how principals can improve early childhood development centers

Early childhood development centers, often referred to as crèches, nurseries, edu-cares or preschools, are vital spaces for young children. There they can learn and play, interact with their peers and receive care while their parents are at work or looking for a job. These centers are cornerstones of children’s development – ​​and their future.

In South Africa, 1,660 3,173 children are enrolled in 42,420 early childhood development programs.

Early childhood development centers also have another role that is not often talked about: that of employer. This is particularly important in a country like South Africa, which has an unemployment rate of 33.9%. Across the country, early childhood development centers employ 165,059 people, mostly women, as “teaching” staff. It is a large and growing workforce.

Managing employees, children, parents and infrastructure is a difficult task. This means that directors of early childhood development centers are key figures. They are, of course, often the public face and figurehead of an institution. But they are also business people: managers, responsible for resource allocation, planning and organizational leadership.

These skills have become even more crucial since a change in April 2022 which means that South Africa’s Department of Basic Education governs the early childhood development sector, a role that was previously played by the Department of Education. social development. Principals are called upon to adapt and respond to change as the sector adapts to new processes and policies from the Department of Basic Education.

The problem, as my recent doctoral research shows, is that many directors of early childhood development centers lack the necessary human resource and program management skills to turn governance change into an opportunity. Nor have they been taught how to coordinate the many moving parts involved in running a center.

This is despite the importance of highlighting these skills in government policy on early childhood development. The policy states that, by 2030, all early childhood development practitioners and managers should have the right knowledge, skills, infrastructure and materials to support a “comprehensive package” of early learning services . He also says that:

It is the responsibility of government departments such as the Department of Basic Education to mobilize funds and implement programs to build the capacity of early childhood development practitioners.

My research suggests this is an ambitious plan and timeline – but the goal need not be unattainable with political goodwill and investment in leadership.

What the directors told me

The objective of my PhD was to gain an understanding of the essential managerial skills of managers in the early childhood development sector to effectively manage centers in South Africa. There were 30 attendees; 14 were directors of early childhood development centers and 16 were managers working in the area of ​​early childhood development.

Some of the issues I identified among principals (based on their own assessment and managers’ opinions) in my research were:

  • Managers juggled many tasks without the right skills and support.

  • A lack of financial literacy. Even when the centers were generating decent incomes, managers didn’t always know how to manage money or set budgets.

  • Poor administrative skills and incomplete record keeping.

  • Poor communication skills. Principals know they are key to building relationships with parents and staff, but they are not always sure of their own skills.

  • Difficulties registering centers or gathering the necessary documentation to do so. Principals said they often struggled to access the right information or meet the requirements to receive government grants. This has been particularly problematic during the COVID shutdowns, when additional financial support has made the difference between centers surviving the pandemic or having to close their doors.

Principals also told me that they lacked the resources, time and support needed for professional development that would benefit them and their staff. Principals and teaching staff learn on the job, but ongoing training is also crucial.

So what is the way forward?


Several recommendations emerged from my research. Their application can help the sector meet its policy requirements.

First, all early childhood development centers should create a document that defines the role of a director and outlines the support they will need to fulfill this role. This document could help school principals better understand their functions and tasks.

Second, training organizations and government should prioritize professional and personal development through forums and workshops for managers. This should be continuous rather than one-off and requires both financial and human investment.

Among other things, principals should learn to manage salaries and resources, and to take responsibility. Principals must also be equipped with the necessary business management skills to pursue funding opportunities and cultivate partnerships that understand the nature of the early childhood development sector.

I also recommend that managers of early childhood development centers and those who work with these centers adopt evidence-based monitoring and evaluation processes to support enrollment and principal management processes.

Training and mentoring could help school leaders develop their management and business skills. Establishing management skills for head teachers can only improve the outcomes of South Africa’s youngest citizens. As one participant told me, “Leadership is a process, not a position. There is no organizational learning without individual learning.

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