Three significant challenges to universal ECD services, particularly are:
- Insufficient ECD facilities in sufficiently close proximity to the children in question
- Where facilities do exist, children often are excluded as a result of access barriers such as cost and unsuitable facilities
- Poor quality services.
In order to achieve the national ECD goals of universal ECD, especially for the most vulnerable children in the country, these three issues must be addressed as a matter of urgency. But tackling these issues requires that the many underlying issues be addressed first. It’s not likely that all can be addressed immediately and in moving forward, the government will have to prioritise a select number of the underlying issues – notably those that will have the most wide-ranging, strategic and systemic impact and will expedite the expansion of quality services in areas of greatest need.
The vast quantity of literature on ECD in the country, and the most recent , provide clear direction on which underlying issues should be prioritised. The most strategically relevant issues that, if addressed, will simultaneously improve availability, access and quality are:
- Provincial and district-level information management and planning systems; and
The effective resolution of these issues in turn depends on the resolution of a fundamental cross-cutting systemic issue – the slow and incomplete registration of many ECD centres and programmes with the Department of Social Development (DSD).
If addressed adequately and appropriately, registration provides, in principle, a systemic entry point for improved funding, quality and infrastructure, as well as the entry point for population-level planning targeting under-serviced children.
In principle, once registered, or even conditionally registered, ECD centres can access funding to improve their infrastructure, purchase more support material, and improve the skills and qualifications of their staff. At the same time, full registration of all sites will allow DSD, in principle, to know where ECD services are being provided, monitor quality, and perhaps more importantly, know where there are no services and where quality is inadequate, thus allowing for evidence-driven, population-based planning towards achievement of the national ECD policy goals.
The rationale for prioritising improving the ECD registration system is sound but it also relies on the strengthening of core supporting features of the ECD matrix within which that registration system nests.
From the recent ECD audit we know that at present large numbers of centres are not registered (less than half of the audited sites were registered). We also know that most are not registered because they do not comply with the prescribed infrastructure, equipment, support materials and practitioner skills norms and standards, and ultimately, because they do not have enough money to remedy the registration barriers because they cannot access ECD subsidy funding until they are registered.
Thus, the DSD has already prioritised and is in the process of developing a process for expedited and scaled up registration of sites at different graded levels – gold, silver and bronze – thus allowing preliminary access to funds and other forms of support, as well as routine monitoring, to improve availability and quality.
However, as illustrated by the ECD audit, the roll out of the registration and conditional registration system is being hampered by:
- Cumbersome and unclear registration processes and requirements – with many sites not knowing their status and not knowing what they can or should do to comply with norms and standards.
- Inadequate resources, even when the subsidy is made available, for improving infrastructure, purchasing adequate support materials and providing adequate equipment and skilled staff. Most of the income is spent on staff salaries and food, leaving little for key components of a quality early learning and care services.
- Insufficient direction and guidance on what infrastructure and equipment etc. should look like for children with disabilities.
- Poor information management and communication systems within provincial departments of social development resulting in multiple, conflicting, and often outdated lists of registered centres and an inability to contact and communicate with registered centres. Thus, the current information and communication systems undo the potential planning value of the registration system.
There is no doubt that the registration system must be expedited and made simpler so that we, at a minimum, achieve universal registration (or conditional registration) and can paint a clear picture with the aid of a complete registration data base, of what and where services are provided.
Will this be enough to address the key issues of infrastructure, accessibility and quality? The answer is no. The current funding policy, departmental information management systems and processes, and absent disability-specific norms and standards need to be changed to improve availability, access and quality for the most marginalised.
In the case of funding, the current subsidy is not adequate to enable substantial infrastructure improvements. There are a number of proposals on the table to remedy this situation. The draft ECD policy suggests that the government fund the building and maintenance of public ECD sites in under-serviced areas, and that it provide financial support for improved infrastructure in privately-run ECD sites servicing poor and other marginalised children through ECD programme funding (calculated to make better provision for the real needs of a quality, safe and appropriate service-delivery site). There is however concern that this proposal is too limited to achieve the ECD policy goals given that the most ECD sites in under-serviced communities are in fact run privately from people’s homes. The concern is that the scale of infrastructure and related developments that need to take place in these centres are too substantial to be accommodated through programme funding. The ECD audit recommends that these and other centres be provided with a dedicated infrastructure grant. The question that arises in this context is: Should an infrastructure grant be implemented, what mechanisms can the government use to ensure that the grant is not used to benefit privately owned-premises, but rather to sustainably benefit the broader targeted population?
In the case of guidance for improved infrastructure, there are currently no guidelines as to what ECD sites should look like to be accessible to children with disabilities. As noted by the audit, there is a pressing need for infrastructure norms and standards for sites so as to ensure the accommodation of children with disabilities.
In the case of the provincial department’s information management and communication systems, it is critical that these be strengthened so that as the registration system is strengthened, the ECD sector has a access to reliable information for planning and budgeting purposes.
We need to prioritise the resolution of these issues in the short-term so that the current efforts by the DSD to expedite registration and conditional registration may yield the benefits necessary to make substantial progress towards universal availability and equitable access to quality early learning and care services for the most marginalised young children in South Africa.
The Policy Post is written by Patricia Martin. Patricia is the director of Advocacy Aid, a consultancy that provides advocacy support to the development sector. She 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.