Using data tools and systems to drive change in early childhood education for disadvantaged children in South Africa

Type Journal Article - Children
Title Using data tools and systems to drive change in early childhood education for disadvantaged children in South Africa
Volume 10
Issue 9
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2023
In line with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.2, South Africa’s National Development Plan commits to providing high-quality early childhood education to all children by 2030 to drive improved child outcomes. Prior to 2016, South Africa lacked reliable, locally standardised, valid, and cross-culturally fair assessment tools for measuring preschool quality and child outcomes, suitable for use at scale within a resource-constrained context. In this paper we detail the development and evolution of a suite of early learning measurement (ELOM) tools designed to address this measurement gap. The development process included reviews of literature and other relevant assessment tools; a review of local curriculum standards and expected child outcomes; extensive consultation with government officials, child development experts, and early learning practitioners, iterative user testing; and assessment of linguistic, cultural, functional, and metric equivalence across all 11 official South African languages. To support use of the ELOM tools at scale, and by users with varying levels of research expertise, administration is digitised and embedded within an end-to-end data value chain. ELOM data collected since 2016 quantify the striking socio-economic gradient in early childhood development in South Africa, demonstrate the relationship between physical stunting, socio-emotional functioning and learning outcomes, and provide evidence of the positive impact of high-quality early learning programmes on preschool child outcomes. To promote secondary analyses, data from multiple studies are regularly collated into a shared dataset, which is made open access via an online data portal. We describe the services and support that make up the ELOM data value chain, noting several key challenges and enablers of data-driven change within this context. These include deep technical expertise within a multidisciplinary and collaborative team, patient and flexible capital from mission-aligned investors, a fit-for-purpose institutional home, the appropriate use of technology, a user-centred approach to development and testing, sensitivity to children’s diverse linguistic and socio-economic circumstances, careful consideration of requirements for scale, appropriate training and support for a non-professional assessor base, and a commitment to ongoing learning and continuous enhancement. Practical examples are provided of ways in which the ELOM tools and data are used for programme monitoring and enhancement purposes, to evaluate the relative effectiveness of early learning interventions, to motivate for greater budget and inform more effective resource allocation, to support the development of enabling Government systems, and to track progress towards the attainment of national and global development goals. We share lessons learnt during the development of the tools and discuss the factors that have driven their uptake in South Africa.

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