Why Is Our Education System Letting Down Poor Children So Badly?

In my last post, I gave a snapshot of the deplorable educational outcomes for most children in South Africa’s failing educational system. In this post, I want to highlight one of the factors contributing to the situation: the lack of access for most of our children to quality pre-school learning opportunities, as a direct result of which most children are not ready to learn when they enter school. 

It is a well-established fact that the groundwork for a child’s lifelong development is laid in the first five years of life – this is when children learn to learn. Recognising this, both the National Development Plan and the National Early Childhood Development Policy of 2015 committed the government to ensure that every child in South Africa will have access to the full range of early childhood development (ECD) services by 2030. Typically these include mother and child health care, social services (grants), support for primary caregivers, nutrition and early learning opportunities.

In the eight years since 2015, there has been some progress in access to pre-natal clinics and childcare grants. But more than a quarter of children under five are stunted, indicative of long-term malnutrition. And the Thrive by Five report published in April 2022 revealed that in the last quarter of 2021, approximately 28% of all South African children were not attending any kind of pre-school learning programme. (For children in the poorest 40% of households, the position is even worse – less than half were attending an early learning programme in 2021.

Of the children who did have access to an early learning programme of some kind, less than half were able to do the learning tasks expected of children their age. And more than a quarter were so far behind the expected standard that they will need intensive educational interventions in order to cope in the Grade R foundation year of school (which of course they are unlikely to receive).

So it is hardly surprising that an estimated 82% of children are unable to read for meaning by the time they reach grade 4. And inevitably children who enter school without a proper foundation for learning have a greatly reduced chance of emerging with an education which adequately equips them to lead productive and fulfilling lives. 

Until last year, responsibility for early childhood development (ECD) was in the hands of our national Department of Social Development (DSD). Suffice it to say that over this period access to ECD remained pathetically low and whatever was available was generally of poor quality (with some wonderful exceptions, of course). 

However, one notable achievement during this time was the introduction of a government grant to registered ECD centres for each child in attendance. Shamefully, on several occasions, it was necessary for organisations like the Centre for Early Childhood Education to launch legal proceedings to force the DSD to actually pay the per diem grants to which registered ECD centres are entitled.

Sadly COVID-19 and the lockdown had a dramatic negative impact on early learning. According to UCT’s Children’s Institute, 2020 saw a rapid reversal of the gains made over the previous two decades in early learning access for 5-6 year-olds. The closure of early learning programmes was compounded by difficulties in the registration procedures for re-opening and delays and administrative obstacles in funding flows to early learning centres.

Responsibility for ECD finally shifted to the national Department of Basic Education (DBE) in April 2022. It is too early to assess whether the switch to the DBE will have a positive impact on access to quality ECD but one year later the important process of registration of ECD centres (without which they cannot receive the R17 per day per child grant) remains cumbersome and time-consuming. And one reason for this is that the DBE – as with its predecessor – seems to see its role as a passive licence grantor rather than an active facilitator of the registration process. In large measure, it has fallen to civil society organisations such as Ilifa Labantwana to assist ECD centres to navigate the registration process.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the DBE lacks the political will, the energy and the capability to ensure that the government delivers on its promises that by 2030 every child in South Africa will have access to the full range of full of ECD services and that every 10-year-old child will be able to read for meaning. In July 2020, the Financial and Fiscal Commission listed the lack of political will and prioritisation as one of six implementation obstacles that must be addressed by the government before ECD can move to a higher trajectory. One – the shift of ECD responsibility from the DSD to the DBE – has now been addressed. The others are poor targeting of funding, lack of up-to-date data (partially addressed with the publication of the 2021 ECD Census), poor inter-governmental co-ordination and the lack of qualified ECD teachers. We can confidently predict that the government’s task of overcoming the remaining implementation hurdles will not be accomplished in the near future.

In my next post, I will suggest some ways in which the private sector can and should help to convert the government’s rhetoric into reality.