SA’s early childhood development sector in the balance

30 SEPTEMBER 2020 – 13:00 GABRIELLE WILLS AND JANELI KOTZÉ & JESAL KIKA-MISTRYPicture: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Lucky Maibi

The future of SA’s early childhood development sector is uncertain, with Covid eroding previous gains

Following the declaration of a state of national disaster to contain the spread of Covid-19, operators of early childhood development (ECD) programmes across SA were instructed to close on March 18. The closure of ECD programmes at the time was probably well understood, but the process of reopening has been both confusing and contentious.

The Pretoria high court ruled on July 6 that ECD programmes could resume immediately, subject to meeting safety standards. Yet by the end of July, the sector was operating at less than a quarter of its pre-lockdown levels.

This is revealed in the wave 2 results from the largest nonmedical Covid-19 research project in SA: the Nids-Cram survey.

Before the lockdown, 38% of Nids-Cram adult respondents in households with children aged nought to six indicated that at least one child was attending an ECD programme. By mid-July to mid-August, that estimate was just 5%.

We used these patterns in Nids-Cram to infer what happened to ECD attendance rates among children. We estimate that just 13% of children aged nought to six were attending ECD programmes by mid-July to mid-August, down from the 47% Stats SA’s general household survey recorded in 2018.

Against a trend of significant expansion in access to ECD programmes, the fall in attendance has been dramatic. The last time ECD attendance rates were this low was in the early 2000s. If the decline in enrolment is permanent, 20 years of progress in expanding ECD services to children could be significantly eroded.

But why are attendance rates so low if the sector has been allowed to reopen? Nids-Cram asked respondents for the main reason children had not returned to ECD programmes. Two-thirds of responses related to supply-side constraints such as “the temporary closure of ECD programmes” (55%), centres being “not yet ready to reopen” (6%) and programmes having “closed down permanently” (4%).

This is confirmed by a second survey assessing the impact of Covid on ECD, conducted by a collaboration of partners in the sector, namely Bridge, Ilifa Labantwana, the National ECD Alliance, SmartStart and the SA Congress for ECD.

The main reasons cited by ECD practitioners for not having reopened were: “We cannot afford to buy the health and hygiene things we need to reopen” (42%); and “We don’t have enough money to reopen” (35%). A further 15% said they were not able to meet the department of social development’s requirements for reopening.

Operators’ decisions not to reopen may also relate to the inability of parents to pay fees. The ECD sector has been undersubsidised relative to schooling, and is heavily reliant on caregivers’ ability to pay fees. For example, in 2018 fees were charged for 74%-87% of children aged nought to six enrolled at ECD programmes.

ECD operators may be reluctant to incur additional costs to operate in compliance with Covid-19 safety regulations when the payment of fees is highly uncertain.

Despite these challenges, some children were more likely to return than others: those in urban areas (vs rural) and those in households where other learners had attended school in the past seven days.

We also found that if respondents had stable employment or were “not worried” or “only a little worried” about Covid-19, children were more likely to have returned.

With at least 1.5-million fewer children attending ECD programmes by mid-August, who has taken on the burden of child care?

WHAT IT MEANS:

The temporary closure of ECD programmes has far-reaching implications for child development

We found little evidence that child care has been “outsourced”: 88% of Nids-Cram respondents indicated that either they themselves, or another adult in the household, were looking after children who hadn’t returned to ECD programmes.

Women, in particular, were bearing the brunt of additional child care: three-quarters of female respondents, against a quarter of male respondents, said they were looking after children who hadn’t returned to ECD programmes.

The temporary closure of ECD programmes doesn’t only affect child care; it has far-reaching implications for child development, job losses in the sector and government spending.

If the closures become permanent, the government will have to rebuild an ECD infrastructure that, to date, has largely been delivered by nonstate providers.

Quite simply, SA cannot afford to have this sector fold. A swift intervention is needed to save it, and limit the ripple effect of programme closures on multiple layers of society.

*Wills is a researcher at, and Kika-Mistry a PhD candidate with, the research on socioeconomic policy unit at Stellenbosch University; Kotzé is deputy director of research co-ordination, monitoring and evaluation at the department of basic education

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