At the start of April 2022, the Department of Social Development handed over the responsibility of early childhood development to the Department of Basic Education, paving the way for earlier schooling in South Africa.

Two years of early childhood development (ECD) is set to become compulsory for all children before they enter the formal school system in grade 1.

Since taking over ECD from the social development department, the Department of Basic Education said that it has identified “a multitude of challenges” in the early childhood development sector – systemic challenges, access challenges, and challenges in the quality of learning.

The main systemic challenges entail the historic underfunding of the sector, it said, including a lack of infrastructure support to ECD centres, an overly burdensome regulatory framework, the lack of a management information system, the lack of a quality assurance system and under-qualified practitioners.

“The challenge with access is that only 58% of 3-year-olds and 75% of 4-year-olds are currently accessing early learning opportunities. Ideally, we would like all 4-year-olds to be able to access early learning opportunities,” the department said.

The department said it is prioritising the systemic challenges by creating an enabling environment, adding that work is ongoing in addressing the regulatory challenges through the Second Children’s Amendment Bill and the review of the Norms and Standards for ECD registration.

Responding in a written parliamentary Q&A this week, basic education minister Angie Motshekga said that the department is also addressing access issues by provisioning grade R infrastructure for schools.

This is already being funded through the Education Infrastructure Grant and the Equitable share portion by provinces, she said.

She said the department is working to ensure that there are enough grade R classrooms to accommodate the shift, with these classrooms being procured through four main routes:

  • New standalone grade R classrooms;
  • New or replacement schools provided with grade R classrooms;
  • Ordinary classrooms converted into grade R; and
  • Mobile classrooms used as grade R classrooms.

Explaining the importance of the shift of compulsory grade R to parliament, the department noted that more South African children are expected to begin reading earlier, with higher standards of reading expected to be introduced in the earlier primary school grades.

The move is also expected to provide better monitoring systems, including systems to gauge the school readiness of children when they enter grade 1.

The department said that it also plans to provide further support to Foundation Phase (Grade R – Grade 3) teachers, including Individualised coaching and Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) tools. It has also pledged to strengthen school-level Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to advance teacher capacity.

The compulsory schooling change is included in the draft Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) bill. The bill is currently sitting in National Assembly. Public comment for the bill closed on 15 August 2022.

In addition to the compulsory grade R, the bill makes a raft of proposals, including:

  • Compulsory attendance: Stricter punishments will be introduced for parents who fail to ensure their children attend school, including jail time and/or a fine of up to 12 months.
  • Absenteeism: The bill states that teachers, principals and school governing bodies must take responsibility and accountability for learners that are within their school community by ascertaining the whereabouts of a learner who is absent from school for a period of more than three days without a valid reason.
  • Corporal punishment: Corporal punishment is abolished and no person may inflict or impose corporal punishment to a learner at a school, during a school activity, or in a hostel accommodating learners of a school.
  • Initiation practices: The bill prohibits initiation practices in a hostel accommodating learners, and during a school activity.
  • Governing body disclosures: Members of a school governing body, like other public officials, will be required tp disclose on an annual basis their financial interests and the financial interests of their spouse, partner and immediate family members.
  • Homeschooling: The bill introduces further clarity around home-schooling, including that South African learners may be educated at home only if they are registered for such education.
  • Business with the state: The bill will prohibit educators from conducting business with the state or from being a director of a public or private company conducting business with the state, and creates an offence should an educator contravene the abovementioned provision.

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