The South African Government wants to introduce minimum qualifications for people who care for and educate young children in a bid to give them a better start.

Its plans will affect thousands of daycare centres and crAches, which are often run by women in their homes.

This week, Parliament heard government plans to expand and professionalise the early childhood development sector to cover children from conception until the year before they enter formal school - and, in the case of children with developmental difficulties and disabilities, until the year before they turn seven.

Connie Nxumalo, deputy director-general for welfare services at the department of social development, said the national integrated policy on early childhood development - approved by Cabinet in December - was proposing age-appropriate and developmental programmes for children to ensure that there was universal access.

Nxumalo said government recognised the long-term benefits of investing in children. "That is the reason we are moving early childhood development towards the public good. The service has been provided mainly by nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). Now government is saying: 'Let us take charge because it is an important area of work which will give us results later on'."

At least one NGO said the document was "encouraging", but expressed concern about the lack of political will to implement government's well-intentioned policies.

Nxumalo said they wanted to ensure that early childhood development practitioners were professionalised, trained properly and remunerated properly, "because you will not have motivated practitioners if they are not properly skilled and remunerated".

"We also need to resource early childhood development services, which are currently not well resourced," she said.

Treasury was amenable and had allocated a conditional grant of R812.8 million for these services - R319.8 million in 2017/18 and R493 million in 2018/19 - to increase the number of children subsidised and improve childhood development centres.

The Government would monitor whether the services were working and were being provided in a safe space.

The new policy also proposes a government-regulated dual model of public and private delivery of childhood development programmes.

Nxumalo said the proposed comprehensive package would focus on the first 1,000 days of life. "We need to take care of pregnant mothers because that is where development starts."

The policy proposes that pregnant mothers register their unborn babies for social security so that when the child is born, there are already systems in place for that child to access services.

Pregnant women will undergo a means test to see whether they have enough resources or are eligible to qualify for a child support grant.

Pregnant women also stand to receive nutritional support from conception right through their pregnancy as this is "critical for infants and young children".

Nxumalo was quick to reassure people who do not have qualifications but provide this service to young children. "The policy is not really saying you must close shop or you are not going to be recognised; all we are saying is that we must have a tailor-made training programme for them.

"They have been there and will continue to be there to stimulate our children. We just need a training programme targeted at their level ... to ensure that children are stimulated properly," she added.

Professor Eric Atmore, director of the Cape Town-based Centre for Early Childhood Development, said the policy was comprehensive and encouraging, but warned that "policy is only as good as your ability to implement it".

"My concern is that the political will to implement that policy does not appear to be there. To make that policy work, you have to have substantial resources.

"There is no history of government putting substantial resources into early childhood development," he said.

Atmore said it was critical that people who run childhood development centres had training. "But if we set that bar too high, we are going to lose thousands of women who are very good at what they do, but for historical reasons, have never had the opportunity of formal training."