ECD in Context

image-1The evidence is clear: it is in the early years of human life that the fundamentals of a child’s emotional, intellectual, social and physical development are laid, establishing the building blocks for a pathway into the future.  Without good parenting, health, nutrition and education, developmental delays can occur that are difficult to correct later in life.

Early childhood development (ECD) takes place in a range of settings: homes, schools, health facilities, early learning playgroups and community-based programmes. It includes activities such as childcare, nutrition support, parenting and early stimulation interventions.  Services can be provided through private, public and non-governmental agencies (often in partnership).

Ilifa’s approach to ECD recognises that interventions are cumulative and synergistic, that the maximum benefit in one age group is derived from experiences in earlier age groups, and that interventions in one generation bring benefits to successive generations.

Also important from a developmental point of view is that those children most in need of good quality services and care are those who come from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds.  Particular attention should always be paid to children with special needs.

The continuum of early childhood development begins at conception and goes through to the primary school stage. Within this continuum there are four stages of development, each of which presents specific needs. Interventions at appropriate stages in early development can play a protective role and ensure the wellbeing of young children in the long term.




We think early childhood development should be a national priority

A growing body of international evidence shows that appropriate investment in early childhood development can positively impact on national health, education and socio-economic outcomes, thus significantly benefiting society as a whole.
The science of early development tells us that a strong foundation in early childhood lays the groundwork for responsible citizenship, economic prosperity, healthy communities, and successful parenting of the next generation. A weak foundation can seriously undermine the social and economic vitality of the nation. In other words, ECD is a potential game changer.


ECD can be a game changer for children



The period from conception to three  years of age constitutes the first 1,000 days of life.

During this period, children are at their most vulnerable to the damaging consequences of deprivation and abuse.

Because it is a period of unprecedented social, cognitive, and physical growth, it is also a period of tremendous opportunity.





ECD can be a game changer for society



Investment in the early stages of children’s development is highly cost-efficient and can play an important role in reducing societal inequality. Inequalities in child development often begin before birth and continue through the first years of life.


Nobel Laureate James Heckman has calculated the returns on investment in ECD to be up to 18% – much higher than the rates of return of other levels of education.







ECD can be a game changer for education


Reports on educational achievement in South Africa demonstrate that far too many of our school-going children are performing very poorly, often failing to acquire functional numeracy and literacy skills. The learning deficits that children accumulate in their early years are not ‘remediated’ by schooling. Rather, they continue to grow over time, until they become insurmountable.


Research shows that children who participate in quality ECD programmes at an early age are more ready to learn when they begin school and are less likely to repeat grades or drop out of school. The diagram below illustrates the disparities between children who have had access to the essential things they need to grow and learn, versus children who have not had the same opportunities.







ECD in South Africa – A high level of official commitment



Several recent South African government initiatives point to high-level awareness of the importance of ECD for human and social development and national productivity. These initiatives include significantly increased funding for ECD by the National Treasury, the production of a national Diagnostic Review of ECD in 2012, recognition of the importance of the early years in the National Development Plan (NDP) Vision for 2030, and the commissioning in 2013 of proposals for a new national ECD policy and programme.

Recognising that providing access to quality ECD services to poor and marginalised children is a tough challenge, the government is aiming to rapidly scale up services for young children, with priority given to the 2.5 million poor and vulnerable children under the age of 6.




ECD in South Africa – Implementation lags behind political will

image-8The advent of democracy has brought increasing interest in and support for the delivery of services for young children. But, in reality, the situation remains dire. We simply are not reaching all the children we need to reach, especially the most vulnerable. Thus, the lives of many of our children, particularly in the poorest communities, remain compromised. There are a variety of reasons for this, but a critical factor is that the current arrangements for ECD service delivery, both within government departments and across civil society service providers, is not geared for effective, population-based service delivery and scaling up.The table below demonstrates that there are significant gaps in provision. These gaps mean that our service provision unfortunately continues to advantage the advantaged.
There is so much evidence showing the benefits of early intervention that the failure to provide it in South Africa today constitutes a crisis with long-term implications. Unless we turn this around and provide access for all children, especially those who need it most, we miss the opportunity to enhance school learning, retention and success and fail to contribute to advancing and equalising South African society. Addressing the gap in ECD provision is urgent: as we have seen, the brain doesn’t develop backwards, and opportunities missed for young children are difficult if not impossible to remedy. Damage done in the early years is very hard to reverse.

The holistic and complex nature of child development requires the involvement of multiple partners across ministries, communities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and other stakeholders, including parents and caregivers.

ECD services in South Africa are implemented largely by the non-profit sector. Training, materials, and other resources are provided by resource and training organisations (RTOs), and direct services are delivered by community-based organisations (CBOs) and individual crèches and preschool centres. The South Africa Department of Social Development (DSD) and the Department of Basic Education (DBE) provide the main sources of government funding and oversight.

NGOs are also the main supporters and providers of home-based ECD programmes in South Africa. Home-based interventions – including home visits by trained Family Community Motivators (FCMs) and informal playgroups – are an essential option for ECD in South Africa, where the demand for ECD services is far greater than the capacity of centre-based ECD programmes. Ilifa is working with its RTO and research partners to determine which models for home-based ECD are most effective and scalable.


Key Factors



In 2004, the Office of the President declared ECD a national priority, putting in place directives that municipalities include ECD planning in their Integrated Development Plans. Since then, and especially after the publication of the National Integrated Plan for ECD in South Africa (2005) passage of the Children’s Amendment Act (2007), ECD has become a national priority.

But due to the fragmented nature of funding and service provision for ECD programmes in South Africa, many children are falling through the cracks.

Government funding for ECD has increased in recent years, but the main focus has been on scale-up of Grade R services, especially Grade R in public schools (as opposed to community-based Grade R). In South Africa, 70% of children still do not participate in preschool or other ECD activities.
Facilities in rural, disadvantaged areas – often the most in need and most deserving of public and private support – struggle to access the funding and resources to provide young children and families in their communities with the ECD services they need.
There is no designated agency to oversee integration, implementation, and evaluation of ECD programmes.
ECD centres are required to register with DSD and to comply with strict norms and standards, which are difficult for centres in poor communities to meet.
ECD teachers in disadvantaged areas often lack access to the education and training they need. ECD is not viewed as an attractive career path for educated professionals.

As a response to these and other challenges, ECD NGOs have formed a number of networks, forums, and communities of practice. These networks, forums, and communities of practice provide critical mutual support and learning within the ECD NGO sector.  They also provide an opportunity for collective action that must be further explored.  Existing networks in South Africa include:

The Early Childhood Development Learning Community –
The South African Congress for Early Childhood Development –
National Early Childhood Development Alliance (NECDA)
The Resources and Training Organisations Forum

DSC_1212Ilifa recognises the experience, role, and expertise of the NGO sector in ECD service delivery and capacity development. While Ilifa’s model of intervention is designed to embed quality integrated ECD service delivery at the institutional level as a mechanism for scale-up, the NGO sector has multiple roles, including creating  demand for ECD and providing quality ECD services. Ilifa therefore seeks to partner with members of the NGO and CBO sector in conceptualising and implementing a sustainable ECD programme in South Africa.

Currently, the non-profit sector provides the majority of ECD services in South Africa.  The location and extent of their impact depends on the presence of resource and training organisations (RTOs), who provide training and in-service support to smaller community-based organisations (CBOs) and individual crèches or centres that provide ECD services.

RTOs also provide training and oversight for non-centre based ECD interventions, such as home visiting programs and informal playgroups, which are an important part of the ECD service sector in South Africa.

There are dozens of established RTOs in South Africa, most of which are part of regional and national ECD networks.  While these networks do often provide a solid grounding for ECD provision in South Africa, few RTOs, or the CBOs they support, have attempted to achieve 100 percent coverage of all the eligible children in their catchment area. This results in fragmented or scattershot programme delivery.


Community-based ECD Programmes


DSC_1222-300x201The majority of ECD activities that currently exist in South Africa are implemented and set up by community-based or non-governmental organisations, and a large percentage of these activities take place outside of formalized ECD centres. South Africa simply does not have the infrastructure to reach all children through a centre-based ECD approach.

A shift to programme-based funding, which incorporates centre- and non-centre-based programmes, is critical given the need to scale up ECD in South Africa. The NGO sector will be essential to that funding shift and scale-up. The government must drive and fund ECD provision while also making use of the skills and experience of existing community-based and NGO-supported ECD programmes. Scale-up should include a strong focus on strengthening the community-based ECD sector to ensure quality service-delivery.

RTOs – referred to as “ECD motherships” – are a key to scaling up ECD services, especially in community-based environments. RTOs have on-the-ground experience providing training, mentoring, and materials to ECD practitioners, in hard-to-reach communities. They understand the issues faced by ECD sites in remote, disadvantaged communities.

Ilifa currently partners with four South African RTOs. These RTOs are working to find sustainable models in which they – together with government agencies, CBOs, and other non-profit-sector organisations – can successfully scale up ECD services and reach 100 percent coverage of children and families in the communities in which they work.

For more than a decade, the South African government has worked to incorporate ECD programmes and services into the nation’s educational system. In 2000, financing ECD became a budget item with the National Treasury. In 2004, the Office of the President declared ECD a national priority.

The emphasis on service provision for ECD in South Africa has resulted in numerous policies, priority statements, and programmes located within several government departments. Major responsibility for ECD resides with:

The Department of Education (birth to nine – curriculum development, early stimulation, teacher training, learning and teaching resources becoming the lead agency for five-year-old children as they enter grade R).
The Department of Social Development (lead agency for children from birth to five – child grants, registration, financing).
The Department of Health (prenatal to nine – integrated management of childhood diseases, primary health care, HIV and AIDS interventions).
Further support has been provided to develop the ECD sector via the government Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), aimed at drawing significant numbers of unemployed people into productive work by increasing their capacity to earn a sustainable income through training.

In 2005, the government published the National Integrated Plan for Early Childhood Development in South Africa, 2005-2010 (NIP), which states the government’s commitment toward “giving the children of our country the best start in life by building a solid foundation of physical, emotional, psychosocial, cognitive, and healthy development.” The NIP also “reasserts the leading role of the Government in formulating, implementing and monitoring policies and programmes on ECD, whilst recognising the important role played by non-governmental and community-based organisations.”

Despite the recognition in South African policy documents of the need for integrated quality ECD services, the government policy framework still does not contribute sufficiently to ensuring access to quality ECD for the poorest 40 percent of South Africa’s families.

The NIP is currently under review and Ilifa will be tracking this process and encouraging partners and other interested parties to engage with it. Please watch the site for updates on this process and opportunities to engage and provide input to the process.

National Integrated Plan for Early Childhood Development in South Africa, 2005-2010 (NIP)


Government funding of ECD

Access to government funding is a barrier to the scale-up of quality ECD services. Available government funding for ECD has increased in recent years, but is not necessarily distributed smoothly or equitably, especially to ECD programmes in poor and rural areas.

Government funding for early childhood development: Can those who need it get it?, a study commissioned by Ilifa Labantwana, found that government ECD allocations and expenditures are difficult to track. The report also expressed concern that the available funding is still far less than needed to achieve the objectives of the NIP, and noted very slow progress in provision for non-centre-based ECD, which is essential to achieving 100 percent ECD coverage in hard-to-reach communities.

Government Funding for ECD - can those who need it get it?


Norms and standards are also a challenge, as unrecognized ECD centres in poor and rural communities often struggle to achieve the standards required for registration as a legal ECD facility.

To successfully scale up quality ECD programmes nationwide, the government must further integrate its policies and funding vehicles with NGOs  and local stakeholders, enabling centre- and non-centre-based facilities at all socio-economic levels to access resources.

Download documents on ECD

Implementing Partners