As we move into 2017 we are seeing a growing momentum in foundational actions taken, at a departmental level, for implementation of the national ECD Policy.

This issue of the Policy Post reflects on several key publications which are encouraging in that they reflect focused and strategic recognition, and actioning of ECD as a national priority.

DBE publishes the TIMMS results which show education improvements are linked to early education

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is a credible and internationally benchmarked indicator of the quality of South Africa’s education, and our progress in improving the learning outcomes of children in the critical areas of mathematics and science. South Africa has participated in the TIMMS assessment, along with 58 other countries. Historically, South Africa has scored very poorly. However, the 2015 TIMSS results marked a turning point, with South Africa’s maths and science achievement scores improving, for the first time, from ‘very low’ to a ‘low’ national average. Out of all participating countries, South Africa showed the largest improvement – 87 points in maths and 90 points in science. In addition, the results show a leveling of the education playing fields – the difference between the highest and lowest scores dropped from 205 to 77 points between 2003 and 2015.

Of critical importance is the observed correlation between low socio-economic status and poorer outcomes. For example, learners living in households with flush toilets and running water scored an average 55 points higher in their maths scores than those who do not. Whilst this remain cause for concern, the TIMMS results show that early and sustained access to quality early childhood education improve the educational outcomes for vulnerable children. There was a direct and statistically significant observable difference in the maths results of children who attended quality pre-school, with the improvements increasing with the number of years of pre-school attended. The impact was most marked in fee paying, as opposed no-fee public schools, suggesting that the full benefit of early education depends, not only on the quality of early learning but also the extent to which a quality learning environment is then sustained once the child enters formal schooling.

Additional notable findings from the TIMMS study are that, despite the improvements, children’s educational opportunities and outcomes remain highly unequal – with children’s gender, home and school environments being key determinants of their outcomes. Boys, especially from vulnerable families, achieved lower maths scores across all tested grades. This is not inevitable though and there is significant scope for ramping up the improvements and achieving much more robust equality. What parents do with their children influences their achievements: Socio-economic factors and early education environments influence later achievement. Maintaining the upward trajectory in our TIMMS results depends on how well we implement the ECD policy, paying attention to the goals of equitable access to quality early learning experiences from as early as possible.

Click here to view a copy of the TIMMS report as well as useful summary of the results and implications presented to the Basic Education Portfolio Committee.

DBE’s Annual Performance Plan for 2017/2018 commits to improving ECD

The DBE is not resting on its laurels. It has taken note of the findings of studies such as the TIMMS assessment report, and committed, in the current strategic planning period to expand access to ECD and improve the quality of Grade R, with support for pre-Grade R provision.

The DBE’s Annual Performance Plan for the period 2017 – 2018 commits to the following interventions in furtherance of its goal 11 – to improve access of children to ECD below Grade 1:

  1. Monitor and support implementation of the National Curriculum Framework for Children 0- 4 years
  2. Monitor and support implementation of the National Strategy for Learner Attainment (NSLA) as it pertains to ECD
  3. Monitor and support the training of ECD practitioners in PEDS
  4. Strengthen inter-provincial collaboration through the Inter-Provincial ECD Committee
  5. Strengthen inter-departmental collaboration through the Training and Curriculum Sub-Committee.

Policy on Minimum Requirements for Programmes Leading to Qualifications in Higher Education for Early Childhood Development Educators lays foundations for improved access, equity and quality ECD

A key ingredient to improving access, equity and quality of early learning, particularly for the most vulnerable children, is: “Sufficient qualified human resources to secure universal availability and equitable access to early childhood development services through the expansion of the size and diversity of the workforce to meet the assessed needs, ensuring that the workforce is qualified and has the necessary skills.”

The Policy on Minimum Requirement for Programmes Leading to Qualifications in Higher Education for Early Childhood Development Educators, gazetted in March 2017, recognises and seeks to address a key impediment to securing this key ingredient – “the lack of defined career pathways and opportunities for ECD educators and practitioners, and that existing ECD programmes are neither producing the number, nor the kind of educators/practitioners needed for the diverse ECD context”.

The Policy recognises that remedying this gap requires the education sector – that is civil society, government and universities – fulfil its responsibility to:

  • Design and offer qualifications that will afford a professional status and recognition to ECD educators
  • Standardise the training and qualifications of, and provide a career pathway for ECD educators
  • Develop quality programmes to equip ECD educators with information, knowledge and skills to support the implementation of the NCF.

The Policy puts in place a set of qualifications for ECD educators who are delivering or assisting in delivering ECD programmes, including formal curricula such as the NCF, with guidelines for the programmes that lead to such qualifications. It puts in place qualification programmes for prospective and existing ECD educators who deliver or support the delivery of the NCF in any workplace where public and state-supported ECD programmes are delivered. The programmes can also be used for the development of professionals working in other ECD contexts, e.g. TVET college lecturers and officials and policy makers in government departments, where such professionals require competencies similar to those that will be developed through the programmes contemplated by the Policy.

DSD’s Annual Performance Plan 2016 – 2017

The DSD’s Annual Performance Plan (APP) for the year 2016 – 2017 recognises that fulfilling its role and responsibility in furthering the objectives of the National Development Plan (NDP) (which forms the basis of the government’s Medium Term Strategic Framework) – requires that prioritise improving access to quality Early Childhood Development Services. The APP provides direction on how it will go about fulfilling this responsibility and set of priorities.

The DSD has identified 5 strategic outcome goals for the year in question. Goal 2 is “increased access to quality ECD programmes for children 0- 4, and universal access to grade R.”

ECD falls under programme 4: Welfare services policy development and implementation support, the purpose of which is to create “an enabling environment for the delivery of equitable development welfare services through the formulation of policies, norms and standards and best practices, and support for implementing agencies”. The major focus of the work that will be done by the DSD in the current planning cycle is the development of implementation and regulatory plans aligned to the policy to put in place the foundations necessary for delivery of equitable quality ECD programmes.  Key measures that the DSD will focus on include:

  • The review and alignment of the policies of multiple sectors, acting through the Inter-Departmental Committee for ECD, and consolidation into a national ECD Programme of Action to support implementation of the ECD policy
  • Aligning the current regulatory framework with the ECD policy. Notably, the DSD will focus on aligning the Children’s Act with the Policy
  • Revise a national ECD infrastructure plan
  • Develop an ECD Maintenance and Improvement Plan for ECD centres.

DOH’s Strategic and Annual Performance Plans 2017/19 – 2019/20

The ECD Policy recognises that the health sector has a pivotal role to play in laying the foundation for the healthy development of young children. As such, it places the primary responsibility for delivery of ECD programmes to parents and young children in the forts two years of a child’s life, on the Department of Health.

The Department of Health’s Strategic Plan 2015/16 – 2019/20 lays the foundations for a health system which focuses on securing the healthy development of the country’s population, rather than the treatment of diseases. The development orientation of the DOH is captured in its first strategic goal – the prevention of disease and promotion of health.

The DOH’s Strategic Plan and Annual Performance Plan for 2017/18 – 2019/20 both recognise that the key to securing its strategic goals is through the strengthening of the health system, notably the primary health care systems to ensure universal quality health-promotive and preventative services.

Whilst these 2 strategic documents reflect this critical shift towards a health promotive system in the country, they do not yet reflect a strategic and operational shift towards prioritising early childhood development. The APP and the documents from which it takes direction, such as the Health Sector’s Negotiated Service Delivery Agreement (NSDA), do not yet reflect child development and the prevention of development delays and disabilities – the outcomes of poor and compromised development – as operational priorities. When it comes to children, the focus is still on reducing child mortality.

The reality is that if South Africa is to achieve its health promotion and preventative objectives, as well as its longer-term development objectives, it is critical that the health sector prioritise, not only child survival, but equally so, child development. And it must do so by prioritising the strengthening of its child development health systems.

The recent Lancet series on ECD stressed the importance of strengthening national child development health systems to meet the growing challenge of poor development. The Lancet puts the spotlight on the fact that our success in improving child survival without strengthening systems for improved child development, has significantly grown the pool of children at risk of poor early (and lifelong) development. An estimated 250 million young children (43%) in low and middle income countries are now at risk of poor development outcomes. The Lancet stresses that the only way to reverse this scenario and realise the rights of all children to develop to their full potential is by strengthening our health systems to ensure they support the development of young children – and not focus only on their survival.

Planning, programming and resourcing to strengthen the health systems promoting child development would take a leap forward and be better sustained if early childhood were to be expressly recognised as both a strategic and operational priority in the next versions of the DOH’s strategic and annual performance plans.

A cartoon image of Patricia Martin, blog author

The Policy Post is written by Patricia Martin, the director of Advocacy Aid, a consultancy that provides advocacy support to the development sector. Patricia has worked as a child rights advocate and policy analyst for more than a decade and has a special interest in ECD policy and programme development and monitoring.



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