A breakout session at the Trialogue Business in Society Virtual Conference 2020, entitled ‘Early Childhood Development: the Building Blocks for Lifelong Learning, saw panellists Nicole Biondi (Innovation Edge), Justine Jowell (SmartStart) and Megan Blair (EarlyBird Educare@Work) discussing how to accelerate access to, and drive the enrichment of, early childhood development.

Moderated by Kanyisa Diamond, senior project manager at Old Mutual Foundation, the session unpacked the different early learning models provided by the organisations represented, then considered which early childhood development (ECD) interventions are most effective, and what needs to be done differently to achieve the goal of the National Development Plan (NDP): to drive universal access to a full range of ECD services for all children aged 0-8 by the year 2030.

The South African Early Childhood Review 2019 shows that we have made some progress in terms of early childhood development. Maternal and child mortality rates are on a downward trend, but we still struggle to offer appropriate nutrition support (27% of children under five suffer from stunting), support for primary caregivers, and the stimulation of early learning.
“South African children are surviving rather than thriving,” Diamond said. “The question is, with ten years to 2030, what do we need to do innovatively today and moving forward to change the situation that we find ourselves in, as far as ECD is concerned?”

Models for social impact
Justine Jowell of SmartStart said systems intervention is needed to close the provisioning gap since 1.2 million children aged 3-4 are not attending an early learning programme, 900 000 of whom come from poor households. “To achieve universal access to quality early learning for all 3-5 year-olds, we need more than 100 000 early learning practitioners and 40 000 new venues,” Jowell explained. “To reach these high numbers of excluded children, system capacity must be expanded, and this needs to happen fast to bring children in sooner.”

SmartStart is an example of a national early learning delivery platform that operates under a social franchise model. There are currently 13 such franchises in nine provinces in the country – independent, locally based NPOs that are linked to the SmartStart platform. This model helps to create direct employment and support microenterprise development, especially for women. In the five years since set-up, this model has allowed SmartStart to reach more than 75 000 children, with nearly 4 000 active early learning facilitators running independent programmes.

For Jowell, early learning is a critical stage of development: “We need to focus on aligning the interests and capabilities of government, corporates, funders, NPOs and ECD providers by building national delivery platforms for early learning. This is essential to achieve population-level change – both educational outcomes for children and wider positive outcomes for society,” she said.

Innovation Edge, an innovation catalyst and social impact investor, believes in supporting early learning programmes and ensuring that caregivers get the support they need to equip children for lifelong success. They work with design and manufacturing company Barrows to print and distribute early learning materials to under-resourced communities, using blank production space available on existing client print runs. The posters and flash cards they create at minimal cost are distributed at their nine business hubs in each province of the country – and they provide more than 50 000 pieces of educational material to children in under-resourced areas each month.

They have also partnered with Out There Media on the 3 Little Minutes mobile SMS campaign, which provides caregivers data-free access to roughly three minutes of songs and stories located on a mobi-site. The campaign is delivered via the Mobucks™ platform, which links the mobile operator with businesses wanting to advertise to specific audience (thus content is sponsored). “The pilot was in English, but the next stage will include more languages,” said Biondi. “Content on the system is provided by Book Dash and Nal’ibali, and they do have content in various South African languages, in the form of songs and stories.” With the Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032) announced by UNESCO, there will rightly be a focus on indigenous language users’ human rights, Biondi said. She also drew attention to the open-source early literacy app Feed the Monster, with content available in 23 African languages and 50 international minority languages.

Biondi said that Innovation Edge is working with government on compiling data sets of national early child assessments to understand how literate, numerate and school-ready children may be. “We really want to get South Africa excited about how children enter school, because if we can shift the way they enter schools we can surely shift the way they are leaving school,” she said.

EarlyBird, a social enterprise with for-profit and not-for-profit components, provides on-site educare services to companies that want to attract and retain top talent, particularly women. “It’s a proven model and really improves productivity, reducing single-day leave-taking and enabling greater female participation,” said Blair, who is concerned that so few women are represented in senior management. Revenue from the for-profit side of the business cross-subsidises the non-profit, which funds young black women to set up Blue Door Educare Centres as entrepreneurs. These high-quality educare centres serve low-income environments and also partner with social housing developers, bringing quality learning to all young children.

Which interventions are most effective?
The panellists felt it was important to inject a sense of urgency into the transition of ECD from the Department of Social Development (DSD) to the Department of Basic Education (DBE). “What might we do to really enable DBE to hit the ground running when they do take over?” Biondi asked. She pointed out that the sector is in a dire state due to the pandemic, with 99% of operators surveyed reporting that parents were unable to pay fees. In addition, the DSD stopped paying subsidies (except in the Western Cape). A recent study has suggested that around 100 000 practitioners are at risk of losing their jobs and 1.8 million children may be without anywhere to go. “Urgent financial support is needed to get the sector up and running again, so there is a sector to support when DBE does eventually take over,” said Biondi.

A snap poll held during the session asked delegates which ECD interventions they think are the most effective. The majority (62%) said training teachers works best, followed by providing nutrition (12%) and providing equipment (12%). A further 6% said helping with registration was most effective, and 6% said building infrastructure was most effective.
For Jowell, the issue is a complex one. “We know that nutrition is essential, and our outcomes evaluation shows the huge impact of stunting. The children in our programme made progress, but they started from such a low base that the progress wasn’t the same as for children in another quintile. “It is not enough just to train teachers – we have to think about nutrition, but also about where practitioners are going to operate and how they will get an income. We need venues and sustainable incomes for people because ECD is not government-provided.”

Blair agreed, and also pointed out that preventing exposure to violence was not mentioned in the poll, but it is a very important factor, as toxic stress has a huge effect on development. Assuming nutrition and infrastructure are in place, training is the most effective way to improve child outcomes, according to Blair, who added that blended learning is not possible in ECD as attachment relationships are vital. “There is broad agreement that in-service training is crucial – just-in-time pedagogical support – that involves meeting a teacher on a weekly or monthly basis and finding out what they are battling with.” She said this type of intervention is exponentially more effective than pre-service training.

Helping with registration is also important as the current subsidy is R15 per child per day, but if this could be increased to R17, it would be possible to open double the number of centres, according to Blair. Biondi suggested that companies think about subsiding their employees’ children so they can receive quality educare, as well as think about parental leave. “Don’t just support external ECD providers. Look inside as well as outside,” she recommended.

Article written by Fiona Zerbst