By Tengetile Hlophe

Evidence suggests that Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty and inequality.

Early childhood care and learning lays the foundation for success in school and as the child grows, in life. It prevents achievement gaps between disadvantaged children and their most privileged peers. What the country has to appreciate is that poor children do not struggle in school because of their parents: they struggle because of poverty.

Global evidence suggests that children who experience quality early childhood development, including early stimulation, early education, and proper nutrition have an exponentially higher chance of social and economic success as adults.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that pre-primary education is critical to close the education outcomes between privileged and disadvantaged children, on top of preparing all children for success in later years, still millions of children are continuing to miss the chance of a great start in life.

The Government of Eswatini considers ECCE a growing priority and recognises that there is room for improvement to expand access to ECCE services as well as improve service quality among providers.

The National Education and Training Policy acknowledges that ECCE is the foundation of human resource development in the country and children between 0-8 years old should be afforded the opportunity to achieve their full potential (Ministry of Education and Training, 2018: 41).

However, not all children benefit from ECCE in Eswatini, and this has an impact on their future educational attainments and progression into the labour force, hence affecting the development of the country.

Even though ECCE is an important pillar of the Education Policy (2018) in Eswatini, the government is yet to introduce publicly funded ECCE programmes to ensure that all children who enter Grade 1 under the Free Primary Education (FPE) Act, have a solid footing for learning and success in their school life.

The Ministry of Education and Training recognises that in order for these children to be prepared for Grade 1 and future learning, they need some form of ECCE, that is, access to and quality pre-primary schooling.

 Why must Eswatini invest in pre-primary education?

ECCE covers a broad range of support for young children and their families, including health, early care and education, home visiting programmes, social protection, and child welfare. While ECCE may vary between countries, the quality and effectiveness of ECCE depends on how well the programmes empower children to develop their four key developmental domains – physical, cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional (Measuring Early Learning Quality and Outcomes [MELQO], 2017 and Heckman, 2011).

An Australian researcher, Jen Jackson from Victoria University reports that for every AUD$1 (approximately E10.05) invested by government in pre-school education, AUD$2 (approximately E20.10) returns to the Australian economy. This is more than a 100% return on investment. Investing in a country’s human capital at an early age can be a catalyst for future economic growth.

The failure to invest in children at an early age is felt later in the education system and in life, where lack of school readiness leads to poor performance, which may be related to an inability to take advantage of economic opportunities in the future. Investing in, and improving the ECCE sector in Eswatini is essential to avoid the very costly remedial or corrective measures that the country would have to institute later on if it fails to invest in the early cognitive development of children.

According to the Ministry of Education and Training, the motivation for Eswatini to direct more education sector resources to ECCE is that a significant proportion of children have a poor start in life, and thus are unable to attend pre-school education and experience high repetition rates in primary school. At the same time, a majority of the current pre-school centres are ill equipped to facilitate teaching and learning, as well as proper care for children.

Without a standardised curricula guide for pre-school teachers and caregivers, the scope of learning and care varies substantially between the ECCE providers. This calls for a structured pre-primary learning system to consolidate the competencies required in Grade 1 and to bridge the gaps in terms of access and quality between privileged and disadvantaged children of Eswatini.

To give some perspective on the financial costs involved as a result of the inadequate investment in ECCE, the country spends more than E4 million for repetition in Grade 1 only. This is based on the E1 200 per capita cost of FPE, which includes the grant per child and other costs. Taking into account all the repetitions in primary school, the amount balloons to well over E20 million each year (AEC, 2017:5).

The Eswatini Income and Expenditure Survey (2018) reports that only 21% of eligible pupils actually access pre-school in the country. This could mean that pupils who do not have prior learning may have higher chances of repeating Grade 1 and subsequent classes.

A study conducted by the Eswatini Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (ESEPARC) on the ‘Inequality of Opportunities in Education’ demonstrates that the ability of a child to perform well at school is cumulative, and therefore future performance in higher grades is influenced by past experiences.

Therefore, building the necessary skills in pre-primary school prepares children for the future. Instilling entrepreneurial and problem solving skills through games and playful learning at a tender age ensures that young people grow to be courageous enough to take risks and creative enough to think differently.

In addition, studies demonstrate that exposure of kids to different technology at an early age benefits pupils today by building community, developing vital math and literacy skills, expanding imagination, promoting creativity, and fostering engagement, thus building a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

 What is the extent of ECCE provision in Eswatini?

The ECCE Centre Baseline Survey conducted in 2008 indicates that about a quarter of age eligible children received ECCE, with the majority of these children coming from privileged high income families who can afford the fees charged by the ECCE centres.

A study conducted by Marope (2010) finds that in Eswatini, 48% of children in the richest households attend pre-school compared to 28% from the poorest households and in urban areas, 43% of the children attend ECCE compared to 26% in rural areas. Moreover, aspects of infrastructure and nutrition are the major limiting factors in the delivery of quality ECCE in Eswatini.

Overall, ECCE delivery in Eswatini is limited and inequitable by income level, age, gender, location, special needs, and being an orphaned or vulnerable child (OVC). Efforts have been made by government to improve the nutrition of children in Eswatini through national community care points (NCPs) and the introduction of a school feeding programme in all public primary schools in the country.

However, more needs to be done to improve the extent and quality of ECCE provision, particularly specialised ECCE and initiatives that target different aspects of childhood care and development in Eswatini.

More fundamentality, the improvement of ECCE in Eswatini rests on the provision of up-to-date information of the situation on the ground. Considering that the last national survey on ECCE was conducted in 2008, there is need for more current statistics to inform policy, programming, and implementation of ECCE initiatives.

It is against this backdrop that the Self Help Action to Mitigate the Burden of AIDS (SHAMBA) partnered with ESEPARC to conduct a National Survey on the provision of Early Childhood Care and Education in Eswatini. The ECCE Survey will provide information on the extent and type of private and public ECCE provision in Eswatini. The Survey will provide current information on demand and access to ECCE provision versus supply and types of ECCE services in order to inform policy on the introduction of Grade 0 in Eswatini.

By investing in children at an early age of their development, Eswatini can close the poverty gap and ensure that every child grows to be a productive member of the economy.