The Star Early Edition

Key to better life for all our kids


THERE are about 6.5 million children in South Africa under the age of six. Some 4 million of them live in the poorest 40% of households, and 3 million live in rural areas.

This means that the majority of children are born into contexts that make it difficult for them to realise their potential.

On their journey towards quality jobs, most of South Africa’s young people have the odds stacked against them, starting as early as their first years of their lives.

A report released by the Inclusive Society Institute titled “Understand­ing Youth Inequality” shows that young people’s future chances often begin to emerge in very early childhood, setting in motion a range of inequities that tend to widen as children move through school and into the workforce.

Race, geography and gender, all of which are outside of young people’s control, continue to constrain the possibilit­ies available to them in profound ways. Last year, 8.8 million young people (15-34 years old) in South Africa were not in employment, education, or training.

The majority of this group are black, income-poor, without a qualificat­ion, and live in households with no employed members.

The report is about how those inequities play out over young people’s lives and, importantl­y, what strategies might be taken to interrupt them, both to improve their chances of social and economic mobility, and to disrupt structural patterns of inequality.

Early childhood developmen­t services – including nutrition, early learning, health care and social services – have the potential to improve children’s developmen­t and future chances, increasing primary school enrolment, improving academic performanc­e and reducing school dropout rates. In the critical first 1 000 days of a child’s life, infants and caregivers are expected to receive early childhood developmen­t services at home from community health workers, hired as part of clinic-based outreach teams.

As they grow older, children are most likely to receive care through an early learning programme, but with limited government subsidies, access to these services is dependent on caregivers’ ability to pay fees.

Research shows that young children who grow up in poor households are more likely to be excluded from early learning and health services because their families cannot afford transport to clinics or government offices, or because the fees of early-learning programmes are unaffordab­le.

Deeply entrenched inequality is evident when one considers that twothirds of black children live below the poverty line, compared with 2% of

white children.

This means that most black children start their schooling career on an unequal footing. It also illustrate­s the inextricab­le link between income levels and access to early-learning programmes and child outcomes – further driving South African inequality.

And even though access to early learning programmes has expanded over time, there is still stark inequality in the distributi­on and quality of programmes, and the level of funding from the government.

The report recommends focused government investment in the early childhood developmen­t workforce and quality early childhood developmen­t services in order to reduce this gap. Currently, only about 1.5% of the country’s GDP is spent on early-childhood developmen­t, most of which goes to child-support grants.

A mere 6.5% of this budget is allocated for early learning, nutrition support and supportive parenting programmes.

For the government to unlock the multiplier effects of early-childhood developmen­t, the first key lever is to access public financing to pay and skill the early childhood developmen­t workforce through sector education and training authoritie­s or public employment programmes.

The second key lever is to develop more inclusive regulatory frameworks that allow unregister­ed early-childhood developmen­t sites to access funding and quality support.

The recent abandonmen­t of the requiremen­t that non-profit organisati­ons be registered before they are eligible for funding is one example. Expanded funding would lighten the load on caregivers’ need to pay fees and improve access to early-leaning programmes for all children.

A major incentive for the government to unlock this financing is research that shows that investing in early childhood accrues benefits over the life course, with returns for schooling, tertiary education, employment prospects and ultimately national budgets.

Some models suggest that the eliminatio­n of stunting alone could generate an additional R62 billion a year, which would be enough to subsidise a national early learning programme for 0–5-year-olds, while also reducing the funding shortfall at tertiary institutio­ns.

If universal access to early learning translated into better basic education outcomes and a fully literate working-age population, some researcher­s suggest the country’s GDP could be expected to grow by a quarter.

But investing in early-childhood developmen­t goes far beyond a return on investment, presenting an opportunit­y to radically shift intergener­ational inequality in South Africa.

This is not only because it unlocks the developmen­tal potential of children, but also because it means supporting quality jobs in the community and social services sector, where women are heavily represente­d. Community, social, and personal services is the only sector that added jobs for young people from the first quarter of 2017 to the second quarter last year, most of which (mort than 60%) went to women.

But investing in early childhood developmen­t goes far beyond a return on investment, presenting an opportunit­y to radically shift intergener­ational inequality in South Africa

Expanding quality, affordable childcare and developmen­t not only has benefits for laying the foundation­s for children and young women in the early-childhood sector, it also enables more caregivers (usually women) to participat­e in the labour market. Given that care-giving responsibi­lities can often delimit young women’s labour participat­ion, this is essential to unlocking their economic potential and alleviatin­g gender inequality in the labour market.

Unlocking the early childhood developmen­t sector has the potential to reduce inequality, not only among children, but throughout the entire life cycle too, as well as alter the trajectory of future generation­s.

This article draws on the content of the recently published Inclusive Society Institute report titled “Understand­ing Youth Inequality”.

 ?? MICHELLE FLOWERS ?? Occupation­al therapist and public health consultant at Percept
MICHELLE FLOWERS Occupation­al therapist and public health consultant at Percept
 ?? DARYL SWANEPOEL CEO of the Inclusive Society Institute ??
DARYL SWANEPOEL CEO of the Inclusive Society Institute

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