Through the magnifying glass: Understanding the quality of ECE in South Africa

Source/credit: Vuyelwa Ntuli, Department of Basic Education, South Africa
Source/credit: Vuyelwa Ntuli, Department of Basic Education, South Africa

The needs and rights of infants and young children span across the areas of health, nutrition, safe environments, psychosocial well-being, and cognitive development. The provision of these integrated services requires a cross-sectoral approach and planning, coordination and collaboration across government departments, civil society organizations, the corporate sector and non-government organizations. The Government of South Africa places a strong emphasis on achieving the twin goals of increased access to quality Early Childhood Education (ECE) programs for all children. To support the achievement of these goals, South Africa has several plans and policies in place.

The National Development Plan (NDP) 2030 sets out a clear objective for the country to: “Make early childhood development a top priority among the measures to improve the quality of education and long-term prospects of future generations.” The NDP further indicates that dedicated resources should be channeled towards ensuring that all children are well cared for from an early age and should receive appropriate emotional, cognitive, and physical development stimulation. The National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy (2015) strives to transform ECE delivery through integrated partnerships between caregivers, civil society, the private sector and various government departments. Finally, the South African National Curriculum Framework (NCF) for children from birth to four was developed by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) as a guideline to improve the quality of basic education and build a solid foundation in the early years.

The responsibility of ECE has been transferred to the Department of Basic Education (DBE) from the Department of Social Development (DSD) on 1 April 2022. In terms of access, South Africa has a moderately high net enrollment rate for ECE, with 73.5 percent of children aged five enrolled in some form of an early learning program. The DBE, in preparation for adopting this function, is creating a management information system (MIS) that will, on an annual basis, collate information on enrolment, staffing, registration, monitoring the implementation of the curriculum, and other components for all ECE programs throughout the country. Out of the estimated 40,000 ECE programs, only about 15,000 are officially registered, which poses a challenge to the implementation of services, routine monitoring, and ensuring that quality ECE services are being delivered and quality outcomes are achieved.

To measure the quality of ECE outcomes and service delivery, the DBE in collaboration with First National Bank, Innovation Edge, USAID and ECD Measure have launched the Thrive by Five Index and is implementing an accompanying Baseline Assessment to enable the measurement of the proportion of children aged 4 to 5 years in South Africa that are developmentally on track in Early Learning, Physical Growth and Social-Emotional Functioning. The Baseline Assessment involves conducting classroom observations and interviews with ECE practitioners and principals to help better understand whether our ECE programs are providing children with the early learning experiences that will set them up for success in school and in life.

The purpose of the Thrive by Five Index and Baseline Assessment is to:

  • Evaluate where we are as a country in terms of our children’s developmental outcomes.
  • Understand the context in which different ECE programs are being provided and better plan to close the performance gaps between programs provided in richer and poorer contexts.
  • Raise public awareness about the importance of ensuring that children start school on track, and of the role that parents play in this regard.
  • Motivate for greater resources since this information will provide us with evidence to support greater investment in early childhood interventions.
  • Support the effective targeting of resources by identifying the gaps that need to be addressed. These could include practitioner training and development, resources, or other support initiatives.
  • Understand what works and which interventions (or combinations thereof) are most effective in improving early childhood outcomes.

The DBE hopes to institutionalize the Thrive by Five Index and Baseline Assessment as a recurring activity to measure quality outcomes and service delivery every three years. This will help South Africa track its progress in reaching the goal of increased access to quality ECE programs. Data collected through these assessments will fill the void of existing gaps in understanding ECE quality and further, aid in the development of targeted interventions to better support ECE programs and practitioners in the delivery of ECE services.

The Thrive by Five Index and Baseline Assessment resembles the MELQO (Measuring Early Learning and Quality Outcomes) tool adopted in several contexts. Countries looking to embark on a similar exercise of measuring quality ECE, can draw on these existing tools or adapt and develop their own tools relevant to their individual contexts. These countries can build on several of the lessons learnt in South Africa. The first is to secure government ownership and ensure that the process is led by the government from the onset. This will facilitate improved planning, monitoring, and evaluation by strengthening and systematizing these data collection initiatives and enabling better targeting of ECE programs and interventions. Public-private partnerships have an important role to play in adapting, developing, and strengthening measurement tools and ensuring that there is adequate and trained capacity to support data collection and quality assurance processes. Further, the early learning part of the assessment was locally developed and standardized and aligned with the South African early learning curriculum – an activity that can be adopted by other countries.


Kulula Manona

Chief Director, Department of Basic Education, South Africa

Janeli Kotze

Deputy Director, Department of Basic Education, South Africa

Sara Mokgadi Maja

Chief Education Specialist, Department of Basic Education, South Africa

Likho Bottoman

Occupational Therapist, Department of Basic Education, South Africa

Jesal Kika

Education Economist and Consultant, World Bank

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