The alarming state of Early Childhood Development in South Africa

Updated June 2022

In South Africa, 1.6 million children (72%) under 6 years old are enrolled to attend an Early Learning Programme meant to prepare them for school. Concerningly, this figure was closer to 2million before the Covid19 pandemic. The decline shows that parents are slow to send their children back to pre-school, possibly due to financial strain (many lost their jobs), or because many parents don’t realise how crucial early education is for their child’s future success.

Also concerning is that a child’s chances of starting school “On Track” is profoundly influenced by their household’s income level with poor children being at a significant disadvantage at the point of entry into school. This has severe long-term implications for their education, employment and income prospects.

Useful abbreviations
ECD: Early Childhood Development
ELP: Early Learning Programme
DBE: Department of Basic Education
DSD: Department of Social Development

The importance of access to quality early learning – what the research tells us.

“Quality early childhood education provides persistent, life-long benefits to the child and society long after they have left preschool. Research shows that quality early learning interventions boost socio-emotional skills. It is a fact that socio-emotional skills have even greater effects on later-life outcomes than cognitive skills. For example, data from the Perry Preschool Program shows that increased academic motivation creates 30% of the effects on achievement and 40% on employment for females. These positive later-life effects are consistent across programs and speak to the need to invest in programs that develop the whole child with a full range of skills.” (Heckman, Early Childhood Education: Quality and Access Pay Off)

“High-quality programs produce high-quality outcomes. Research shows that a comprehensive birth to age five program has lasting effects on IQ, boosts academic and economic achievement and helps prevent the incidence of chronic disease and obesity in adulthood.” (Heckman, Early Childhood Education: Quality and Access Pay Off)

The highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible, from birth through age five, in disadvantaged families.”—James J. Heckman, December 7, 2012

Those seeking to reduce deficits and strengthen the economy should make significant investments in early childhood education.” (Heckman, Invest in Early Childhood Development: Reduce Deficits, 2022)

These positive later-life effects are consistent across programs and speak to the need to invest in programs that develop the whole child with a full range of skills, and the benefits to society at large when we invest in young children.

Quality early childhood education provides persistent, life-long benefits to the child and society long after they have left preschool

Prof Heckman

Some early learning facts according to the ECD Census 2021

South Africa’s ECD Census 2021 sheds light on what preschools and educare centres are like at the moment.

South Africa has

  • 42 420 Early Learning Programmes (about 60% are urban, 40% are rural)
  • Employing 198 361 staff members
  • 1.6million children enrolled at ELPs

Registration status with the Department of Social Development 

  • 40% are fully or conditionally registered as a partial care facility, an early learning programme or both
  • 16% are in the process of registering
  • 42% of programmes are not registered
  • 33% receive a subsidy from DSD
Why register?
It is important that ECD centres register with the government. To register, centres need to achieve the minimum criteria, norms and standards. Government is able to monitor registered centres, whereas unregistered centres are not monitored or quality controlled. Only registered centres may apply for a government subsidy which is often the difference between financial sustainably for a centre, especially in a poorer area. But, the registration process is onerous and expensive, often leaving low-income centres behind.

ECD Centre Staff qualifications:

  • 22% have no teaching qualification at all
  • 26% have attended a skills training programme
  • 52% have a relevant qualification

Facts about ECD Centre fees and learners:

  • Centres charge R509 per month, on average 
  • 39 children per ECD centre, on average
  • 62% allow at least some children to attend free of charge

Facts about ECD Centre infrastructure:

  • 86% are in a formal structure, 14% are not
  • 40% do not have a flush toilet
  • 55% have access to running water inside the premises
  • 22% exclusively use a bowl or bucket to wash their hands

Facts about ECD Centre materials for learning and playing:

  • 34% do not have an outdoor play area with suitable equipment
  • 44% do not have access to age-appropriate books
  • 50%  do have materials for counting (50% do not)
  • 41% do have theme tables (59% do not)
  • 52% do have play dough or similar (48% do not)
  • 37% do have instruments for rhythm (63% do not)
How do you learn through play without the right equipment and programme?
We have seen first-hand that centres with a comprehensive curriculum (and all the educational resources to implement that curriculum) can effectively support learners to achieve their developmental milestones. 88% of learners in GROW centres are on track for their age group.

Are SA children ready to go to school?

Stats from the Thrive by Five Index report for children aged 4 to 5

The Index looks at five important learning domains known to be associated with academic achievement in the Foundation Phase of school: Gross Motor Development, Fine Motor Coordination and Visual Motor Integration, Early Numeracy and Mathematics, Emergent Literacy and Language and Cognition and Executive Function. Children are considered “On Track” when they meet the learning standard and are able to do the tasks expected of children their age. Children are considered to be thriving if they are On Track in both Physical Growth and Early Learning.

A staggering 65% of children attending an ELP in South Africa fail to Thrive by Five.

Thrive by Five Index report

Starting school On Track sets children up for greater success.

  • A staggering 65% of children attending an ELP in South Africa fail to Thrive by Five. These children are not On Track for cognitive and/or physical development. They face barriers to thriving, which limit their chances of realising their full potential and are not ready for school
  • For Early Learning specifically/exclusively, 45% of South African children attending ELPs are On Track. The remaining 55% of children are not able to do the learning tasks expected of children their age.
  • 49% of these children are at risk, showing either stunting or a lack of basic learning foundations
  • 16% of these children are at high risk, showing physically stunting and falling behind in their cognitive development
  • On average, poorer children performed worse

What is happening in the ECD sector now?

Move from the Department of Social Development (DSD) to the Department of Basic Education (DBE)

On 1 April 2022, the Early Childhood Development function moved from the DSD to the DBE. In Parliament, the Minister for Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, confirmed her department’s commitment to creating an enabling registration process for ECDs to address the issues in the registration process, and to ensure that an online registration system is in place to streamline the process. She said the department was seeking additional funding from Treasury for ECD, and Treasury has committed to including ECD as a top priority in future.

Very little has changed for now, but we expect that Grade RR will become compulsory for all children (4 years old) in future. This is something we are concerned about as formal schooling is not suitable for young children. 

DBE’s five strategies for improving the quality of ECD in South Africa:

  1. Curriculum-based early learning for all children from birth to 5 years
  2. Access to ECD programmes for all children from birth to 5 years
  3. Training and development for all those working in ECD
  4. Co-ordination of all ECD services
  5. A flexible funding and provisioning framework

Key issues still facing ECDs:

  • Lack of, delayed and unequal funding for children and ECD programmes.
  • Lack of support from DSD and Social Workers for the ECD sector.
  • ECD Centres are not acknowledged as independent small business owners.
  • Centre owners struggle to formalise and access low-cost finance to invest in their small businesses.
  • Registration of partial care facilities is ‘tedious, oppressive and a lengthy registration process, with significant costs, contributing in turn to uneven coverage.
  • Failure of municipalities to implement their legislative mandate, charging unaffordable fees for zoning land, high service changes and delays in issuing municipal documents required for ECD registration.
  • Children as young as 3-4 years old enrolled in mainstream schools and find it difficult to adapt to the curriculum and school environment.
  • Children with disabilities are not adequately provided for.


Department of Basic Education & Innovation Edge & USAID & ECD Measure. (2022). Thrive by Five Index. .

Department of Basic Education. (2021). ECD Census.

Heckman, P. J. (2022). Invest in Early Childhood Development: Reduce Deficits. Retrieved from The Heckman Equation:

Heckman, P. J. (n.d.). Early Childhood Education: Quality and Access Pay Off. Retrieved from The Heckman Equation: