The UN Children Fund’s (Unicef) first ever global report on pre-primary school education has lauded South Africa’s efforts in rolling out pre-primary education.
The report, titled “A World Ready to Learn: Prioritizing quality early childhood education”, reveals that children enrolled in at least one year of pre-primary education are more likely to develop the critical skills they need to succeed in school.
In addition, the report found that children with pre-primary education are less likely to repeat grades or drop out of school, and are therefore more able to contribute to peaceful and prosperous societies and economies when they reach adulthood.
While the report highlights a lack of investment in pre-primary education by the majority of governments worldwide, it commends South Africa’s enrolment rate in this regard.
“Pre-primary schooling is our children’s educational foundation – every stage of education that follows relies on its success.
“Yet, too many children around the world are denied this opportunity. This increases their risk of repeating grades or dropping out of school altogether and relegates them to the shadows of their more fortunate peers,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
Noting that at least 175 million children – 50% of the world’s pre-primary-age population – are not enrolled in pre-primary programmes, the report urges governments to commit at least 10% of their national education budgets to scale them up.
The report outlines a set of practical recommendations for governments and partners to make quality pre-primary education universal and routine.
In light of this, the report makes an example of South Africa’s achievement in early childhood education post 1994 to date.
The report highlights the expansion of the Grade R class.
“South Africa introduced pro-poor subsidies to provide additional funds to the poorest 40 percent of schools, primarily used to supply additional learning materials and to reduce the number of children per classroom,” the report reads.
Focusing its efforts on how other governments can take a page out of South Africa’s book, the report attributes the country’s success in pre-primary education to the country’s implementation capacity and financial responsibility at various levels of government.
“South Africa offers an example of how the transfer of national funds to local governments should be complemented with building implementation capacity into the process,” the report states.
In 1997, South Africa launched a three-year pilot project to test the feasibility of introducing a year of pre-primary education at scale.
The national reception year, or Grade R, was officially introduced in 2001 for children aged 5 years, with the goal of reaching universal access by 2010 and making Grade R compulsory by 2019.
For the first three years of its roll-out, the National Treasury provided conditional grants to various levels of government to fund 4 500 sites, train practitioners and monitor and support the programme.
In this initial phase, less than one third of the funds were actually spent in 2001, due to limited personnel and inadequate capacities at the provincial level.
By 2004, however, 75% of these grants were spent thanks to improved planning and implementation capacity. In addition, provincial education departments were required to include Grade R in their budgets for the 2004–2005 academic year. In 2003–2004, Grade R became centralised in the Department of Basic Education.
It now forms the first year of primary education, with more than 90 percent of classes housed in public primary schools; the remainder of Grade R classes take place in community-based early childhood development centres or private schools.
Funding for Grade R is provided by the National Treasury through the Department of Basic Education, with provincial allocations designed to address equity issues.
While the report is positive to a large extent, it notes that ensuring provinces spend funds as intended and equitably remains a challenge.
“The government continues to steadily increase funding for Grade R to make it universal and compulsory,” stated the report.