sufficient governmental budgets and a large, qualified workforce are just two elements needed to achieve universal access. This will take political commitment, time and resources.

  • So what can be done about children who are not accessing ECD centres presently or are likely to never have access?
  • Can we think more holistically about what constitutes ECD?
  • And can we adopt a more viable and feasible strategy?

At least a million children are not in ECD programmes

The ECD sector in South Africa is a patchwork made up of formal and informal services supported by numerous NGOs and government departments. Most ECD centres require parents to pay fees.

This year, the Department of Social Development highlighted statistics from StatsSA that point to more than 3.5 million of South Africa's 0-5-year olds who do not access any form of the early learning programme.

Must read: 'We are delighted': All preschools and daycares now included in the next vaccine roll-out

ECD and universal access: thinking outside the box

ECD is about children's holistic development. An ecosystem that supports children to develop well does not start with creches: it starts in homes.

The South African government and civil society would do well to consider ECD more holistically by developing an ecosystem that supports the child as a whole.

As a start, programmes that empower caregivers and parents to support the development of their own children is an integral first step to improve ECD - especially for the one million children whose families simply cannot afford to send them to ECD programmes.

Supporting the implementation of programmes for parents will be vital in achieving the 2030 goal of universal access to ECD for all children.

Dialogic book-sharing - in which an adult and a young child interact together over a wordless picture book - is a cheap and easy way to improve the ECD of children at home.

Also read: 'The forgotten sector': ECD teachers excluded from vaccine rollout

Academic research, which took place with a group of mothers and children in Khayelitsha, found that dialogic book-sharing improves a child's language and attention skills.

Early indications from research have also found that book-sharing makes a significant contribution to reducing violent and aggressive behaviour in children.

By training book-sharing facilitators in government and NGO service providers, The Mikhulu Child Development Trust is working towards book-sharing becoming a reality in homes across the country.

As part of a systemic approach, we are implementing a "whole of society approach" to supporting parents of young children, funded by the DG Murray Trust.

As part of this, we are capacitating Community Health Workers in the Western Cape Department of Health to support mothers in their First Thousand Days programme on early stimulation and book-sharing.

We are also training and mentoring librarians working in libraries across the province to implement the book-sharing programme - this programme has been particularly welcomed as it gives librarians a tool to attract parents of children who are too young to read.

We invite the National Department of Social Development and the National Department of Basic Education to join us in rethinking how they can use our work to improve ECD access in South Africa through parents.

Submitted to News24 by Mikhulu Child Development Trust

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