From time to time, there is a new law that has the potential to bend the arc of South Africa’s social and economic development. The Children’s Amendment Bill is such a law.

By Grace Matlhape & Rebecce Hickman


The fact that the Bill contains measures to reform the regulatory framework for early childhood development (ECD) programmes will appear at best irrelevant to many people. The ECD sector is widely seen as the narrow concern of those with young children, who need a pre-school or childminder to take care of their child while they work. The wider role and ramifications of ECD programmes at the levels of child, family, community and society are not well understood.


But there are three reasons why every South African citizen should care that parliament and government get the Children’s Amendment Bill right.


Firstly, latest government figures show that over half of pre-school children do not attend any form of ECD programme. In the three to five year-old age group, this amounts to over one million children missing out on early learning opportunities. What is more, over three-quarters of these children live in disadvantaged communities. The early years are a critical developmental window, which lay the foundations for success at school and beyond.  But at the moment, those most likely to benefit are most likely to miss out.


Second, economists tell us that the return on investment for every rand spent on the early years is substantially higher than for every rand spent on primary, secondary or tertiary education. That return is calculated in terms not only of the life-long personal gains for the child, but also of the social and economic gains for society. The dividend comes in the form of higher tax yields, along with lower spending on welfare, health and crime.


Third, ECD programmes unlock new economic opportunities for women and for communities – through the expansion of women-owned enterprises, by creating direct local employment in even the most under-resourced communities, and by enabling labour-market entry for mothers who must otherwise stay at home with their children.


For these three reasons, over recent decades, high-income countries have treated investment in ECD programmes as first and foremost an economic investment. Their premise is that universal access to ECD programmes unlocks the current labour market potential of women, and the future labour market potential of children.


It is precisely this analysis that propelled President Biden to announce last week an extraordinary $200 billion investment in free pre-school for every three and four year-old. The accompanying White House statement cited research showing that children who attend pre-school perform higher in maths and reading as late as eighth grade and are more likely to continue in tertiary education.


The statement also emphasised the various ways in which pre-school drives economic growth. One claim will be of particular interest to governments around the world: “By some estimates, the benefits of a universal pre-school system to U.S. Gross Domestic Product are more than three times greater than the investment needed to provide this service.”


In South Africa, lack of equity in ECD access and quality is essentially a structural problem.  Government is not a direct provider of ECD services and so their focal task should be to stimulate demand and enable supply. However, the Children’s Act of 2005 framed the government’s function as primarily a regulatory one, and over time this has meant that their role has tended towards constraining rather than enabling.


The ECD subsidy is supposed to support ECD programmes serving poorer children to grow and improve. But the subsidy does not flow until the programme is registered. And a complex two-step registration process, long lists of burdensome requirements, and dysfunctional municipal processes, combine to put registration out of reach of most ECD programmes.


Unfortunately, the Children’s Amendment Bill does not fix these problems and in some ways makes them worse. In response, civil society organisations like SmartStart have mobilised with others under the umbrella of the Real Reform for ECD Campaign to urge that this once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver a fair and inclusive ECD system is not lost.


Together, we are calling for a one-step registration system, with one process to follow and one set of standards to meet. We are also encouraging government to abandon the ‘one size fits all’ approach and recognise that ECD programmes come in many different shapes and sizes.


A key problem is that the current system conflates the role of a registration system and the role of a quality assurance system. A registration system should set the entry threshold at a level that ensures children’s safety while pulling the vast majority of ECD programmes into the regulatory net. A quality assurance system can then kick in to incentivise and support good practice – and where necessary to close non-compliant programmes. Critically, because registered ECD programmes can access the ECD subsidy, they can then invest in the improvements needed to improve quality and boost outcomes for children.


In other words, acknowledging that many ECD programmes start their compliance journey in a sub-optimal place, is not capitulation or compromise. It is rather the developmental approach envisaged in South Africa’s constitution, by legislating in a way that allows for a rising floor of access and quality.


Last month, the government published new figures showing that at least two-thirds of South Africa’s ECD programmes are currently not registered. Hundreds of thousands of young children each day are cared for in these programmes. Shutting them out of the regulatory system creates no winners, only losers. It is the system that needs to change, and it is the Children’s Amendment Bill that can change it.


Read the full op-ed at Business Day