Migration of Early Childhood Development from DSD to DBE: the hard work lies ahead

Last week’s State of the Nation saw President Cyril Ramaphosa announce that Government would be migrating the responsibility of early childhood development (ECD) centres from the Department of Social Development (DSD) to the Department of Basic Education (DBE). This was met with much excitement, accompanied by confusion and questions in some quarters. Without any doubt, the hard work of ensuring improved access to quality holistic ECD services is much more complicated than a simple shift of location.

What is ECD?

ECD is typically defined as the period from conception to the point a child enters formal schooling (grade R). It is a period of remarkable growth and the most significant for a child’s brain development. During this stage, children are highly influenced by their environment and the people who surround them.

As explained by UNESCO, ECD or early childhood care and education (ECCE, which is often used interchangeably with ECD), “is more than preparation for primary school. It aims at the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing.” Its holistic nature makes it one of the most effective poverty interventions and includes services in support of primary caregivers, maternal and child health, nutrition strategies, early stimulation and social protection. Based on this, it therefore requires many departments (the DSD, DBE, Department of Health and Department of Home Affairs to name a few) and levels of government to work together in a coordinated and integrated fashion.

Our National Integrated ECD Policy recognises that “overwhelming scientific evidence attests to the tremendous importance of the early years for human development and to the need for investing resources to support and promote optimal child development from conception”. Thus, ECD’s inclusion in the SoNA (both now and in 2018) – as well as additional funding made available in recent years through a conditional grant – is an encouraging sign that Government is recognising the important role of ECD as a development and poverty reduction imperative.

The law

Although the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 acknowledges the intersectoral nature of ECD services, it is clear that the responsibility of registering, supporting and monitoring ECD centres (or in the language of the Act “partial care facilities”) lies with the Department of Social Development.

With this in mind, the powers the President is relying on to announce a function change from DSD to the DBE are unclear. Any function shift will require an amendment to the Children’s Act and any amendments will trigger the constitutional obligations of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces to facilitate public participation.  In other words, the shift will only take place after proper public consultation is completed: a critical component of our democracy.

Proceed with caution

For many, the migration to the DBE signals something positive: a seemingly stronger department with more technical capacity and effective systems in place.

At the very least, the DBE has reliable comparable data.

In the 2018 SoNA, the President announced that there were “nearly a million children in early childhood development facilities”. In 2019 he said that we have “over 700 000 children accessing early childhood education”. This large disparity in numbers is indicative that the DSD has little understanding of the “facts on the ground” in terms of access.

The move would also foreground the importance of ECD at a national level, given the large emphasis on education in general. By linking ECD more directly with education outcomes and performance, it is possible that this critical sector may receive more funding, energy, resources and attention.

Moving ECD to the DBE is not a panacea to the challenges facing the provision of ECD services in the country, however. There are concerns as to whether ECD would in fact be best placed within the education department, including:

  • ECD may become viewed as “school for younger children” resulting in the “school-ification” of ECD. Tshikululu has visited many grade R classrooms and, all too often, we find 5 – 6 year olds sitting on chairs and behind desks (which are too big for them) with nothing on the classroom walls. Young children naturally learn through creativity and play; this is essentially stifled in many of our grade R environments and it would be distressing if such an approach were extended to 3 – 4 year olds.
  • Many ECD centres in the country, although subsidised by the state, are currently run by entrepreneurial women and men, and effectively function as SMMEs. These centres are run in a decentralised way, making them very accessible to communities. What does a function shift mean for their livelihoods? And for the accessibility of ECD services by caregivers?
  • Moving the location of ECD will not address the problems related to a lack of coordination across the sector and government departments. We have to ensure that we do not end up spending time and money shifting poor delivery of services from one department to another. Much of what we need to be doing is the hard work of building a well-planned coordinated, monitored and integrated response – across multiple departments – to the developmental needs of young children.
  • Moving the location of ECD centres will not ensure the effective management of under-provided services such as:
    • Adequate nutrition resources for pregnant mothers and young children;
    • High-quality parenting/caregiver support;
    • Integrated support for children with disabilities; and
    • Integrated language and early learning strategies from birth to school-going age.

While there may very well be positives to a function migration to the DBE, there are many things that we need to keep front of mind if such a move is going to be successful. Fundamentally, ECD needs strong political will and guidance across numerous departments and government levels. Without this critical ingredient, the structural (re)arrangements for ECD in the country will have minimal impact on the actual quality of service delivery to young children.