Improving S’pore’s preschool sector is everyone's business. Here's what needs to be done
As Singaporeans adjust to a post-Covid world of blended work arrangements and an exhausted preschool sector, it’s not surprising that some young parents now find themselves in a tough spot, unable to secure childcare services near their homes.
Instead of dismissing this as a trivial matter, how our nation supports its young families and young children should be everyone’s business.
This is because it does take a village to raise a child and all our efforts can directly affect the longevity and productivity of our nation.
But to do better on this front, we need to examine four key issues.
To date, there are about 1,900 licensed preschools run by more than 500 operators in a largely privatised and fragmented industry of which anchor operators and preschool partner operators receive government grants.
About half of the sector does not belong to these two schemes and is largely run by commercial operators or non-profits.
Operators that receive government grants must meet certain obligations such as keeping fees affordable, ensuring supply meets demand.
These centres are also obliged to undergo quality assurance assessments under the Singapore Preschool Accreditation Framework (Spark) that go beyond the compulsory licensing expectations.
The only state-run preschool programme in Singapore is offered by the Ministry of Education (MOE), which currently has about 45 MOE kindergartens, catering to five-and six-year-olds. They serve lower-to-middle income families, supporting their children’s transition into primary school.
Many countries have a mixed economy of childcare services, with varying proportions of private and public provision.
Singapore’s landscape is 90 per cent more privatised than that found in other economically advanced nations such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and the Netherlands.
By contrast, there are countries with direct and significant public funding of universal early childhood care and education services, especially in the northern hemisphere where personal taxes are high, including France and the Nordic countries.
Such governments view childcare as a public good that is as important as infrastructure, and essential to supporting parents’ participation in the labour force.
A highly privatised pre-school sector, on the other hand, could lead to social exclusion due to what has been termed a commodification and corporatisation of care.
Simply put, it may cause cost-cutting in favour of profit or focusing on performance indicators at the expense of children’s and teachers’ needs.
MORE DIVERSITY NEEDED
In Singapore, we have only two types of licensed and regulated preschool programmes under oversight of the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA).
The first is “childcare” which typically offers full-day service for children from 18 months of age (some have infant care licenses for those as young as two months); while the second is the “kindergarten” programme which is usually a half-day offering that typically caters to children from around ages three to six years old.
Given the rising demand for full-day services, the preschool sector is now mostly made up of childcare centres, and there haves been efforts to also increase the availability of infant care services so that mothers can return to work before consuming all their paid maternity leave.
There may be a need to diversify the types of licensed and regulated childcare services in Singapore.
Most of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries offer a range of paid or partially paid parental leave as part of their package of support made available to parents. And they do not simply have a universal type of licensed childcare services.
For instance, besides the licensed nurseries and other forms of preschool services, the UK has a registry of home child carers that provide ad-hoc childcare for children from one or more families.
The authorities require these individuals to clear a criminal record check, and they must possess minimal professional requirements and paediatric first aid training.
New Zealand has two main types of licensed preschool offerings: Teacher-led services and parent-led services. Play centres are an example of parent-led services — collectively supervised and managed by parents for small groups of children within a home or suitable community setting.
This is an example of how families come together to share resources, to raise their children together but in a formalised and government-regulated way.
Singapore needs to figure out ways that would work for our context.
Preschools as group-care, institutionalised settings are not easy to staff if we want to provide quality care and education to young children.
A typically sized childcare centre with about 120 children would need at least 14 qualified teachers or assistant teachers, and a centre leader.
Currently, the shortest qualification widely available to career switchers who want to be employed as preschool teachers is a 900-hour conversion diploma usually completed over 13 months.
The sector also has place-and-train options available, but the biggest challenge yet for operators is in retaining preschool teachers.
Salaries and career pathways aside, preschool workplace conditions could be reviewed and further improved to prevent teacher burnout and increase work satisfaction.
Childcare work is both physical work and a labour of care and intentionality. Having a conducive work environment enables trained preschool teachers to be more attentive and responsive to young children, to support their curiosity and exploration.
For instance, current licensing requirements for teacher-child ratios (for example one teacher to eight two-year-olds or one to 12 three-year-olds) can be rather challenging if centres aim to be inclusive and take in children with diverse medical and learning needs.
There is also no restriction on children’s group sizes. This means an operator can have 30 toddlers in one single room as long as there are enough adults.
But the reality is, having 30 asynchronously moving, laughing, crying two-year-olds in a single space can drive any adult (or child) up the wall.
OECD countries generally have more realistic adult-child ratios. Currently, in England, there has even been a public outcry after the government wanted to reduce the number of adults per child for two-year-olds, from the existing ratio of one adult for every four children to one adult for every five children.
In Japan, the adult-child ratio for children below age three would be 1:6.
Ratios are just one of several factors that can worsen teachers’ loads, besides long work hours that leave no room for self-development.
If Singapore wants to improve the work conditions of teachers so as to retain them, operators should work with ECDA to review them.
Otherwise, we are simply trying to fill a leaky bucket with current rates of attrition.
WHY QUALITY PRESCHOOL MATTERS
Neuroscience research has shown that the first six years of a child’s life is when her/his brain develops at a rapid pace, and it is a time when they can absorb the most knowledge about essential life skills. But children need adults to guide them.
Longitudinal research on the effectiveness of preschool education in the UK shows high quality provisions matter and have the most lasting impact on children’s later development.
On the other hand, an average or low-quality preschool experience makes little difference to children’s later development and could have a negative impact on children’s executive functioning and self-esteem.
In an ideal situation, countries should offer all its citizens affordable and accessible high-quality childcare.
But this is not realistic, given the complexities involved in funding, regulating, training and staffing preschools; not to mention, cultural expectations around the purpose of preschool education.
Childcare is a national issue that everyone should care about, and if possible, individuals and organisations should also chip in to support parents and children in the best possible ways.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Associate Professor Sirene Lim is Head, Early Childhood Education with Minor Programme and Vice Dean, S R Nathan School of Human Development at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.