While no one questions that what happens in the first few years of a child’s life is essential for their development, the long terms benefits of quality childcare in these early years are only starting to emerge. Part of the reason why the proof is so sparse is the length of time that it takes to track the results of early life interventions into adulthood. The ground breaking work of Nobel Laureate James Heckman provides perhaps the most convincing evidence of what a difference quality childcare makes, especially for children from low-income communities. The research is entitled “The Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program.” The study was based on two similar interventions that began in the 1970s: the Carolina Abecedarian Project (ABC) and the Carolina Approach to Responsive Education (CARE). These programmes offered quality comprehensive childcare to a group of children starting at birth and continuing until age 5. Children who took part were compared to others who either attended lower quality programmes or who remained at home. A comprehensive report is available here and for readers who prefer a summary, one can be found here. In this brief discussion, I reflect on what lessons can be drawn from this research for South African early childhood strategies.

Quality Matters

ABC/CARE targeted children living in high poverty environments to test whether quality childcare would have a positive and lasting impact on their circumstances. Quality was key to the study design and the content was tailored to suit individual children. Children were assessed regularly and the curriculum was adjusted where necessary. They also received nutrition and healthcare support if required. Like many young South Africans, most children in the study were raised in female headed households. Beyond the quality of the programmes, the fact that mothers had a safe space to leave their young children each day meant that these women had greater flexibility in the workplace or could consider furthering their education.

Gendered Impacts

After over 30 years of data collection, the results confirm the importance of focused early life interventions for economically disadvantaged children. Of interest were the gender differences in the findings. The benefits noted for women who took part in the ABC/CARE projects as children were related to better education and employment outcomes, and less involvement in minor crimes through to adulthood. For men, health benefits, quality of life and reduced involvement in criminal activities stood out. Also interesting for men was how the group involved in the interventions compared with the control groups. It seemed that the benefits were considerably greater when the study group was compared to males who had experienced low quality childcare. The impact was less noticeable when the study group was compared to males who had stayed at home as children. The results seem to suggest that boys struggled more than girls when separated from their mothers, even for short periods if the alternative was a low quality childcare environment. It is becoming alarmingly clear that South African boys, especially those from poor communities are struggling to relate to their educational environments. If some of these challenges are rooted in early childcare, then this needs to be studied more closely.

Detailed Data

Another lesson to draw for the local setting relates to the quality of data that was collected. Children who participated in the trials were tracked from birth until their mid-30s. The value was not only in the length of time for which reliable data is available, but also in its level of detail. As the interest of the study was in the links between early interventions and the entire life cycle, a wide range of information on quality of life was gathered. This included measures of health, involvement in crime, earnings, IQ and schooling. Questions about emotional development, the family environment and living conditions were also asked.

There are a handful of South African studies that have systematically tracked children from birth. A good example is the birth to twenty study, which tracked a sample of children born in Johannesburg and Soweto, with a focus on health outcomes. Such studies are rare and usually specific to a particular geographical area within a country. Moreover, they are not necessarily designed to evaluate early childhood interventions and their long term impact on welfare.  All too often, links between early childhood care and cognitive development are pursued by including questions about pre-school in existing assessment studies. This information is very useful at establishing tentative associations between the duration of pre-school attendance and academic achievement. Our spotlight feature shows how we have used the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Grade 5 data to explore the relationship between exposure to pre-school and learners’ Mathematics achievement. One of the points that is made is that it isn’t easy to comment on the quality of a programme based on the structure of the data. Nor can we draw conclusions about causal relationships based on cross-sectional data that was collected at a single point in time.

Over 12 million child support grants are distributed nationally. Many factors contribute to the prevailing levels of poverty in South Africa. Children are often the most severely impacted. An excellent review of children and inequality is available at the Children’s Institute. If quality early interventions are so essential for children living in poverty, it would be worthwhile reflecting on their accessibility and impact in South Africa. Crucially, long term studies that monitor the effect of early interventions on an array of quality of life indicators warrant attention. No doubt these studies are costly, but it is encouraging that the returns can be much higher than anticipated and the benefits can be lifelong.


Author: Tia Linda Zuze, Chief Research Specialist 

.              Education and Skills Development research programme of the HSRC