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Podcast: How has covid-19 impacted vital low-fee private pre-schools in South Africa?

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We explore the complex governance of low-fee pre-schools in South Africa, the impact of covid-19, and what can be done about it.

This is the first of our podcasts on a limited series on the impact of covid-19 on low-fee private schools and preschools around the world. We will be talking to researchers, policy-makers, teachers, and principals to understand what this pandemic will mean for the future of the millions of schools in this sector. 

Low-fee private schools account for approximately a fourth of primary school enrolments in low-income countries, and in many countries private providers are almost the only source of preschool. Charging between $10 and $50 a month, they are often run by families from the community that they serve. However, their reliance of parents’ fees makes them especially vulnerable to the economic impact of covid-19 and if they become financially unviable, many millions of children will lose access to school.

In our first episode, we explore how low-fee private preschools in South Africa have been affected by the pandemic. While the South African government is committed to the eventual delivery of compulsory preschool education, private preschools account for almost all preschool enrolments in South Africa. While some preschools are registered by the state and receive a small subsidy, the vast majority of low-fee private preschools do not meet the formal requirements set by the government and so do not receive any financial support. The governance of the sector is therefore immensely complex; the state is reliant on unfunded, unregistered, and informal providers to deliver a prioritised service - in a sector that is now on the brink of bankruptcy.

All schools in South Africa were closed in March in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. In April, a group of civil society organisations - including the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Ilifa Labantwana, Bridge, the National ECD Alliance, the South African Congress for Early Childhood Development, and SmartStart - undertook a rapid survey of preschool providers to understand the impact that school closures has had on their schools. Their report, The Plight of the Early Childhood Workforce, suggests that between 15,000 and 30,000 preschools are at risk of closing permanently, which would affect 1.5 million children and families. In July, South Africa’s High Court ruled that private preschools would be allowed to reopen immediately, provided that they meet certain health and safety requirements.

In this episode, we speak with Zaheera Mohammed, who is one of the lead authors of the report. She is the Finance Manager of Ilifa Labantwana, and served in South Africa’s National Treasury for 12 years. We also talk with Mhlangabezi Masizana, who runs an unregistered preschool in Khayelitsha with his family, to understand his experiences of this time and what will be required for his school to reopen. We explore how the sector works in South Africa, how it has been affected by covid-19, and what could be done about it. 

Update: At the time of writing, South Africa has allocated R1.3 billion ($75 million) towards employing supervisors to monitor that preschools are complying with covid-19 regulations. There currently is a national protest demanding that these funds instead be spent on direct support to preschools. The protest is driven by the Covid-19 People’s Coalition, which is an association of civil society organisations in South Africa.