Creating safer ‘centres’ for early learning

Over the past 5 years there has been significant growth in government’s spending in the early childhood development (ECD) space. In 2010 the Minister of Finance announced that social development spending, which provides welfare services and early childhood development programmes, was set to grow from R9.3 billion in 2009/10 to R12.2 billion by 2012/13 – a significant  stride for early childhood development in South Africa. Even more encouraging was government’s growing realisation of the importance of early childhood education, which has been clearly prioritised in the National Development Plan released in 2011. That same year further financial provision was given to the Department of Basic Education to formalise early childhood education by introducing Grade R and incorporating ECD centres into all newly built primary schools – an important step as it legitimizes the importance of early childhood education. 

The challenge though with allocating additional resources lies in how to ensure that the end recipient – poor and vulnerable children – benefit from these resources.  For many years, our society has been trapped in a centre based model – a building with 1.5m2 for every child, a toilet and hand basin for every 20 children and so on.  While this is the ideal, it is not practical in a country where an estimated 70% of children have no access to early learning opportunities, and where poor infrastructure and transport – especially in rural areas – are major barriers to a centre based model.

To resolve this, in 2012, government started to look around for examples of non-centre based services which were delivering a quality programme.  One of the models identified was Cotlands early learning playgroup model where groups of up to 20 children can access a high impact programme twice a week, within walking distance of where they live.  This model is useful in that it does not require a large cadre of trained personnel, it can be relatively easily taken to scale, it can be implemented anywhere where there is a group of children – community or church halls, homesteads, converted containers, even outside in good weather.  As the programme draws its resources from toy libraries, it is also cost-effective.

So here we had a model and an agreement with the department of social development (DSD) to fund it on a “per child per play session” basis, which presented the next challenge.  DSD cannot fund a service that is not registered, and the ECD sub-directorate requires that both the facility and the programme meets prescribed requirements.  At provincial level an agreement was reached to just register the programme, but the DSD representatives on the ground still insisted that each site had to meet the facility standards, even though this was a non-centre based model.  The end result was a six month delay in signing the service level agreements, with the corresponding delay in funding.  Cotlands fortunately has the resources to cover the operational costs outside of government funding, but if the model is taken to scale, new implementing partners would probably need to have the funding available from the offset.  

A third challenge is to get people to accept that two four-hour sessions a week can substantially improve children’s cognitive, social and physical development, and that play is the way that children learn. While there is substantial research that supports four-hour twice a week play based sessions there has been little ‘marketing’ of this research especially at grassroots level. As a result communities as well as individuals working in this sector have little understanding of the impact a model such as this could have.