SINGAPORE: An additional 40,000 pre-school places will be created in the next five years, particularly for children up to four years old, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Sunday (Aug 20).
In his National Day Rally speech, Mr Lee noted that in the last five years, 50,000 more pre-school places were created, but there are still shortages in the newer towns. With the increase, the total number of pre-school places will go up to 200,000 – almost double what Singapore had, he said.
Pre-school education was one of three longer-term issues Mr Lee previously highlighted in his National Day message, noting that even as Singapore continues to be preoccupied with urgent issues domestically and externally, it must also look beyond the horizon and prepare for the future.
In his speech, Mr Lee stressed the importance of pre-school in giving children a good start and the best chance to succeed in life. “In the past, we started at Primary 1, when the child is seven, but now we know we have to begin much earlier,” he said. “Not to give children a head-start in Primary 1, but to build sound foundations for them for life.
“At an early age, there are specific windows in a child’s development,” he added. “And you must catch that window, or you'll miss it.”
ADDRESSING SHORTAGE OF PLACES
Anchor operators will create more pre-school places mainly for children aged up to four years old, where the shortage of places is most acute, Mr Lee said.
Pre-school anchor operators, which include PAP Community Foundation (PCF), NTUC First Campus and EtonHouse International, get government grants and have to keep fees affordable in return.
For a start, these operators will build Early Years Centres in new Housing Board developments, which will then partner a nearby Ministry of Education (MOE) Kindergarten. The children in the Early Years Centre will then have a place reserved in that MOE Kindergarten, if the parents want to take it up.
A pilot of this model was announced in February. In this programme, which will start in 2019, eligible Singaporean children enrolled in four upcoming Early Years Centres in Punggol – operated by PCF and NTUC’s My First Skool – will be guaranteed a place in a nearby MOE Kindergarten when they turn five years old. Three of the centres will open by the middle of next year and one by mid-2019.
In a press release giving further details on the announcement, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) said the 40,000 new pre-school places will be 30 per cent more than the number of places today. Most of these additional pre-school places will be situated in new Housing Board residential developments, so as to be accessible to young families.
ECDA added that it will also pre-build the new centres so they can be operational earlier. They will also be twice the size of an average centre today, with a capacity of 200 children in each centre.
Children enrolled in these centres can also enjoy more seamless access to outdoor learning spaces and playgrounds, it said.
SCALING UP MOE KINDERGARTENS TO RAISE STANDARDS FURTHER
Mr Lee noted that there are enough pre-school places for children aged five to six. So for this group, the focus will be to improve the quality of pre-school education.
The Education Ministry will lead the way, he said. “MOE’s 15 kindergartens have helped to establish a good standard at a reasonable price, and parents know they can trust the MOE brand.”
To that end, MOE will scale up to 50 kindergartens in the next five years. “This way, MOE can make a bigger impact beyond its own MOE Kindergartens, to influence and uplift the quality of the whole sector.”
ECDA said there will be about 50 MOE Kindergartens by 2023.
The 15 MOE Kindergartens, which were first set up between 2014 and 2016, aim to provide quality and affordable pre-school education. They also pilot teaching and learning resources, and establish good practices for sharing within the pre-school sector.
Mr Lee added that the Government is investing heavily in young children. It has doubled its annual spending on pre-schools in the last five years from S$360 million in 2012 to S$840 million this year. It will double its annual spending again over the next five years: to S$1.7 billion in 2022.
“It is a heavy investment, but worthwhile and necessary,” he said.
ECDA noted that apart from anchor operators and MOE Kindergartens, other operators continue to play an important role in meeting the demand for affordable and quality pre-school services. It added that since Aug 1, an additional 29 centres, operated by existing partner operators have been appointed to the Partner Operator Scheme. Under the scheme, parents with children enrolled in these centres will benefit from a one-off fee reduction and improvements in the quality of early childhood services, it said, adding that there are now about 200 partner operator centres, and more are expected to come under this scheme.
With the expanded provision by anchor operators, MOE Kindergartens and Partner Operators, two in out of every three pre-schoolers will have a place in a Government or Government-supported quality pre-school by 2023, said ECDA. This is an increase from about one in two pre-schoolers today.