Early Learning: The Great Equalizer for South Africa

Education has always been thought of as one of our greatest tools for liberation. We used it to overcome colonialism and Apartheid. But after 24 years of democracy, can education liberate us from the persistent legacy of racial inequality that continues to plague the country? Research suggests that an effective way of using education to dislodge inequality would be to pick up this powerful tool before Grade 1.

As the Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke recently noted, Early Childhood Development (ECD) needs to be a greater priority in South Africa. He is right. ECD provides an underutilised opportunity to bridge inequality. For example, StatsSA’s fourth instalment of the Education Series indicates that the proportion of white children enrolled in formal ECD centres was greater than that of other population groups, and the same group has the highest proportion of post-secondary education holders in the country. The correlation between early learning, high educational achievement and household incomes is undeniably strong. And so, quite simply, to boost every child’s chances of success in life, all children will need to have access to early learning.

Across the world, research shows that children who attend more than one year of pre-school have higher educational outcomes later in life, regardless of their socioeconomic background.  Access to quality early learning is one of THE most powerful ways of ensuring that children can use education to escape poverty. In a country like ours, where inequality is particularly stubborn, making quality early learning accessible to all can help us begin to break the cycle of the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Quality early learning can be the great equalizer South Africa needs, as it gives all children the opportunity to make the most of the educational opportunities they will receive regardless of their background.

Just over half of all the children who entered Grade 1 in 2006 finished Matric in 2017. So what happened to the rest?

The first 5 years of life lay the foundations for a child’s lifelong development. This is the period of life when children learn to learn. Indeed children learn vital pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills that prepare the groundwork for them to read, write and do Maths in the next stage of their educational journey.  Building on this crucial priming, Foundation phase education (Grade 1-4) then teaches children, among other things, to learn to read, thus enabling them to ultimately read to learn across the subjects in the rest of their educational journey. However, if their reading, writing and numeracy foundations are weak, these children are bound to perform poorly academically and drop out later in their schooling.

So, if we are serious about winning the battle against low educational achievement, then we must have a long-term perspective on education. We need to ensure that as many children as possible have access to quality early learning as a critical way of ensuring that all those who enter Grade 1 can complete Matric.

If pre-school reduces socio-economic inequalities in educational performance, then it would logically follow that we should give every child this advantage to succeed later in life. Beyond questions of political will, we face the problem of not being able to actually provide quality early learning to all children in need, despite the National Development’s Plan of universal coverage by 2030.   The problem is both insufficient funds and the lack of a service delivery platform for scaling up early learning.  Unlike education and schools, which have the national scaffolding to build on, early childhood education is mainly provided by local subsistence entrepreneurs who have neither the means nor the desire to keep growing their numbers. If they are registered, they are eligible for a state subsidy.  If not, they rely entirely on parents’ fees.  In effect, the system is blind to all young children who do not attend registered centres.  Ironically, they tend to be the children who would benefit most from early learning services.

One of the possible mechanisms for ramping up service provision fairly swiftly is social franchising, where many of the features of commercial franchising – such as a strong brand and standardised ingredients and processes – are employed. Encouragingly, a number of quality social franchises are starting to mushroom across the country.

For example, SmartStart is a social franchise committed to delivering quality early learning to all, prioritizing the poorest. It aims to provide access to early learning to one million children between the ages of 3 and 5 in South Africa by the year 2026. In just over 2 years, it has been running programmes in 2 334 ECD centres that serve 16 371 children.

How does SmartStart achieve this? By working with existing centres (including child minders and informal playgroups) that join the SmartStart network across the country. After performing background checks, SmartStart also selects, trains and licenses unemployed women and men to run their own SmartStart early learning programmes. The training enables them to become early learning activists and ambassadors in their own communities.  In effect, practitioners join a club that both equips them and gives them a sense of pride and status.

The SmartStart recipe includes a mechanism of rigorous quality assurance that not only ensures that the curriculum is appropriately followed, but that also ensures facilities are safe and stimulating for the children. It offers an innovative and sustainable solution to providing early learning at scale.

SmartStart’s CEO, Grace Matlhape, notes that, in general, where people live currently determines the quality of education their children will get. SmartStart’s standardised early learning programmes solves this problem: You get the same quality input in Cape Town and the rural Eastern Cape.

In light of how high the stakes are, it is striking that there is little public outcry about the need to democratize the advantage of the “head start” that access to early learning provides. All children deserve the right to good quality early learning before Grade 1. Early learning is not only a democratic imperative, but it is also an economic development imperative that will ensure a significant return on our education investment. If we are serious about ending inequality we need to give every child in South Africa this trajectory-setting advantage.

Written by Dr. Sebabatso Manoeli who heads DGMT’s work towards the goal of “All Children on Track by Grade 4”

Learn more about SmartStart at the video below: