June was a big month for the SmartStart Early Learning Playgroups Programme in the North West. The programme reached a record 1400 children, who had previously not been able to access formal early learning services. And for us, that’s a cause for celebration.

The growth of the SmartStart playgroups has demonstrated a scalable, cost-effective way to deliver early learning to 3-5 year olds outside of the traditional ECD centre model. Children find themselves excluded from centres either because they live in the poorest households and their parents cannot afford the R150 monthly fee; or because they live in the remotest rural areas with no centres nearby.

These are the children who are most at risk; who would benefit the most from quality early learning. In most cases though, they slip through the cracks and end up starting Grade R without being ready. SmartStart Early Learning Playgroups are a way to catch them.

Two of the biggest wins since the programme launched in 2015:

  1. The fact that the North West Department of Social Development is now fully subsidising the programme, and
  2. The programme’s registration with the department.

Both demonstrate commitment on the part of government towards non-centre ECD provision, and model a way to scale the programme in other provinces.

Making the programme work

It hasn’t been plain sailing, by any means. There are a number of complex partnerships that work together to implement the SmartStart programme, and like all complex partnerships, there are competing priorities and ways of working. The stakeholders for the programme include the implementing partners – Cotlands and SmartStart, the implementing agents – Lima, the Departments of Cooperative Governance, Local Government and Human Settlements, and of course Social Development (Read more about the programme’s structure here).

“Sharing priorities and responsibilities can become hard and there is no way we can avoid stepping on each other’s toes and following hierarchy takes forever. However, through proper communication channels using partnership meetings has gone a long way in making everyone aim for the same goal – increasing access,” says Getrude Mabeza, who oversees the programme on behalf of Cotlands.

Early learning playgroup facilitator with her Ratlou playgroup.

Recruiting and retaining SmartStarters

Another programme aspect which has taken a lot of consideration is how to best support the SmartStarters – the team of trained playgroup facilitators. The impact of the programme ultimately depends on their hard work, perseverance, and ingenuity in overcoming an endless stream of challenges which comes part and parcel with trying to sustain a quality service in an extremely resource-restrained environment.

In the North West, the programme has demonstrated a way to leverage the man power of an existing government job creation scheme, the Community Work Programme, but regardless of the SmartStarter’s background, selection and training remain very important, in order to ensure a quality early service.

“The recruitment process ensures that we get people who love working with children. The successful candidates are then taken through a five day training before they go and open their own playgroup. They are given support through monitoring and evaluation by the club coach* and club leaders**. There is also peer support where they come together in clubs to share their experiences,” Mabeza told us.

One area we are still working on is the career development plans for the SmartStarters. In some cases, SmartStarters want to progress to study teaching or to work in ECD centres and the channels available to them need to be worked out and communicated clearly.

Early learning playgroup facilitators in front of the building they host their playgroup.

What’s next?

Looking forward, the programme aims to reach 2412 children through 201 SmartStarters by the end of 2017 and over the next few years hopes that those numbers grow to 4590 children through 400 SmartStarters.


*Club coaches are based locally and provides support to a number of clubs. They also play an important role in quality assessment and licensing of the SmartStarters.

**There is one club leader for every 10-16 SmartStarters in a specific area. They run monthly group meetings for SmartStarters in their area and are responsible for reporting and data collection.

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