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Give every child the benefit of early childhood development

ECD Connect

ECD Connect is a unique digital offering that seeks to empower early childhood development practitioners and community health workers to deliver services to young children in South Africa. It is a license-free, customisable platform designed with the support of behavioural scientists and ECD specialists to enhance the quality of and increase access to crucial early childhood services, including education and health. This platform supports practitioners and organisations operating in low-resourced environments to scale and deliver professional, high-quality services to young children and caregivers in their communities.

The disconnect

This explains why the project exists

Investment in early childhood development is key to ensuring children benefit from formal schooling, and later in life, from improved health, social, and economic outcomes, to reduce the intergenerational transmission of poverty1 https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2023/03/30/south-africa-afe-unlocking-brighter-futures-through-investment-and-institutional-strengthening-in-ecd .

The South African National Development Plan (NDP) commits to ensuring that every child in South Africa has access to the full range of ECD services by 20302https://ilifalabantwana.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/ECD-Vision-2018-digital2.pdf, which includes not just early learning stimulation, but also maternal and child health, nutrition, social protection, and support for caregivers.

From an education standpoint, less than 40% of our country’s 3–5-year-olds are enrolled in any form of early learning programme (ELP)3 https://datadrive2030.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/ecdc-2021-report.pdf . Of those children fortunate enough to be attending ELPs, less than half are developmentally on track, and past inequities in access to quality education remain a critical challenge, with children from income quintile 1 almost twice as likely to be falling behind than their quintile 5 peers4https://thrivebyfive.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/Index-report-w-addendum_singles-May-2023.pdf .

There are currently just under 200 000 staff working in ECD programmes across the country5 https://datadrive2030.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/ecdc-2021-report.pdf . Almost half of all ECD teaching and managerial staff are under-qualified (i.e. do not have at least an NQF4 qualification), whilst more than a fifth do not possess any form of ECD qualification whatsoever6https://datadrive2030.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/ecdc-2021-report.pdf . In pure number terms, universal access to early learning would require another 210 000 trained practitioners and a further 140 000 assistants7https://ilifalabantwana.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/ECD-Vision-2018-digital2.pdf, all of whom would require financial sustainability in a sector where some 90% of workers currently earn below minimum wage8https://thrivebyfive.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Baseline-Assessment-Report.-2022-1.pdf.

The above serves to illustrate the significant gaps in both funding and qualified personnel if South Africa is to meet 2030 targets, and this extends to other challenges within ECD, such as nutritional stunting, where 27% of children under the age of 5 are unlikely to reach their full growth and development potential due to irreversible physical and cognitive damage caused by persistent nutritional deprivation9https://southafrica.un.org/en/123531-slow-violence-malnutrition-south-africa#:~:text=The%20statistics%20are%20a%20call,caused%20by%20persistent%20nutritional%20deprivations..

While there are many programmes in place to address the various issues across the ECD spectrum, it’s clear that efforts need to be dramatically augmented in order to meet the challenge. Technology must be considered as a cost-effective means to help scale these programmes in the absence of available capital and trained personnel

projects_disconnect

The majority of South Africans are stuck in an inequality trap with wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. Most are stuck in intergenerational loops of exclusion with few chances to escape. Breaking this cycle requires a fundamental change in life trajectories, starting in the womb.

Think of a Möbius strip – just one twist in the circle allows you to trace a completely different pattern. Instead of being stuck on the inside of a loop, you emerge on the outside. In the same way, escaping the inequality trap requires a fundamental twist to set South Africa on a new path.

The twist in thinking

This explains how the project approaches problems

ECD Connect is a unique digital offering that seeks to empower early childhood development practitioners and community health workers to deliver services to young children in South Africa. It functions primarily as a digital work companion for frontline ECD workers (such as teachers, principals, and community health workers), and serves as a multi-purpose data collection, monitoring and support platform for organisations running programmes in the sector.

The platform’s modular design and features cater to a broad array of settings across multiple services within ECD. It has been developed specifically for low-resource contexts and with accessibility front of mind. Behavioural insights are leveraged to motivate and inspire practitioners to carry out activities that result in positive outcomes for children.

  • ECD Connect provides practitioners with:
    interactive tools, resources and, importantly, feedback to help them successfully perform their roles, whether that be running a successful early learning programme or managing a roster of clients as a community health worker
  • in-app courses for ongoing professional development.
  • access to a community of fellow practitioners who can offer much-needed support and guidance.

While solving for the practitioners’ pain points has been central to the design, a license-free administrator’s portal equips organisations to monitor their programmes (and facilitate more effective interventions) by collecting and analysing near-real-time data to help build a clearer picture of what is happening on the ground. This is further bolstered by mobile applications for field support agents.

The vision for ECD Connect is that wider adoption of the tool could establish a valuable database allowing for critical information flow between parallel ECD programmes/services, as well as eventual integration with government management information systems (MIS), providing key field-originated insights to help inform public policy.

Digital platforms are costly and difficult to develop and maintain. ECD Connect aims to fulfil this function across a wide range of organisations in the sector, promoting greater cohesion amongst sector participants and allowing limited resources to rather be channelled to programmes and their beneficiaries, instead of technical development.

Two ECD service sectors, namely health and education, have been catered for so far with the development of the Funda App for SmartStart and CHW Connect for Grow Great. Later in 2024, the early education functionalities will be made more broadly available through free, customisable digital applications for non-profit and independent ECD centres.

The trajectory change

This explains what the project is doing to make a difference

Though a number of small pilot launches have taken place throughout the development cycle, full rollouts of ECD Connect’s applications for SmartStart and Grow Great are being implemented over the first half of 2024. This crucial stage of the initiative will be followed up by an impact evaluation into the education platform (the Funda App) that seeks to understand what impact (if any) the platform has on:

  1. SmartStart practitioners’ motivation, sense of connectedness and, where relevant, propensity to complete administrative tasks, and
  2. SmartStart’s ability to monitor and support SmartStart practitioners, and to report on on-the-ground activities.

The value of this research will be two-fold; the first is to help DGMT understand the usefulness and potential of a simpler version of the Funda App, which is currently being developed as a white-label tool for adoption by other organisations in the ECD landscape, and as an open access tool for independent practitioners (i.e. those not necessarily part of an NGO support-network).

A second key outcome would be to provide insights for SmartStart into the usage of the tool for purposes of ongoing maintenance and support of their network of SmartStart practitioners.

The research draws some clear recommendations towards both of these outcomes.

Trying to change life trajectories is ambitious and profound. It requires us to radically influence the lives of individuals and to be part of changing the circumstances in which they live.

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