SINGAPORE: When my parents began planning for my education, they were largely saving up to put me through university.
Fast-forward some three decades: I am now paying a comparable amount for my daughter’s pre-school even before she can speak in full sentences.
In recent decades, pre-schools went from being an exception to a necessity for many.
While childcare duties traditionally fell squarely on mothers or grandparents, today women play an increasingly larger role in the workforce, and nuclear families are also more common. As such, pre-schools have become a crucial part of family planning and budgeting.
So when Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced in his Budget speech on Tuesday (Feb 18) that the government will double spending on the early childhood sector to more than S$2 billion a year over the next few years, I was delighted.
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With higher pre-school subsidies for all eligible income groups rolled out since January, DPM Heng also said that the Government would increase the share of places in government-supported pre-schools from 50 per cent at present to 80 per cent by 2025.
This led me to wonder if the vast playing field in the pre-school sector was narrowing.
HIGH QUALITY EDUCATION FOR ALL
Sceptics ask why the Government needs to set aside billions each year to enhance pre-schools. Some have argued many of us spent the very same “formative years” of our lives tossing plastic pick-up sticks and catching tadpoles, and mostly turned out fine.
But there is a huge research consensus establishing the criticality of quality early childhood education in developing high-performing adults. Studies suggest that 85 per cent of the brain develops before the age of five and that begins to form a complex network of connections during this period.
Early childhood education is believed to translate into better academic performance, healthier emotional and social development later in life, and higher future earnings.
With that said, it is natural for parents to be selective about school choices. Cost seems to be one of the key differentiators of the pre-school landscape in Singapore, with monthly fees ranging from a few dollars to thousands of dollars.
Since January, some Singaporean households in selected income brackets need to pay as little as S$3 a month for their kids’ fees in government-supported pre-schools.
However, a mid-range option like Cherie Hearts costs $1,180 for a full-day childcare programme, according to its website. After the S$300 working mother’s subsidy from the government, that rings up to S$42,240 over four years – enough to put a Singaporean through three years of an undergraduate law degree at the National University of Singapore.
On the other end of the spectrum, EtonHouse at Vanda Road costs S$6,370.25, for a 10-week Pre-Nursery 1 term without subsidy, according to EtonHouse’s website. With four terms over the year, that amounts to S$25,481 for a single year.
IS PRICIER ALWAYS BETTER?
But the question begs: With the availability and enhancement of government-sponsored pre-schools, why are parents still paying for higher-priced options?
One reason is that pre-schools are highly differentiated, and sometimes, selecting the right fit can be more mind-boggling than picking the right formula milk.
I remember sifting through at least eight disparate brochures and attending more than five open houses, trying to cut through the marketing spiel and identifying important and tangible differences.
Some branding aspects like Montessori or Montessori-inspired are not easily quantifiable. The Montessori approach in early childhood education, designed in 1907 by Italian educator Dr Maria Montessori, is designed to empower children to drive their own learning process through collaborative play and hands-on activities.
Since the “Montessori” brand is not a trademarked name, not every school that uses it is accredited. “Montessori-inspired” schools or curriculum therefore can be loosely adopted. It may not guarantee a wide use of Montessori materials, or that many teachers within the school have completed accredited Montessori training programmes.
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Another differentiating factor for high-end options is lavish facilities. White Lodge International Preschool for instance has a trampoline and sand pit, and Little Tykes has a maritime-inspired sensory room with fibre-optic blankets and a colour-switching infinity portal. Many of these pre-schools are also replete with other stimulating educational props and toys.
However, it remains debatable if all these are necessary for optimal childhood development, or if they are worth the considerable price difference. Some studies suggest that children with fewer toys are more creative and have longer attention spans.
Perhaps the prohibitive pricing and luxury branding are also among the factors that add to their appeal for some, transforming high-end pre-schools into a reflection of socio-economic status?
CLOSING THE GAP WHERE IT MATTERS
That said, some factors like the teacher-to-child-ratio do seem to make a difference in ensuring that budding young minds get the attention and stimulation they need. And these naturally cost more from a human resource perspective.
Immersive second language environments, and extra-curriculum classes such as art, music, dance, speech and even financial literacy contribute to a well-rounded programme as well. So do pre-school compounds with ample space for children to engage in physical activities. These are often reflected in pricing.
Increased government funding for more operators makes affordable pre-schools more available. Grants also enable more schools to invest in staff training to nurture effective and dedicated teachers, and enhance facilities to close the gap with premium private brands.
Some government-sponsored preschools today offer art, dance, music and acting programmes, either as part of the curriculum or as opt-in programmes. My First Skool 2 Punggol Drive, an NTUC First Campus Pre-school, even includes five play zones, such as an outdoor playground with a bamboo igloo, a water play area, and a forest play zone with a tree house.
As the differentiating factors between branded pre-schools and government-supported options narrows, more parents may begin to opt for affordable options. This reduces the burden on young parents at a time when they are still building their financial foundation.
In a nation widely lauded for its education system and equal opportunities, this also paves the way for pre-schools to evolve in the same direction as primary and secondary schools – where high-quality programmes are available and accessible to all income brackets.
After all, for a country without natural resources, realising the potential of each child is an investment in the future. It is heartening to think that somewhere in a classroom today, a child’s brain synapses are firing away, laying the infrastructure for a future of limitless possibilities.
And more importantly, this need not necessarily come at a staggering four-figure price point.
Annie Tan is a freelance writer.