SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Education (MOE) will set up 15 pilot kindergartens over the next three years.
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat announced this in Parliament on Wednesday during the debate on his ministry's budget estimates.
Kindergartens are currently run by the private sector.
In an effort to raise the quality of pre-school education, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said during the National Day Rally that the government will play a more active role in the sector.
Mr Heng revealed that five of the MOE-run kindergartens will enrol K1 children in January 2014.
Details on the locations of the first five kindergartens and admission procedures will be announced in two weeks.
Some of these pilot kindergartens will be located in primary schools while other will be in community sites. All of them will be within HDB heartlands.
Mr Heng said: "These kindergartens will, first and foremost, provide a quality education that will be affordable to Singaporeans. Our specialists will develop teaching and learning resources, and best practices to enhance children's learning."
The ministry will also work with other pre-school centres that offer good programmes to study different approaches.
Best practices that are scalable, sustainable and suitable for the Singaporean context will be distilled and shared with other pre-school operators.
This is to catalyse improvements across the sector.
Mr Heng said given the growing demand for quality kindergarten education, his ministry is prepared to go beyond these 15 centres. How far and how fast the ministry proceeds, he said, will depend on its experience, assessment, and feedback from parents.
He said: "As it is, MOE has heavy responsibilities and an expansion into providing affordable, quality kindergartens in the heartlands is a significant undertaking. MOE will not undertake this lightly unless there is strong public support for it and unless our assessment is that we are creating significant value for parents and children. There are also important logistical and staffing issues that we will need to look into."
Separately, MOE and the Social and Family Development Ministry will continue to work together with other operators, through the newly formed Early Childhood Development Agency, to expand capacity and raise standards, while keeping fees affordable for the majority of Singaporeans.
Return to "fundamentals" needed before any major policy changes
The education sector is set to get more reviews, with Mr Heng saying a series of feedback sessions have thrown up two major concerns.
These are the stressful nature of the system -- with too much emphasis on exams. The other is access to the same opportunities for students across all socio-economic groups.
Mr Heng said there are also real tensions and differences in views among parents and educators.
He said: "I've been thinking long and hard about these issues and we have had many sessions with our educators on this. Before we change our major policies, we must get back to the fundamentals.
"First, re-affirm the basic goals of education, and second, in light of the changing circumstances I outlined earlier and the differences in views, the fundamental strategy of how we will achieve these goals."
These include recognising that each child is different, and seeing education as a lifelong journey and not just a competitive sprint.
Mr Heng added: "Seeking to hot-house our children when they are in kindergarten and preparing them in advance for primary school generates stress and then boredom when they enter primary school."
Thus, two areas are up for review -- the need for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) as the barometer for secondary school posting, and streaming students according to their abilities.
Mr Heng said any change must be "deliberate and thoughtful" and take into consideration, how fast and how far the changes can be sustained.
"We face the complex challenges that many members have spoken about passionately -- from stress, tuition, exams and streaming. These challenges are complex because there are no easy answers," said Mr Heng.
"There are significant trade-offs among the multiple objectives. Some changes may benefit one group while another may feel they will lose out. What may seem good in the short term, may bring adverse consequences later.
"Given how the different parts of our system are linked to each other, we simply cannot change one part without affecting another. We also have to remember that education is always a complex issue because it is tied deeply to our values as a people."