A group of investors has announced a new ‘social franchise’ for early learning in South Africa, and committed R60 million to its establishment over the next three years. Branded “SmartStart”, the early learning franchise will open up new playgroups and daymother groups and centres across the country.
“Think of a Nando’s for early learning”, says Nicola Galombik, Director of Yellowwoods. “We want to use powerful marketing that appeals to parents as well as simple systems of management and daily practice that can be duplicated by SmartStart franchisees in communities throughout South Africa. Our investment, together with that of other investors, is to get the franchise up and running and ensure that it reaches the poorest children first”.
The decision to establish a national social franchise is based on the fact that only about a quarter of 3-4 year olds in South Africa have access to quality early learning programmes, provided mainly in ECD centres. While the NDP prioritises ECD, there is currently no clear Government mechanism for supporting forms of early learning, such as playgroups and enhanced child-minding services. “We are at a critical moment “, says David Harrison, CEO of the DG Murray Trust, which is a co-investor. “One side is the huge lost opportunity if we continue to disregard the fact that early learning programmes are the very foundation of education. On the other side is the window created by an unprecedented political commitment to early childhood development. What’s missing are financing and management mechanisms, and affordable models that show how early learning can be ramped up to reach all children within a decade. SmartStart is one such mechanism”.
This is particularly important in light of the national policy for early childhood development which has recently been endorsed by Cabinet and has now been gazetted for public comment. From this policy, it is clear that all children must have access to quality early learning. This requires new systems of provision that reach particularly poor children who are not yet in registered preschool centres, and which help more centres to get registered and deliver quality ECD services. SmartStart is also an example of the type of public-private partnership envisaged in the National Development Plan.
Ntjantja Ned, Chief Executive of the Hollard Trust’s ECD programme, will be leading the roll-out of SmartStart across Gauteng in partnership with local government. “Ultimately”, says Ned, “the success of SmartStart will depend on its ability to inspire parents and early learning practitioners, and to draw in further investments from both the public and private sectors”. “If we’re looking for obvious breakthroughs in turning around education in South Africa in the next decade” says Nicola Galombik, “proper investment in quality early learning – at scale – is one of them. Government, civil society, business – we’ve all got to stick our necks out and throw our combined weight behind solutions to deliver early learning opportunities on scale”.