Experts’ wish for pre-schools: Higher teaching standards

Experts’ wish for pre-schools: Higher teaching standards
With the issues of pre-school accessibility and affordability largely addressed in recent years, the government and pre-school sector players must now raise the bar on curriculum and quality of teachers. Photo: AFP
Preschools one of the areas that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will cover in his National Day Rally
Published: 5:35 AM, August 11, 2017
Updated: 5:46 AM, August 11, 2017

SINGAPORE — With the issues of preschool accessibility and affordability largely addressed in recent years, the government and preschool sector players must now raise the bar on curriculum and quality of teachers, said early childhood educators, experts and Members of Parliament. 

The sector is one of three areas that would help Singapore prepare for the future, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said in his National Day message this week. He will speak more about the issue at the National Day Rally on Aug 20.

Preschools could do more to nurture the young to “be creative and independent thinkers” and equip them with 21st century skills, said Mr Ng Yi Xian, executive director of EtonHouse International Education Group. Educators should be given more professional development opportunities, in order to design “innovative and progressive” programmes for their charges.

Training and grants could be given for educators to develop expertise in nature education, science, technology, entrepreneurship, arts and mathematics programmes, said Mr Ng. Such support could also extend to bilingual education, as well as research on early childhood learning, he said.

Singapore could do with a bigger pool of preschool Chinese teachers, in order to build a stronger bilingual foundation for young children, he said. EtonHouse International’s schools include 10 E-Bridge Pre-schools offering more than 1,600 places, that it runs as an anchor operator. Anchor operators receive funding from the government under a scheme started in 2009 and enhanced in 2014, that increases access to quality and affordable early childhood care and education.

Training and career progression for preschool educators remain relatively fragmented, noted observers and preschool providers.

NTUC First Campus chief executive Chan Tee Seng said the image of preschool teachers has shifted in recent years from nanny and caregiver, to that of a skilled and trained professional. Last October, for instance, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin announced a new manpower plan to create more rewarding careers for early childhood educators, with the aim to attract 4,000 more, by 2020, to the 16,000-strong profession. 

But Member of Parliament Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC), who sits on the Education government parliamentary committee, felt the impression persists that career progression is limited for those in the sector. 

“There is also not much development and research put into this sector,” he added. 

Despite existing schemes aimed at raising the quality of preschool teachers, professional development in the sector remains more “diverse and fragmented” compared to the training for primary and secondary school teachers, said Dr Sirene Lim, academic lead of the Bachelor of Early Childhood Education programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Existing schemes include the Early Childhood Development Agency’s Professional Development Programmes for teachers and educarers, as well as the Singapore Pre-school Accreditation Framework, or SPARK, which was introduced in 2011.

“There could be better alignment across the various certifications, informed by research evidence of the gaps that exist in the classrooms,” said Dr Lim.  

The profession should have a “learning culture” that is able to critically reflect on its practices, she said. With deeper skills and knowledge, educators will be better able to advocate for children’s best interests, she said.

Teachers and leaders should be encouraged to read widely and have access to global research trends and literature, beyond attending short courses and workshops, for instance. 

Paying preschool teachers better is a way of drawing more to the profession, and St James’ Church Kindergarten senior principal Jacqueline Chung suggested the government could help fund salary increases for teachers through co-payment. This would help non-profit providers like St James’ Church, which would not have to push for a “corresponding increase in school fees”, she said.

Dr Chung said preschools should also become more inclusive by taking in children with special needs. Grants could be given for operators to get trained staff on board, she said. 

“It would be wonderful if we could go in this direction where there are clusters of pre-schools with special needs educators assigned to these pre-schools, who visit the school regularly … to help support the teachers and families,” she said.

The government has significantly boosted the number of preschool places in recent years, noted those in the sector.

In January this year, it announced that four new large child care centres will begin construction this year in Punggol, Sengkang and Bukit Panjang, adding some 2,700 new places at these estates. They are expected to open by mid-2018. In 2015, the Early Childhood Development Agency announced five large child care centres with a total of about 2,400 places would be ready by the end of last year.

Preschools said they offer opportunities for teachers to brush up their skills. 

Mr Victor Bay, chief executive of another anchor operator, the PAP Community Foundation (PCF), said its programme staff have undergone more than a total of 200,000 hours of continuous professional development in the past 12 months, including attending conferences and training stints at international schools both in Singapore and overseas. PCF currently employs over 5,000 early childhood educators at over 360 centres attended by more than 40,000 children.