Early Childhood Development Census reveals teaching and learning gaps that DBE needs to deal with

Minister Angie Motshekga

Minister Angie Motshekga

Published May 16, 2022


The Early Childhood Development (ECD) 2021 Census conducted by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) in partnership with the LEGO Foundation reveals that there is a need for considerable expansion of ECD programmes, training of practitioners as well as the need for a better allocation of funds. The results of the Census were released by the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga in Johannesburg.

The objective of the first ECD Census was to gather reliable data and information in order to move towards a centralised management information system to improve resource allocation and oversight management of ECD centres across the country.

“While significant progress has been made in terms of provision for better ECD programmes since 1994, the sector still faces challenges, including those related to infrastructure, quality of the programmes offered, practitioners’ qualifications and training, as well as institutional capacity and funding,” Motshekga said.

Fieldworkers for the project visited every single ward in the country to search for Early Learning Programmes (ELPs) and gather basic information on them. Multiple strategies were employed to locate ELPs, and a variety of stakeholders from the ECD sector were enlisted to support the process.

In total, 42420 ELPs were counted during the Census. Gauteng had the highest number of ELPs (25%), followed by KwaZulu-Natal (19%), the Eastern Cape and Limpopo (both 13%).

In total, 1,660,317 children were enrolled, which amounts to an average of 39 per programme. This relatively low enrolment and attendance of children in ECD programmes across South Africa, will be a focus to increase in coming years.


The Census found that four out of 10 (40%) of ELPs were registered with the Department of Social Development (DSD) – the former custodian of early childhood development in South Africa - as a partial care facility or ECD programme, and another 16% were in the process of registering. A large proportion (42%) however were not registered, which is much higher than the previous estimates based on 2001 and 2013 audits.

Nicholas Dowdall, Programme Specialist at the LEGO Foundation said according to the ECD Census 2021 results, about half (49%) of school-based sites do not have any registration with the Department of Social Development. “Furthermore, this percentage is distributed across all quintiles[1]. During the Census, some respondents were not sure whether their ELP was registered as one or the other but knew that they were registered with the Department of Social Development in some way.

Staff and Practitioners’ Training

Close to a quarter (22%) of the 165,059 teaching and managerial staff working in the ECD sector did not have any relevant formal ECD training or qualification. Over a quarter (26%) participated in an accredited skills programme, about four out of six (42%) obtained NQF Level 4 or 5 education, and 10% an NQF Level 6 or higher.

About half (49%) of the 198,361 staff working in the ECD sector were ECD practitioners. More than a quarter (28%) were support staff (e.g. security, cleaners), and about one out of five (21%) were in managerial positions. However, in 89% of cases, at least some of the managers also work as ECD practitioners.

Fees, Subsidy and Donations

Although the great majority (94%) of ECD programmes charge fees, most (62%) of them also allow at least some children to attend the ECD programme without having to pay a fee. The average monthly fee charged by ECD programmes was R509. However, significant differences exist between provinces, with monthly fees in Western Cape and Gauteng more than three times higher than fees in the Eastern Cape.

Differences in fee amounts were also clearly discernible between socio-economic quintiles. In particular, parents of children attending quintile 5 programmes were paying significantly higher fees compared to the other primary caregivers. The average quintile 1 and 2 caregiver pays about half of the value of the Child Support Grant, at the time of the Census.

The Census found that ECD programmes subsidised by the Department of Social Development charge significantly lower fees (average of R208) than ECD programmes that were not subsidised (average of R649). The primary funding source for ECD programmes were fees (69%), followed by government subsidies (27%). The remaining 4% depended on donations, fundraising and other sources of income.

The highest poverty rates for young children are found in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. The Census shows that while a large proportion of centres in these provinces were receiving DSD subsidy support, a higher proportion of ECD centres in the Free State also received DSD subsidies.

In the 2013 audit, 69% of fully registered centres reported receiving a subsidy from DSD, a sharp increase from 25% in 2001. Currently, this was estimated to be even higher, at 78% of fully or conditionally registered centres. The 2013 estimates showed that a small proportion (6%) of unregistered centres also reported receiving subsidies, but the current estimate has increased to 14%.

“This further reiterates the need for central oversight and the important contribution of the Census to provide reliable data, as well as informing the move towards a centralised information system to improve resource allocation,” Nicholas Dowdall, Programme Specialist at the LEGO Foundation notes.

Learning through play

“Our findings with regards to ‘Learning through Play’ indicate that by and large, South African ECD practitioners tend to favour the agency of the teacher over children’s agency in their own learning. Also, relatively little time is allocated for free play, and materials and equipment that lend themselves to free or unstructured play, such as fantasy toys, are less common than other types of toys.”

“Overall, the impression left by the findings is that we need to do more, both in terms of changing mindsets of practitioners, but also in terms of providing ELPs with suitable materials for play and learning,” said Nicholas Dowdall, Programme Specialist at the LEGO Foundation.

Evidence shows that playful learning approaches in the early years improve academic performance and holistic development by unlocking essential skills that children can apply to more complex tasks throughout their lives.

With this in mind, play-based learning is a fundamental principle for the DBE, and is embedded in the National Curriculum Framework for children from birth - 4 years.

A concerning finding was that almost half of ELPs (44%) do not have age-appropriate books for different age groups, and 34% of ELPs do not have access to a suitable outdoor playground facility.

Generally, more time is spent on free play outdoors, with 44% of respondents saying that children spend up to an hour on free play outside compared to 33% for free play as part of the daily programme. But in both instances, around half (54% and 45%, respectively) of the ECD programmes allow less than 30 minutes for free play per day.

“Through the Census, we have a much clearer understanding of where and how our children learn,” Motshekga said.

She added that while there are some encouraging green shoots where the realities are better than prior estimates, through the Census they are able to identify focused areas of improvement to inform the better allocation of resources to ensure the next generation receive the foundation they need to build a brighter and better future.