South Africa’s National Integrated ECD Policy provides for a range of different early learning programmes of which playgroups and ECD centres are most common for children aged 3 – 5 years. Local evidence for the effectiveness of these programmes is very limited and there is particular need for studies of those that target poor children who face multiple intersecting disadvantages, and who are at significant risk for long-term developmental deficits. To address these gaps, Innovation Edge commissioned the Early Learning Programme Outcomes (ELPO) Study. The main research questions were:
- How do playgroup and centre-based early learning programme targeting low-income three- to five-year-olds vary in their effectiveness in preparing children for Grade R (as measured by the ELOM)?
- What programme, child, and home environment factors predict changes in ELOM scores?
A quasi-experimental design was used. The effect on change in ELOM scores from baseline to endline was investigated using multilevel modelling which takes into account the effects of programme, child and home environment factors at both baseline and endline.
The high level findings are as follows:
- Both playgroup and centre-based programmes showed statistically significant gains in children’s ELOM total and in domain scores from baseline after accounting for covariates child (age and growth status), home learning environment, and socio-economic status variables likely to predict child outcomes.
- Regardless of programme type, children who attended more sessions performed significantly better than children with lower programme exposure on ELOM Total and on the Fine Motor Coordination and Visual Motor Integration and Emergent Literacy and Language domains of the ELOM.
- Children with lowest baseline scores on ELOM made the greatest gains regardless of programme type.
- Children with higher height-for-age scores (healthier and less likely to be malnourished) performed significantly better on all ELOM domains and on the ELOM Total score.
- Children who had been in some form of ECD programme for 3 years performed significantly better than children with fewer years on the Gross Motor Development and Emergent Literacy and Language domains of the ELOM.
- Children with more learning resources (books and a variety of different types of toys) at home performed significantly better on the Fine Motor Coordination and Visual Motor Integration and the Cognition and Executive Functioning domains of the ELOM.
- More than two thirds of parents and other primary carers had two hours or less available for activities with their children during weekdays and on weekends, and because of this, their activities with children did not contribute to improvements in ELOM scores. These were due to programme and child factors.
- Carefully controlled and supported playgroup programmes of sound quality with school-readiness-targeted curricula, can make a difference for the poorest children, but not necessarily enable them to achieve the expected ELOM Standard
- Carefully controlled and supported playgroup programmes of sound quality with school-readiness-targeted curricula can shift ELOM Total scores on average by between 10 and 20 points.
- The two centre-based programmes in this study enabled children to achieve the ELOM Total score standard (or grow within the standard if already achieved).
It is important to note that the programmes studied are not representative of the South African ECD programme population. Organisations delivering playgroups and centre-development programmes volunteered to participate in the study. In all cases, practitioners had been rated as well-functioning by their parent organisations. The same programmes, if poorly delivered, could not be expected to show the same outcomes as those observed here.