#FeesMustFall at Early Childhood Development Centres

I’ve changed my mind about supporting the #FeesMustFall movement at tertiary level because in my view, that’s not where the energy is needed. I believe fees must first fall at ECD (Early Childhood Development) level before we turn our attention to universities.

The Weekend Argus has featured a story ‘Wandering children are at risk’, and it makes for some very harrowing and concerning reading. It quotes Chairperson of the Elsies River Early Childhood Development Forum, Valda Walker, who says that 18,000 children are not at crèches in the Western Cape. She adds that this is what puts them at risk of rape and being abused.

One can’t help but think whether Courtney Pieters, the three-year-old who was raped and murdered, allegedly by a tenant who stayed at her parent’s home, would’ve been spared had she been at a crèche instead of at home that fateful day.

Walker tells the Weekend Argus that the high crèche fees are to blame for children not attending them. According to the report, crèches in the area charge from R120 a week. One mother of two in the report cited a higher figure of R600 a month. Social development pays a meagre R15 per day per child to attend a registered ECD, and this amounts to just R3,690 a year.

It’s ludicrous to think that in a country where we pay such a high rate of tax and where we can spend millions on the president’s homestead, politician’s cars and lavish lifestyles that we can’t spare some change to up the social grants for children to attend decent ECDs.

While tertiary education fees are even more astronomical than ECD fees we have to look at the bigger picture. Surely it’s the early years that matter most. At this level a child’s brain is still forming, learning and improving on motor skills. They’re most vulnerable as they can’t fend for themselves and if left alone simply become easy targets to sick people with bad intentions.

While debating this on Facebook, a relative pointed out to me that in the United Kingdom, every child has 15 hours free to attend crèche from the age of three and some parents who are eligible can get these credits from when their child turns two. From September, the UK government will be offering 30 hours free if both parents work. Meanwhile, neighboring France offers free creche from the age of three.

A friend added that the development phase is so important. She said she saw kids who  just attended “babysitting” preschools who couldn’t speak English very well or not at all. She outlined that with government schools having 40 -50 kids in a class, and teachers having nervous breakdowns, there is no time to give these kids extra time or lessons and so inevitably they slide down the road to being called slow, incapable, ADHD or lazy and these kids just get further behind, which means in 12 years we’re dealing with dropouts, fails and a generation of incapable young adults.

So this is why it’s so vital that we start at the beginning. At grassroots. I’m not saying people at tertiary level are beyond help or shouldn’t be helped. I just feel we need to focus our energy where it’s needed most. Where learning starts. Then we’ll have kids with better skills leaving school, more prepared for what the working world will throw at them.

When it comes to South Africa, people at university level can at least go out and earn a living. Or at least have a better chance of doing so than a three-year-old. A three-year-old has no option but to play, while an 18-year-old can apply for bursaries, take a gap year to save for paying for their studies, get a student loan – there are certainly more options available to them.

There’s a lot of things that need fixing in South Africa. The good news is that most of this can all be done if we focus our energies and tax money in the right places. I don’t believe the current government have the political will to turn things around.

I know the president visited Elsies River just recently. I hope the visit will result in more action in that community and less talk. But somehow I’m not convinced of this. Till then I’m going to continue with my campaign of #FeesMustFall at ECD level, and not tertiary because I believe it’s the most vulnerable that need our financial help.


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