Sonja Giese

Experiences and relationships boost children’s growth in the first five years of growth, generating millions of connections in their brains. In fact, children’s brains form connections faster throughout the first five years of life than at any other point in their lives.

Countries in Africa are increasingly focusing on quality early childhood development experiences to support children in these crucial years. In this blog, we feature the Thrive by Five Index, South Africa’s first nationally representative survey of preschool children. It provides data on 4-5-year-old children’s developmental outcomes that will inspire action and change so that all children have the chance to flourish by the age of five.

Sonja Giese, the former Founding Executive Director of Innovation Edge, shares South Africa’s experience with measuring children’s early learning outcomes on a nationally representative sample and auditing early learning programs.

Tell us about the work that went into Thrive by Five and who has been involved

The Business Confidence Index partly inspired the idea of measuring early childhood in South Africa. In 2018, First National Bank (FNB), Innovation Edge, and the Department of Social Development piloted the development of the Index. After 2019, following the South African President’s announcement that the Department of Basic Education (DBE) would take on responsibility for early learning, the DBE became the Index’s lead government department.

Delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, data was eventually gathered in late 2021, and the inaugural Thrive by Five Index was launched in April 2022. The inaugural 2021 Thrive by Five Index was funded by FNB, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Innovation Edge, and ECD Measure. Data was collected using the locally developed and standardized ELOM tools. This is the first (baseline) in a series of surveys that will monitor trends over time in the proportion of 4–5-year-old children attending ELPs who are ‘On Track’ for their age in key areas of development. This is the largest survey of preschool child outcomes ever attempted in South Africa.

The Index provides population-level data on how well preschool children in South Africa (aged 50-59 months) are doing in three key developmental domains which are associated with longer-term outcomes: Early Learning, Physical Growth, and Social-Emotional Functioning.

The Index is nationally representative of children enrolled in Early Learning Programmes (ELPs), and data may be disaggregated to show the performance of children in different provinces, and different household income groups (using school quintiles as a proxy for income) and for boys and girls. The Index includes one combined Composite Indicator at the national level. It comprises two equally weighted indicators: Stunting (including severe stunting), and the Early Learning Total score. These were chosen as they are both based on objective, standardized measures and both are crucial for monitoring children’s health and development prior to entering the Foundation Phase of school.

Reflecting on your findings, what are you most excited about?

Index data clearly illustrate how socio-economic status impacts child outcomes. However, data collected for the Thrive by Five Index also highlights considerable variation in performance between individuals within the same income group.

There are many poor children who have significantly better outcomes than their peers, despite their disadvantaged circumstances. By investigating variation in performance within income groups, we can gain insights into the kinds of interventions needed to close the gap between groups and shift the performance bell-curve overall. We will investigate this further over the coming months, using outlier data to better understand the conditions under which some poor children achieve early learning outcomes that are more likely to set them up for success.

What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

Covid presented significant challenges to planning, funding, data collection, and interpretation.

Closures of ELPs during various lockdown periods (particularly in 2020) significantly disrupted the amount of programme participation possible for children attending in that year. In addition, ELPs remain subject to standard operating procedures required by the Department of Social Development to manage risks of infection. The impact of the pandemic and associated changes to the daily programmes of ELPs is likely to have changed the child’s experience in several ways and probably reduced the amount of benefit they might normally have gained. In addition, for all children, but particularly those in the lower three school quintiles, the impact of the pandemic on livelihoods, household resources and caregiver wellbeing is likely to have impacted on the health and development of young children. Closures of ELPs during lockdown and hesitancy of ECD practitioners to let assessors into their ELPs during a pandemic also presented additional sampling challenges. Covid protocols observed during fieldwork, such as the wearing of masks and face shields, will have impacted the child’s experience of the assessment. It is not possible to determine the extent to which this influenced performance.

One of the primary interests of the Together for Early Childhood Evidence consortium is to understand how early childhood systems can better use data to improve young children’s early learning experiences. What is your vision for how Thrive by Five data will be used to improve South Africa’s early childhood system?

Data for the Thrive by Five Index will be collected every three years: therefore, the Index will enable South Africa to track progress in increasing the proportion of children who are developmentally on track by the time they enter Grade R (Reception Year, or year of schooling before Grade 1 in South Africa). The Thrive by Five Index will enable the South African government to report on Sustainable Development Goal Indicator 4.2.1: Proportion of children under 5 years of age who are developmentally on track in health, learning, and psychosocial well-being, by sex.

Because the Thrive by Five Index disaggregates data by income, we (South Africa) will track progress in reducing early childhood inequality, i.e., are we closing the school performance gap between children from different income quintiles/groups? Similarly, disaggregation by province allows us to identify provinces needing targeted interventions.

We have developed differentiated strategies for different Government Departments and stakeholder groups and are working collaboratively with various partners to operationalize these. We have identified several opportunities for enhancing ECD systems in partnership with the DBE.

On 1 April 2022, responsibility for the support and regulation of early learning programmes transferred from the Department of Social Development to the Department of Basic Education. The Thrive by Five Index, therefore, provides the DBE with a baseline measure of service quality and child outcomes at the time that this function shift takes place. The DBE can use this to monitor their progress in improving the quality of early learning services for children over time, as well as to initiate partnerships with other government departments and the corporate and NGO sectors in the areas where we need to intervene collectively to get children back on track.

The data will also provide the DBE with a clear indication of where to focus on initial efforts to improve the quality of ECD programmes in various ways:

  • ECD practitioner development: The data will help the DBE prioritize practitioner development to address domain-specific concerns, such as numeracy.
  • Curriculum and materials: The data can inform enhancements to the 0-4 curriculum and the development and distribution of learning resources associated with improved outcomes for key domains. Data will also offer insights into whether differentiated strategies might be needed to address developmental concerns for boys and girls.
  • Regulatory and compliance systems: ECD programme registration and monitoring policies and processes can be better aligned to the conditions for improved child outcomes.
  • Funding: The data will support the case to increase funding for early learning programmes, which currently receive 1-2% of the government’s annual education budget, reaching just 13% of the 5 million poor children who need subsidized programmes.
  • Public-private partnerships: The data can help identify strategic opportunities for public-private partnerships and ensure that government and non-government funders are allocating resources to the interventions that are most likely to lead to improved child outcomes.
  • Accountability: The data can inform enhancements to routine monitoring systems to ensure that the DBE is tracking indicators most relevant to quality programming.
  • Grade R bridging: The dataset offers insights into the kinds of bridging programmes that might be necessary as children enter Grade R. These may include social and emotional preparation, and/or domain-specific interventions.

What advice would you give to other countries looking to track early childhood children’s outcomes at a national level?

While the Index was only recently launched, the ripple effects of this work are already being felt at multiple levels, highlighting the value of population-level outcomes data to drive change. A key ingredient for South Africa Thrive by Five Index is the multi-stakeholder approach we adopted. We spent about 18 months in the initiation phase of this venture, ensuring buy-in from key stakeholders, including the South African government. This has been critical to the success of this initiative.

Learn more about the Index and explore the data here.

Ruth Namara from Unbounded Associates provided editorial support and coordination for this blog.