The Real Challenges in South Africa’s Early Learning Centres

by | Mar 11, 2023 | Blog

A call for innovation to better support early learning practitioners

Early learning practitioners (those who work with children from birth to six years of age, providing educational and developmental support) in South Africa are tasked with the challenge of encouraging healthy early childhood development while being faced with daily obstacles, such as poor resource availability, the absence of adequate funding, and overcrowded classrooms. In this article we expand on some of the difficulties early learning practitioners are confronted with and why new ideas are necessary to aid early learning programmes (ELPs).

Registration is long and costly

Many early learning  centres in South Africa operate unregistered – according to the 2021 Early Childhood Development Census, this number is as high as 60%. This is often not out of choice, but due to the complexities involved in reaching compliance with arduous norms and standards, including local by-laws – these differ among municipalities. Early learning  facilities must present land use and zoning certificates, a fire clearance certificate, undergo an environmental health inspection, and submit a complete application form.

Some schools have made several attempts to register, but continue to fall short of the stipulated criteria. Subsequently, these schools, like many other learning centres in South Africa, have spent much of their funds in the process. This is a major setback, especially where money is already in short supply.

In a win for the sector, however, is that the Department of Basic Education has relaxed the requirement for programmes to be registered as NPOs.

Subsidies are exclusive to registered facilities 

Without registration status, early learning centres do not have access to state backing. Early learning centre operators (centre owners who hire practitioners to work with the children) must constantly find ways to fund the running of their creches, which require electricity, running water, well-developed programmes, practitioners, learning resources, and in many low-income communities, food for the children. The issue of financial support is more pressing than ever for these centres. Those that need government funding most are not able to access state support due to the prohibitive registration requirements.

Average school fees are low 

In poorer communities, creches cannot afford to ask much more than R200 per month in school fees. Even this amount is not always possible for parents to pay, meaning that some children are attending schools at the cost of operators, who often even provide food for the children from their own pockets. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this problem, due to job losses and a lack of income by fee-paying parents over many months. Admission fees are a vital part of supporting the needs of early learning facilities and are all the more crucial for centres that do not benefit from subsidies. With a low admission fee income, early learning centres battle to provide adequate care and services for children.

There are no standardised curriculum resources for ELP

In South Africa, ELPs are not structured by the state, unlike the foundation phase or grade R where programme handbooks are provided for free. This means that operators must start from scratch when designing programmes that are suited to the developmental needs of children younger than six years of age. With minimal access to learning resources (due to inadequate funding) and few trained practitioners available, this can leave schools with programmes that do not address all of the key areas in young development. Learning through play, as revealed by the 2021 census, is one domain which has fallen short in South African ELPs. Many centres do not have outdoor playgrounds or equipment for children to exercise free play. Without guidance, and again, financial support, practitioners are navigating the waters of preparing children for school without a compass or a boat.

The practitioner-to-child ratio is unbalanced

Average classroom sizes in early learning centres, particularly in lower-income areas, can reach up to 40 children. This means that for 200 children, only four practitioners may be available. Working with young children who have many individual needs, these numbers prove to be a daily struggle for practitioners. The attention and care required of practitioners is not always feasible or sustainable. Some children may thus fall behind in their preparation, due to greater emotional and developmental needs not being met.

Opportunities to take leave or sick days are few

With the amount of pressure placed on small early learning teams who have full classes, there is little room for rest. The absence of one teacher for a short period of time can make things extremely challenging for the remaining staff. This is a major issue, as practitioners may suffer in silence with burnout, physical illnesses, or compromised mental health, which can in turn, affect the children on an emotional level.

Few early learning practitioners are formally trained

According to the 2013 nationwide ECD audit, and as discussed in the 2021 ECD Census, 61% of early learning practitioners in South Africa either had no formal training or received their training from an NGO that was not accredited by the Department of Education. This is a mere 2% improvement since the first completed ECD audit in 2001. The data highlights a clear barrier between the need for more practitioners and the support available to fulfil this need.

Practitioners are battling to access the training necessary to address the full range of needs young children present. In turn, many children in South Africa are falling short of the developmental stepping stones they require in preparation for school and later stages of life.

Innovation Edge is stepping in to fund solutions

The challenges faced by early learning practitioners in South Africa are perpetuated by a dearth of information and accurate data relating to the developmental progress of South Africa’s children. This has made it difficult to address the root causes of why many early learning centres struggle and continues to keep them in unsupported positions. To change this, Innovation Edge collaborated with First National Bank (FNB) and the Department of Social Development in 2018 to pilot the Thrive by Five Index. The Index offered a standardised survey for ELPs across the country to gain a better understanding of the Early Learning, Physical Growth, and Social-Emotional Functioning developmental domains in children between the ages of four to five. The survey is to be repeated every three years for updated datasets.

The most recent report revealed concerning numbers of children not on track in terms of their cognitive development. The children in the poorest 60% of households are behind in the development expected for their age. These results can be used as motivation for action from all levels of involvement, including state and private support.

Early learning practitioners are doing their best with the resources, staff, and knowledge they have. By learning more about the challenges faced by practitioners in South Africa and meeting them where they are, there is greater opportunity to develop solutions that address the heart of these problems. Innovation Edge is committed to improving early learning development in South Africa by funding initiatives that support operators, practitioners, caregivers, and children. Contact us for more information about how our backing structure works and to learn how we could collaborate with you or support your innovative ideas to solving some of the difficulties facing our early learning centres.