Levels of access to early childhood development (ECD) programmes in South Africa are around 35 per cent for children aged zero to five, and lower for children in poor households. This despite evidence linking participation to benefits that address poverty, inequality and unemployment, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Notwithstanding government’s commitment to ECD as a universal right in ECD policy, state subsidies benefit only 13 per cent of children in quintiles one to three, limited by marginal increases in public sector budgets over the past decade. Shifting responsibility for ECD programmes to the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has the potential to catalyse broad reform to ensure universal access to quality ECD programmes. This paper considers the access gap that the DBE must address to realise the universal right to ECD. It evaluates two policy approaches to the expansion of public provision of ECD programmes: through a purpose-built centre approach or a mixed-model approach. The cost, capacity and policy implications for these two expansion approaches are evaluated, showing that a mixed-model approach will enable the realisation of the universal right to ECD more cost-efficiently than a purpose-built centre approach.