"The system was not designed for us.”
This is a common lament from principals of early childhood development (ECD) centres. They are describing a situation in which their centre’s registration with the government appears out of reach, owing to their socioeconomic circumstances.
In short, they felt that their poverty created barriers to accessing the government’s system of support – a sad irony, as the R17-per-child-per-day subsidy is meant to target those children most in need.
While anecdotal evidence pointed towards low rates of registration of ECD services, it was confirmed by the 2021 department of basic education’s ECD census, which found that only 40% of centres were registered, while a third of programmes receive a subsidy.
The inability to register means that particularly ECD centres that cater for poor children are unable to access the government’s subsidy.
The mapping work that the Nelson Mandela Foundation commissioned in the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela municipality found that only 27% of sites were registered and able to access the government’s subsidy, even though just under a third of them had been operational for more than 20 years.
Against this backdrop, the department of social development, which was then mandated to deal with ECD, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation launched the Vangasali campaign in 2020. (The Vangasali campaign is now spearheaded by the department of basic education.)
The campaign seeks to embark on a registration massification programme aimed at increasing the registration of ECD services in the country, recognising that the prevailing situation was unjust as it was biased against the poor.
The campaign will encompass three phases:
- Phase 1 (Count) was aimed at finding every ECD service in the country – later this data was used to help inform the DBE census;
- Phase 2 (Register) was aimed at standardising the process for ECD registration across the country; and
- Phase 3 was aimed at assisting those ECD services which will not be able to meet even the basic registration requirements.
Phase 2 of the Vangasali campaign is underway and is ongoing and includes information sessions in which ECD services receive application packs and connect directly with DBE officials managing registration, as well as their local environmental health practitioner.
Importantly, the campaign is rolling out the ECD registration framework, which creates a pathway for ECD centres to progress from conditional registration (referred to as bronze and silver registration) to full registration (referred to as gold registration).
Last week saw President Cyril Ramaphosa conduct a walk-about of Little Flower ECD centre in Winnie Madikizela-Mandela local municipality, a centre that was constructed using a portion of the salary donation that he had made to the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Little Flower ECD centre has been operating for 16 years, and in recent years relocated closer to the nearby primary school to make it easier for children to attend. Community members assisted with metal sheets to enable the building of a shack which could be used as a classroom. The monthly fee to attend is R20, but not all parents are always able to pay. Despite this, children are not turned away as the principal believes in the importance of development in the early years.
Getting registered with the department of basic education for centres such as Little Flower ECD centre means that there is a possibility of them receiving the per-child-per-day subsidy, which can be used towards nutrition, among other things. In a country where almost a third of children are stunted, this benefit is substantial.
The construction of the Little Flower ECD centre forms part of Phase 3 of the Vangasali campaign, showcasing the kind of work that can transpire during this stage. While there is a pathway to registration, some sites will not meet even this basic level of registration.
In this context, Phase 3 of the campaign seeks to mobilise resources to assist these sites, which complements the department of basic education’s existing grant. Phase 3 of the campaign calls on the private sector, philanthropic institutions, donors and other stakeholders to play their part in helping ECD sites meet at least entry-level registration requirements.
The story of ECD is the story of community. The story of giving. The story of entrepreneurship. The story of children. The richness of the sector and what the incredible people working tirelessly in it reminds us of is that when we come together, we are better for it. While there remains a long road ahead, the journey is worthwhile.
This article first appeared in The Mail & Guardian.