Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors



Filter By

Lessons from South Africa’s experience with introducing Grade R

From 1997 to 1999, a National ECD Pilot Project was conducted primarily in the community-based sector. It focused on Grade R and providing multi-age holistic full-day care offering protection, nutrition and education. The final report proposed that Grade R should continue to be provided in community-based settings, expanding to school settings, and recommended that community provision be linked to schools for purposes of funding and financial management.

In 2001, South Africa started the process of introducing Grade R for 5-year-olds as the first year of the foundation phase of primary school education. The full implementation results in 10 years of compulsory education and 13 years education overall – structured (4+3+3+3) with a foundation phase (grades R to 3), an intermediate phase (grades 4 to 6), senior phase (grades 7 to 9), and a further education and training phase (grades 10 to 12). Legislation to make Grade R compulsory was only introduced to Parliament in 2022.i

The process of implementation has not been smooth, and the additional year of education has not resulted in the anticipated improvements in the later grades.ii

Instead of measuring progress by the number of schools that had fully transitioned to Grade R provision, government fixated on the number of children enrolled in Grade R. An additional requirement was to keep the implementation costs low while maximising access. While the intent to keep costs low is both commendable and necessary, the strategies adopted to achieve this aim complicated implementation significantly, compromising effectiveness. The resulting quality of provision has been, in certain instances, so poor that children might have been better off without it. Other countries would be well-advised to avoid these pitfalls.

  • Grade R facilities were established wherever they could be set up quickly – at existing schools and in community structures – disregarding how they related to existing schools. As a result, many schools had partial coverage of Grade R relative to Grade 1, meaning that some children entered Grade 1 from Grade R while others did not, compromising teaching and learning in Grade 1. In addition, this strategy required two delivery channels, complicating implementation.
  • Only provision by community entities was subsidised, with parents being expected to fund the difference.
  • The per capita school-funding norms were not applied to children enrolling in Grade R in schools. The national Department of Basic Education was slow to put uniform funding norms and standards in place, and when it finally did so in 2008, uniform levels of funding were not mandatory. Instead, provincial education departments could determine their own funding levels within set parameters.iii The result was disparate levels of funding for Grade R across the country.
  • The government initially refused to employ Grade R teachers as public servants. Instead, they were employed by either community-based entities or school governing bodies, so received a stipend only and none of the benefits associated with being a public servant. In fact, the government treated the provision of Grade R as a job creation programme for low-skilled workers, even funding it through the Expanded Public Works Programme ECD component rather than expand the core education workforce. This undermined the status and quality of the Grade R workforce, compromising the quality of provision.
  • Qualification standards for Grade R teachers were not set until 2015. Given a history, in South Africa, of formal qualifications being unavailable to most of those working as teachers of young children, finding suitably qualified personnel for an expanding Grade R sector has been a serious challenge. However, there was also a lack of formal training opportunities for ECD practitioners. In this context, the NGO sector developed and offered unaccredited training programmes. These initiatives springboarded efforts to formalise ECD qualifications and, by early 2003, qualifications and standards were registered by the qualifications authority at Level 1 (Basic Certificate in ECD), Level 4 (National Certificate in ECD, secondary school-leaving level) and Level 5 (Higher Certificate in ECD and Diploma in ECD). Around the same time, the process of accrediting ECD training service providers began. Challenges that remain include:
    • the pace of Grade R rollout outstrips the supply of qualified ECD teachers, resulting in the continued appointment of teachers with minimal qualifications.
    • poor pay, and the absence of any career-pathing, encourages better teachers to study for a Bachelor’s degree and move into the formal education workforce as teachers for grades 1, 2 or 3, where the pay is nearly double.
  • In 2015, the Department of Basic Education issued revised standards for teacher qualifications, specifying that new Grade R teachers need to have a Bachelor of Education in Foundation Phase Teaching. Existing Grade R teachers can obtain a Diploma in Grade R Teaching, but this option is not available to new entrants.iv
  • Proper structures to oversee the quality of Grade R provision were not established.

South Africa did get the following elements right:

  • Grade R is a single service rather than a service package;
  • a clear policy intent that Grade R will be the first year of compulsory schooling;
  • an existing curriculum;
  • only one department is responsible for implementation. While alignment across two levels of government was required, there was no need to draw in stakeholders with differing service mandates;
  • location within the established schooling system, with some available infrastructure;
  • provision of public funding.

So, what are the takeaways from the South African experience – positive and negative – that other countries contemplating introducing a new preschool grade might learn from?v

  • Focus on quality rather than coverage

The failure to focus on quality from the outset has proven very difficult to remedy. It is exceptionally difficult to retrofit quality into a system that has employed poorly qualified teachers, built substandard facilities, adopted poor teaching practices and neglected to establish mechanisms for managing and monitoring quality.

  • Build government’s capacity to implement

The South African government did not establish the capacity and systems required to implement Grade R effectively. In addition to the lack of capacity to manage the rollout itself, education district offices do not have sufficient staff with the necessary qualifications, or experience with the curriculum and play-based learning, to exercise oversight, provide support or mentor teachers in the classroom.

  • Establish the new grade in legislation

Only in 2022 did the South African government take steps to formalise Grade R in legislation. Up till then, Grade R was only set out in policy statements. This means that Grade 1 remained the official start year of formal education, and there was no legal obligation on provinces and schools to implement Grade R. This lack of legislative foundation resulted in provinces being reluctant to budget for and implement Grade R. It also meant that, in the public mind and in a formal sense, children only started school in Grade 1. In some provinces, this is reflected in the online school enrolment systems, which only provide for registration for Grade 1.

  • Set norms and standards for the grade from the outset

When the South African government decided to proceed with the rollout of Grade R, there were no comprehensive, uniform norms and standards describing the new grade or how it was to be structured, funded and managed. While some aspects were described –the teacher:child ratio was set at 1:30, and the curriculum was in place – many aspects were not:

  • teacher qualification requirements;
  • levels and progression within the education workforce;
  • funding – funding norms and standards for Grade R were only passed in 2008;
  • required infrastructure;
  • classroom materials;
  • performance measures other than enrolment.

This resulted in highly variable implementation and detracted from quality.

  • Have clear curriculum objectives

This is an area where the South Africa got things right. In 2002, the curriculum for Grade R was made part of the National Curriculum Statement Foundation The focus is on three learning programmes: numeracy, literacy and life skills, and the intention is that these are to be taught in an integrated, play-based, child-centred manner.

However, pressure for a more formal approach in many primary schools, especially if school principals and phase heads (and, in some cases, district officials) are not grounded in early childhood care and play-based education methods has often prevailed. A strong focus on literacy and numeracy skills, plus teachers who themselves do not view play as educational and who often have relatively low qualifications, has resulted in play-based learning being neglected. This points to a lack of preparatory training and a failure to appoint properly trained ECD teachers.

  • Do proper planning and costing

When the government decided to proceed with the implementation of Grade R, it did not develop a costed implementation plan. The result was challenging access targets and inadequate funding for provinces. This forced the provinces to adopt least-cost approaches, undermining quality.

It is very likely that the government was reluctant to plan and cost the initiative in too much detail because doing so entailed specifying norms and standards and a rollout plan – which it did not want to commit to. It is only in recent years that the Department of Basic Education has developed costed implementation plans.

  • Ensure adequate funding

By adopting a low-cost model, not providing provinces with adequate funds, and with certain provinces even diverting what little funds were allocated to them for implementing Grade R towards other priorities – largely because Grade R is not a statutory obligation – government missed its own rollout target in 2010. As of 2023, rollout is still not 100%, and the quality of Grade R in most settings, including schools, is poor.

  • Maximise the use of community resources

As early as 2001, the government decided to prioritise Grade R in schools (at the expense of a more holistic multi-age approach), while community ECD sites were funded separately. There is strong evidence that this decision was driven by fiscal concerns. The result was that, instead of leveraging the capacity that existed within community-based structures and NGOs, and non-school ECD infrastructure, the government took on the full responsibility for rolling-out Grade R, including the provisioning of classrooms at schools. Not using community-based infrastructure to rollout Grade R has hampered provision, and very likely increased costs.

  • Appoint properly trained ECD teachers

South Africa’s early approach is not recommended. To attract properly trained teachers, the salaries must be fair.

The law of unintended consequences

When governments introduce a new programme, such as Grade R, it is vitally important for policy-makers to be aware of the possible unintended consequences of their policy choices. In South Africa, it is clear that fiscal considerations were prioritised in introducing Grade R, leading to the adoption of low-cost approaches. Also, emphasis was placed on expanding access rather than on quality.

The unintended (though predictable) consequences of these decisions are that Grade R does not prepare the majority of learners to learn, it does not equalise capabilities across children from different backgrounds as they enter school, and it does not deliver value for money in terms of education outcomes. It will take an enormous effort to retrofit quality into Grade R.

Other countries would be well advised to avoid the mistakes South Africa made when they introduce preschool grades to their education systems. The emphasis needs to be on ensuring quality, which requires proper planning, adequate funding and systematic, school-by-school, rollout.

End notes

  2. Van der Berg, S. et al., 2013. The impact of the introduction of Grade R on Learning Outcomes. University of Stellenbosch.
  5. This list draws on information in a paper by Linda Biersteker (2010). “Scaling-up Early Childhood Development in South Africa: Introducing a Reception Year (Grade R) for Children Aged Five Years as the First Year of Schooling.” Paper commissioned by the Wolfensohn Center for Development at Brookings.
  6. Department of Education, 2002. Revised National Curriculum Statement. Pretoria.

Related topics