How can the private sector help to improve public education in South Africa?

In my previous post, I shared some statistics which illustrate how poorly equipped so many of our children are when they begin formal schooling. I believe it is incontrovertible that this is attributable in large measure to the lack of access to quality early learning opportunities. Taylor & Spaull (Chapter 16, What works and what scales, 2022) identify quality improvement in ECD as one of the strategically important – and most cost-effective – interventions needed to improve reading and mathematics outcomes at a national level.

As dire and depressing as the current situation is, South Africa really does have the expertise, the learnings and the resources required to ensure that every child is ready to learn by the time he or she enters Grade 1. There is a host of wonderful organisations doing excellent work in support of ECD initiatives, a few of which I will highlight in my next post. Over recent years, a significant number of ECD programmes have provided valuable lessons on which interventions actually work. And there is an active and committed academic community analysing the available data information to determine which interventions have the most impact, are most cost-effective and have scalable potential. And for all its implementation failings, I do believe that our government genuinely believes that universal access to ECD is crucial and is at least trying to make more funding available: the 2023 national budget does include increases to the ECD conditional grant and there are plans to provide additional resources for ECD.

No alt text provided for this image

It is worth noting that civil society organisations believe that it is still possible to achieve universal access to quality ECD by 2030 provided that all sectors of society get involved. So what can be done and what role is there for the private sector?

It is the government’s role and obligation to provide the resources necessary to ensure that every pre-school child has access to quality early learning opportunities. Some years ago it was estimated that government spends approximately 5% of national expenditure (R75 bn at that time) on ECD, most of which goes to primary healthcare for mothers and children and childcare grants, with less than R500 million spent on early learning, nutrition support and parenting interventions.

The DBE’s budget for 2023/4 includes a grant of R5.5 billion over the next three years to provide subsidies for children accessing ECD services, infrastructure support for ECD providers and a pilot programme to construct low-cost ECD centres. (Other departments receive grants to be used for primary healthcare for mothers, children and childcare grants, child social welfare services and other interventions.) A further R228 million has been allocated to provide ‘ECD resource packages’ in 2023/4 and to improve the DBE’s capacity to support and provide oversight of ECD.³ To put matters in perspective, total corporate social expenditure (CSI) in South Africa in 2022 was an estimated R10,9 billion, of which approximately R1.3 bn was spent on ECD.

So what contribution can the private sector make? I subscribe to the view that private money (including CSI spending) is best used to influence how government discharges its ECD responsibility.  

Here are three ideas on how this might be done.

  1. Establish an independent fund to direct financial support on a coordinated basis towards those programmes which have demonstrated their potential to make a significant impact on access to quality ECD and to be taken to scale. Two recent examples point the way. The Solidarity Fund established in 2020 did an admirable job of mobilising and utilising philanthropic and private-sector funding in support of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. And more recently, the Government has established protocols to allow the National Prosecuting Authority to accept donor funding.
  2. There is a unique opportunity for investors and operating companies (IPPs) in the renewable energy sector to use their social and economic development (SED) and enterprise development (ED) budgets to ensure that every pre-school child in their beneficiary communities receives access to good quality early learning opportunities.
  3. Several innovative funding structures to mobilise funding for ECD have been developed and with proper support from impact investors could be used to ramp up the funding needed to deliver universal access to ECD.

In my next post, I will explore the first of these ideas.