There is little doubt that one of the main constraints to South African economic development and prosperity has been the failure of our education system. The new government in 1994 inherited an intolerably unequal system, with white kids receiving world-class education while black kids obtained such a poor quality of education that only the really talented ones could escape the poverty cycle. Two decades later, while the racial inequality has abated with many more black kids in good-performing schools, the sad reality is that too many poor South Africans are stuck in schools where they learn basically nothing.
But the problem runs deeper than the sorry state of South Africa’s schools. As Nic Spaull points out, our poor performance in matric (the final year of high school in South Africa) is rooted in weak foundations in grades 1-3. And in truth, those weak foundations in school are often rooted in weak foundations at home.
The field of early-childhood development is an exciting and challenging new area of research. More and more studies show the large gains from investments in the early years of a child’s life. James Heckman, probably the leading scholar on education economics, writes:
A critical time to shape productivity is from birth to age five, when the brain develops rapidly to build the foundation of cognitive and character skills necessary for success in school, health, career and life. Early childhood education fosters cognitive skills along with attentiveness, motivation, self-control and sociability – the character skills that turn knowledge into know-how and people into productive citizens.
Heckman investigated the Perry Preschool programme in the United States and calculated a return on investment of between 7 and 10% per year through better school and career achievement as well as reduced costs through remedial education, health and criminal justice system expenditures. The graph above shows how the returns to education investment falls as the level of education rises. While Rulof Burger’s research shows that these returns may not be exactly true for South Africa (the quality of education for many kids is so poor that they don’t gain anything from an additional year in school), my expectation is that South Africa’s return on investment will be much higher at these very early levels.
But what are these early investments? They can be many things: providing mothers with tool-kits containing basic necessities for newborns (an ongoing study within the Economics department at Stellenbosch University is testing the effect of exactly this), providing young mothers with information about early childhood nutrition and health (see, for example, the Ilifa Labantwana programme), improving the way teachers interact with kids in nurseries with limited resources (my mother-in-law is doing her PhD on this topic!), or something as simple as a television programme.
The latter, at least, is the finding of a new NBER paper on the effects of Sesame Street, a well-known television and radio programme that has expanded across the world, including to South Africa, in the guise of Takalani Sesame. Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine, the authors of the new study, show the large gains from something as affordable as a TV programme for kids: not only in terms of immediate outcomes but, as Kearney and Levine show, also later in life:
Sesame Street is one of the largest early childhood interventions ever to take place. It was introduced in 1969 as an educational, early childhood program with the explicit goal of preparing preschool age children for school entry. Millions of children watched a typical episode in its early years. Well-designed studies at its inception provided evidence that watching the show generated an immediate and sizeable increase in test scores. In this paper we investigate whether the first cohorts of preschool children exposed to Sesame Street experienced improved outcomes subsequently. We implement an instrumental variables strategy exploiting limitations in television technology generated by distance to a broadcast tower and UHF versus VHF transmission to distinguish counties by Sesame Street reception quality. We relate this geographic variation to outcomes in Census data including grade-for-age status in 1980, educational attainment in 1990, and labor market outcomes in 2000. The results indicate that Sesame Street accomplished its goal of improving school readiness; preschool-aged children in areas with better reception when it was introduced were more likely to advance through school as appropriate for their age. This effect is particularly pronounced for boys and non-Hispanic, black children, as well as children living in economically disadvantaged areas. The evidence regarding the impact on ultimate educational attainment and labor market outcomes is inconclusive.
Early childhood development is one of the few expenditure categories that would win support across the political spectrum. National and provincial funding should therefore not be an issue. Trade unions that plague the transformation of the education system are less involved at the preschool level: there is thus no reason not to rapidly expand early childhood programmes across South Africa, particularly in poor areas.
I also see a lucrative private sector opportunity, although Curro has already entered this space with its Curro Castle model. What we really need, though, is an affordable model for millions of poor families unable to afford preschool. Why can government not institute a voucher scheme for every kid to attend a nursery of their choice and let the private sector provide the services?
A national nursery scheme won’t have an immediate effect on South Africa’s growth or prosperity. But a new generation of kids will grow up without the inequalities in cognitive abilities that are already entrenched when they reach school. Instead, a successful national preschool system can show voters and bureaucrats (and hopefully trade unions) the benefits of private sector participation, which will allow the system to be expanded to primary and perhaps even secondary school.
Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, but, in my opinion, this is the most effective (and affordable) way we can begin to address the massive inequalities so persistent at present.