SINGAPORE : The government is ramping up infrastructure for childcare services.
Over the next five years, there will be full-day childcare places for at least one in two children, aged 18 months to 6 years old - up from one in three currently.
Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said this will mean that 20,000 more childcare places will be created to meet this target.
He was speaking in Parliament on Thursday during the debate on his ministry's Budget estimates.
For a start, Mr Chan said more childcare centres will be built in new towns where there is demand.
Fifteen more centres will be built in Punggol over the next two years, and 10 more in Woodlands over the same period.
The government is also looking at alternative sites - for example, building childcare centres together with new Build-To-Order flats or even converting disused facilities such as bus interchanges and swimming complexes.
As infrastructure builds up, Mr Chan said it is also critical to beef up manpower capacity while raising the professional image of the sector.
Mr Chan said parents can do their part in this area.
He said: "When we send our children to the childcare (centre), (we should) acknowledge the childcare teachers, show them our appreciation. Please do not deposit the child at the childcare centre and give the childcare teacher a list of instructions... I think the childcare teachers feel this.
"They told me, 'I can take a bit less pay but please give me a bit of respect.' I think we can all do that together, to acknowledge and affirm the good work done by our childcare teachers."
Meanwhile, Mr Chan also addressed calls for the early childhood industry to be nationalised.
He said: "If we do that, the question that we have to ask ourselves is 'will we be able to offer the diversity required for the industry'. We know that children learn very differently at an early age. A one-size-fits-all method will probably not work.
"We want diversity and we want to give choices to our parents. We also respect there are many dedicated educators who have set up existing childcare centres and kindergartens with very innovative teaching methods, and we should keep them in our system and if possible, help them grow."
Mr Chan said what his ministry is most concerned about is whether there will be affordable and quality childcare options available to the mass market - that means options for those in the lower- and middle-income group.
But he acknowledged that it is not easy to assess the quality of childcare services.
He said: "The unfortunate experience in some other countries is that... when people are short of tangible evidences, they look to price as a proxy. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"High-end operators attract people who can pay for the services and they produce quite good services, whereas the mass market ones languish."
Mr Chan also said the government is open to expanding the pool of anchor operators for childcare centres, in line with the government's bid to build ahead to meet future demand.
He said the large network of anchor operators islandwide and economies of scale enable them to invest in better operational and HR capabilities.
The government will be calling for a Request for Proposal in the second quarter of this year.
To keep an eye on and boost the quality of the industry, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) will begin operations on April 1.
The new pre-school regulatory body will focus on master-planning, capability building, curriculum and manpower development.
ECDA will be overseen by both the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Social and Family Development.
Mr Chan said an important task for ECDA is to harmonise the rules and regulations between the kindergarten and the childcare sector.
He elaborated: "(This is) to make sure that we provide greater ease of operations for the operators, to make sure that we provide peace of mind to the parents, not just in terms of quality, but also in the continuity of service from childcare to kindergarten... and in time to come, after-school care and beyond."