Mr President, to boost South Africa's human capital, start early

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The challenge for Cyril Ramaphosa is how and where the government should intervene to plug the unacceptable early childhood development access gap. With an eye on his State of the Nation Address, there are pledges he can make.

Mr President, to boost South Africa’s human capital, start early
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In this week’s State of the Nation Address (SONA), if the President hopes to weave a coherent narrative around human capital development and economic growth, he needs to start at the beginning – early childhood development (ECD).

Too often, ECD has seemingly been levered into this agenda-setting speech as an afterthought. Yet, for as long as that continues, other policies to improve educational outcomes and boost employment and enterprise will be doomed to a degree of futility.

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The chain of dependencies is straightforward. Economic growth requires a skilled and capable workforce. A skilled and capable workforce requires a high-functioning education system. And evidence the world over tells us that a high-functioning education system requires equitable child development opportunities in the early years.

This progression is the essence of human capital development. And you cannot start at the end.

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The scale of the task is daunting. In South Africa, most children under five years do not attend an ECD programme. For the government to meet its commitment to universal access to early learning for all three- to five-year-olds, an estimated 1.3 million new places at ECD programmes must be created for this age group alone. 

The challenge for President Cyril Ramaphosa, then, is how and where in the system should the government intervene to close this unacceptable ECD access gap. In other words, what are the strategies that will achieve early and material change on the ground? 

There are two important opportunities. For the ECD sector to function optimally and equitably, various state systems must be in place, and appropriate and capable. These include qualifications and training, financing, curriculum and regulation.

Here then is the first pledge that the President can make on Thursday. The government has for some time been working on a second Children’s Amendment Bill which will make much-needed changes to a failing ECD regulatory system. Critically, the bill should enable government funding to support unregistered programmes on their compliance journey, so that children in the most underresourced settings benefit.

But the bill’s progress has stalled and there is no timetable for its parliamentary passage. In SONA, the President should inject renewed impetus to this vital legislative reform, by committing to expedite it by the end of 2022.

The second pledge is more complex. State systems and regulations only solve one part of the ECD access problem – the public framework needed for ECD providers to function and thrive. They do not, by themselves, either unlock new supply or create processes for managed set-up and support of new ECD programmes. They are not, in short, a delivery system.

Without a practitioner pipeline, sufficient venues and a system for managed programme set-up, it will be impossible to improve the supply of ECD programmes. Furthermore, since poor children constitute two-thirds of the provisioning gap, solutions that do not see and respond to the particular challenges faced by low-income communities are likely to simply reproduce existing patterns of exclusion. Unequal access to quality ECD is essentially a structural problem. Rightly or wrongly, the provision of ECD programmes is market-led and dominated by private providers. However, the market is currently failing to expand to reach unserved families and to stimulate latent demand.

This is linked to a further problem. Even if National Treasury were to commit the billions of rands needed to bring ECD expenditure onto a level with the schooling budget, the government has very limited mechanisms for spending such money. The ECD subsidy alone has proven ineffectual at stimulating service expansion. Increasing its dismally low value would help, but without other measures it would be unlikely to succeed in bringing on-stream the thousands of new ECD programmes that are needed.

These two challenges can be understood as a kind of implementation gap – the disparity between an enabling policy framework, and the operational levers required to engineer actual supply of ECD places at scale. Here is also the major gap in the government’s current thinking: how to conceptualise and enable an end-to-end ECD delivery system. 

Mr President, to boost South Africa’s human capital, start early
© Provided by Daily Maverick Poor children constitute two-thirds of the provisioning gap. Solutions that do not see and respond to the particular challenges faced by low-income communities are likely to simply reproduce existing patterns of exclusion. (Photo: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

This type of system is sometimes called a delivery platform. It knits together a series of operational solutions (recruitment, venues, training, funding and micro-enterprise development, to name a few) into an integrated service delivery continuum, which enables at once significant efficiencies and equitable coverage. It also brokers between ECD providers and state systems, ensuring that these systems can realise their goals.

While a national delivery platform prioritises setting up new ECD programmes in underserved communities, it is concerned with the flourishing of the entire ECD ecosystem in which it operates, not with relative advantage. An effective delivery platform partners with other players in the system – NGOs, specialist service providers (such as nutrition and infrastructure) and, most importantly, existing ECD programmes – harnessing their expertise, linking up their contributions, sharing assets and resources, and providing the systems for effective ground-level planning. 

An integrated delivery system of this kind offers multiple benefits to the government, including lower unit costs, process solutions for registration and subsidy disbursement, and, crucially, a viable mechanism for direct state investment in ECD delivery. The government’s role becomes the structuring of new procurement or commissioning arrangements with one or more delivery platforms to deliver its mandate of ensuring universal access to quality services. In this way, the public framework and the delivery platform(s) together become the pillars of a coherent strategy for population-level coverage of ECD programmes.

This signposts the second pledge that the President can make on Thursday – committing to a partnership with innovative, scale-suited delivery systems that can take ECD services to hundreds of thousands of unserved children.

Over the past decade, despite the excellent work of many non-profit organisations and dedicated ECD practitioners, the dial has barely moved in terms of improved access to quality ECD. The knock-on impacts on educational outcomes and jobs and business are substantial, but underappreciated. More of the same will not achieve the step change that is our children’s right and our economy’s necessity. The government needs a new strategy and now is the time. DM/MC

Rebecca Hickman is an independent early childhood education consultant and a SmartStart Associate focusing on public policy and strategy. SmartStart is a national ECD delivery platform committed to achieving population-level change in access to early learning. At the end of 2021 it was reaching 37,000 three- to five-year-olds annually, through more than 5,000 programmes operating in all nine provinces.

 

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