The Department of Basic Education (DBE) recently took over the responsibility for Early Childhood Development (ECD) from the Department of Social Development (DSD). The Committee was briefed in a virtual meeting by two organisations on their research findings on Early Childhood Development centres throughout the country. The research objective was to better understand the ECD sector for the DBE to implement meaningful changes.
The Committee expressed appreciation for the organisations' comprehensive research. Members asked questions about the research's validity, reliability, and ethical considerations. While both organisations agreed that although the studies had faced particular challenges, the findings were still valid and reliable. It was necessary to collect this data to understand the different challenges the sector faced, inform the curriculum and teaching development, help prioritise funding, and decide on the appropriate monitoring tools
The Department of Social Development (DSD) had recently officially handed over the responsibility for Early Childhood Development (ECD) to the Department of Basic Education (DBE). President Cyril Ramaphosa had first announced the process during his 2019 State of the Nation Address (SONA).
Mr Mathanzima Mweli, Director-General, Department of Basic Education (DBE), stressed the importance of understanding the fundamentals and foundations of ECD to address all the issues and challenges within the sector. Thus, two critical research operations had been undertaken: "Thrive by Five" and an Early Childhood Development Census Report.
"Thrive by Five" report
Ms Sonja Giese, founding Executive Director of DataDrive, presented the Thrive by Five report. The Thrive by Five Index, South Africa’s first Index to track early childhood outcomes, was launched in April. It was a multisectoral partnership examining whether young children entered the schooling system with the right foundations. The Index randomly selected early learning programmes across all nine provinces and again randomly selected two boys and two girls from each programme. Over 5 000 children were chosen to be individually assessed in their mother tongues, using appropriate assessment tools.
The Index used a representative sampling strategy regarding provinces, gender, and income levels. The assessment was divided into three sections; learning, physical growth, and social-emotional function. The learning section looked at gross motor development, gross motor coordination, fine motor coordination, emergent numeracy and mathematics, cognitive and executive functioning, and emergent literacy and language. In the physical growth section, the Index looked at height for age to identify possible stunted growth due to chronic malnutrition. The social-emotional functioning looked at social relations with peers and adults and emotional readiness for school.
The sampling size was 5 139 children. If the measure were simplified to 20 children, the following findings would occur:
- 7/20 children were thriving in early learning and cognitive development without chronic malnutrition.
- 10/20 children faced barriers to thriving.
- 3/20 children faced significant barriers to thriving and were unlikely to catch up to peers without intervention.
All three sections could be divided into results by gender, province and income level. The presentation admitted that the research faced limitations in gaining precise data on different income levels.
The research was significant because it presented insights into the school readiness children possess by age five. Children who started school on track were more likely to stay on track and lead healthy and productive lives. It would be difficult for children who were not on track at that age to catch up to their peers later in their education.
Furthermore, the research recommended accelerating better access to high-quality early learning for every child. The recommendations included increasing funding for ECDs, better regulatory and compliance systems, prioritising practitioner development, using Grade R as a bridging year, enhancing an ECD curriculum, and ensuring access to learning resources, parenting campaigns, and a nutritional safety net.
Early Childhood Development Census Report
Mr Jan Schenk, Director of ikapadata, led the Early Childhood Development Census Report presentation. The census survey was developed with relevant stakeholders. The candidates who conducted the survey research were trained in over 11 workshops. It was challenging to locate all the Early Learning Programmes (ELPs). The survey researchers would visit each ward multiple times to visit all known ELPs. They gathered information on the location and amount of ELPs through the Vangasali dataset, ECD forums, local Department of Social Development (DSD) offices, primary schools, wards, councillors, community members, word of mouth, and advertisements.
The Census counted 42 420 programmes. The report provided quintiles' values across provinces and urban/rural areas. Mr Schenk admitted that the ECD sector was very dynamic, and new EPLs would open up that could not be accounted for. The surveyors could not gain access to all the schools. The mean monthly fee was about R509. However, there was significant variation across areas and income levels. The report provided enrolment and attendance statistics pre-and-post the COVID-19 pandemic.
(For a more detailed report, please consult the presentation.)
Ms M Sukers (ACDP) asked the Department how much effort they would put in to implement an integrative approach to stop poverty and violence against children, especially in hot spot areas. She said that subsidies were not necessarily the best approach to improve school readiness for young learners. The Department needed to look at a basic income grant to empower parents through a mix of mechanisms. She asked what lawmakers and the Department could do to strengthen the groundwork and available resources to ensure that children got the best out of them.
Dr S Thembekwayo (EFF) stressed the importance of significant intervention to address chronic malnutrition. What type of intervention was going to be applied? What monitoring tools were going to be used?
She asked if the research included instances of gender-based violence (GBV). If it included GBV, what were the findings? If the research did not include GBV, what were the reasons? Children experienced abuse and rape, so GBV applied to them.
She asked about the main objectives and relevance of the research and clarity on the limitations. What were the ethical considerations? Who signed the consent forms, and did the children experience the freedom of participation? She inquired about the validity of the research.
Mr E Siwela (ANC) thanked the DBE for an informative presentation. He pointed out a significant disparity between the number of children enrolled in ELPs and the numbers in actual attendance. What were the reasons for this? Were the children lost in the system mainly from urban or rural areas? He inquired about the mention of age-appropriateness in the presentation and the reference that it was challenging to have children of different ages in the same group. What should be done to enforce the recommendations? Was it the responsibility of the Department or school managers? He asked how the Department should distribute resources in the context of limited fiscal capacities to improve access to facilities and learning materials.
Ms N Mashabela (EFF) asked what interventions the government should apply to combat food insecurity in ELPs. She observed that only 27% of ELPs were government-funded, and almost 70% were private. Did this affect the learning developments of poor learners who could not afford the fees at private ELPs? What effects did unqualified practitioners have on the learning outcomes of students?
Ms N Adoons (ANC) thanked the Department for the presentation. It was not the first time they reviewed similar information, even before the official hand-over. She appreciated the information on how the hand-over of ECD to the DBE was unfolding. The ECD sector should be based on norms and standards. What were the average staff counts and numbers of children per programme? Was there a difference in the distribution of qualified practitioners in rural and urban areas?
She expressed concerns about child stunting. Was stunting due to ELPs, or a household issue? How could the Department support children who experience stunting?
The Chairperson asked what the benefits of Thrive by Five were. How much did it cost to undertake the study? Did the sample include all the provinces?
The presentation stated that 56% of ELPs had access to books. What were the books, and who were the publishers? The presentation also mentioned that only 48% of practitioners were qualified. What could be done to assist the practitioners in becoming fully qualified? The transfer of ECD from the DSD to the DBE meant it had to be quality assured; therefore, everyone should be qualified.
She stressed that the DBE should prioritise access to toilets for children. The average fees for ELPs were R509. What about the households who could not afford the fees? How did the DBE plan to make sure that more ELPs received subsidies? She expressed concern about the high number of ELPs that were unregistered. What was the timeline to get all ELPs registered?
Ms Angie Motshekga, Minister of Basic Education, was pleased that the Committee appreciated the reports. The DBE considered all the different role-players within the ECD sector to build relationships, develop shared understandings, and form essential speaking points. That was why the reports were so important. Research suggested that if children did not thrive by the age of five, they were unlikely to succeed by the age of ten and were likely to drop out of school by the age of 15. Therefore the DBE was putting the appropriate mechanisms in place to ensure that children stayed in school.
She referred to a study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) that showed that children who were delayed in development by 22 months were still likely to be in the same position at 22 years without meaningful interventions.
The Thrive by Five reports provided an understanding of the different challenges the ECD sector faced, informed curriculum and teaching development, helped prioritise funding, and decided on the appropriate monitoring tools.
The ECD census report was also critical to understanding what the sector looked like. It was beneficial to gain insights on the number of ECDs to engage with the shape and size of the industry, which in turn would inform the funding model. The fundamental bottom-line of the funding model would cover curriculum development, teacher training and nutrition. ECD centres needed to register as an institution and abide by the regulations. If ECD centres were registered, they would not necessarily gain access to funding. The funding model would be informed by a host of other factors. She acknowledged that the current funding system was inadequate, but it was still necessary to regulate the sector while waiting for additional funding.
Mr Mweli addressed questions about the objective of the reports. An empirical understanding would inform the actions undertaken by the DBE of the issues faced. The purpose of the Committee meeting was to empower the Committee to update and carry out its mandate. The approach of the DBE’s takeover of the ECD sector was based on research and informed by empirical data. The reports declared new delivery models.
The DG said the state was not obliged to subsidise every ECD centre, and the centres needed to meet specific criteria to receive funding.
The research confirmed that the teachers or practitioners had various qualifications. Some practitioners had National Qualifying Framework (NQF) level 6 qualifications, while some did not possess grade 12 qualifications. Therefore, the DBE was going to implement a strategy to bring everyone on par. The success of the ECD programmes would depend on an integrated departmental approach that included the DBE, the DSD, the Department of Health, the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), and community safety programmes. The ECD programmes needed to reflect the different roles of all the departments to ensure holistic development and implementation process.
There were different variables needed to ensure quality education. These variables included the curriculum, qualified teachers, and access to learning materials and assessments. A national curriculum framework was being developed for ECDs. The DBE worked on minimum qualifications for ECD teachers and tried improving access to learning materials.
Ms Giese addressed questions about the research, methodology, and ethics. The research was conducted in every province, so it was proportionally representative. The cost of the study was about R12 million.
The research had faced several limitations. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, masks needed to be worn and sanitised, and Ms Giese was uncertain if this disrupted the children. The allocation of quintiles was not very accurate, and they were doing more work to look at income levels. Lastly, the census and index data collection simultaneously had created confusion. However, she was confident that the limitations of the research did not undermine its validity.
Regarding the ethical considerations, the researchers contacted the ECD centres' principals and sent consent forms to all the parents. If the parents objected, their children were not included in the study. The children could also pull out at any stage of the assessments.
The research did not look at the effects of GBV on children’s performance. She agreed that violence had devastating effects on the performance of children. However, measuring the impact of GBV on children in ECD centres would require a different research methodology and sufficient training for the research employees.
She said the research was both reliable and valid. The tools used in the study were developed in 2016 and aligned with the national curriculum framework. The research team conducted interviews, consulted international research, and held meetings with stakeholders to establish various development measures for children in ECD centres. They had also ensured that the study was fair and conducted in the children’s home languages.
There was a very explicit protocol in the data collection process. All the questions were scripted to ensure it was equal and fair. A method was underway that addressed quality assurance to use the data to monitor the quality of ECD programmes.
She was also consulting other data to establish the relationship between different characteristics of ECD programmes and the learner outcomes. She would provide a report to the Committee once the analysis had been completed. The research showed that a teacher’s qualification was not the most critical factor in delivering good learner outcomes. Qualified teachers needed to be supported, mentored, and able to implement what they had learned.
She addressed the questions on child stunting. Stunting occurs early in a child's life. A healthy pregnancy and good nutrition for the first two years of a child’s life are essential to prevent stunting. There were nutritional programmes, but many children gained access to them only in their second year of life due to administrative processes. She recommended that the child support grants be started during pregnancy to prevent stunting.
The report mentioned age-appropriateness. Various programmes provided care for children of different ages, which was not necessarily detrimental to the child’s outcomes. However, the report explicitly referred to age-appropriateness in grade R. Parents would send children too young to grade R because it was free. This placed a significant burden on the teachers and the children.
Mr Schenk said that the Census was a crucial step in improving the ECD sector because a list of the ECD programmes did not exist, which created a barrier to any meaningful progress or implementation of changes. There was not even a list of consolidated ELPs that should be subsidised. Each district had its list of ELPs. However, these lists were not comprehensive, and information was missing. A complete and comprehensive list of all the ECD centres was needed to make significant progress.
The next step in the process was to turn the comprehensive list of ELPs into a management information system. ECD centres pop up and shut down daily. Thus, the sector’s management required innovative thinking. It should be possible for ELPs to self-regulate registration and continuously update their information. He suggested that incentives were needed to keep the database up to date. For instance, ELPs who regularly update their information could receive some subsidies.
ECD centres faced many challenges in registering. The entire process hinged on local DSD offices, so the process was not equal in all districts. The registration process of ELPs should be made easier and more accessible. It was also necessary to be realistic about expectations. He did not think it was possible to register every child to attend an ECD centre.
He said a sampling frame was necessary to monitor the progress of ECD centres. Monitors should use standardised tools and link them to a government drive for on-site monitoring. More research conducted by the government was necessary.
Gender-based violence was not addressed in the Census. The data collection was at a programme level, and the employees did not engage with the children. Otherwise, a different ethical clearance would have been required, and it had not been feasible for the objectives of the Census.
He addressed the limitations of the census report. It was unrealistic to assume that the data had captured all of the ECD centres. Some programmes were tiny and informal -- for instance, data on "day mothers." It was also challenging to access private ECD centres that were not overly keen to let researchers into the centre without additional permission. However, the challenges did not compromise the reliability of the report.
He could not provide a specific cause for the discrepancy between the enrolment and the attendance. It might have been due to COVID-19-related factors. However, it might have been due to the time of the fieldworkers’ visits. If the fieldworkers arrived late in the afternoon, the headcount might differ from the early morning.
The census report focused only on the top-level findings. Further information on the urban/rural inferences, the number of teaching staff and learning books could be found once the data set had been made available. He recommended that the data set be maintained so that the exercise did not have to be repeated annually.
Ms Sukers inquired about the number of children subjected to compulsory education. She asked whether the children who were not enrolled in an ECD centre but were educated at home would also be supported.
The Chairperson asked that the researchers provide a link to the data set once it was available. She asked for clarification on Ms Giese’s statement on the qualifications of teachers. Was it not essential to make sure the teachers were qualified? At what stage should they then be addressing this issue?
Ms Giese apologised if she had given the wrong impression. Professionalism in the ECD sector was essential. However, the research suggested that qualifications did not automatically lead to a better outcome. Teachers needed support and mentoring. ECD centres differ from primary and secondary schools because entrepreneurs operate them. Therefore, the government would have a different role to play. The government would need to look at the best way to support teachers. She confirmed that she would share that data once it had been finalised.
The minutes of a previous meeting were adopted.
The Chairperson told the Committee they had a meeting scheduled for the following day with the Department of Higher Education. However, the documents had arrived late. She asked the Committee if they wanted to postpone the meeting.
Mr P Moroatshehla (ANC) agreed that the meeting should be postponed. He had not even seen the presentation yet, and he would therefore not be able to interact fully with the documents.
Dr Thembekwayo agreed that the meeting should be postponed.
The meeting was adjourned.
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