SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Education (MOE) is set to be a lot more influential in the pre-school sector, after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced at this year's National Day Rally that the number of MOE kindergartens will go up to 50 – from the current 15 – in about six years.
With this move, one in five kindergarten places will be provided by an MOE kindergarten by 2023.
Speaking with Channel NewsAsia in an exclusive interview, Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said on Thursday (Aug 24) that these efforts are in line with the Government’s efforts to “uplift” the sector - and that it would remain diverse despite greater influence from MOE.
“Parents will still have their choices for whatever the children's needs may be, to choose the appropriate early childhood centre or kindergarten that they prefer,” Mr Ng said.
He added: “There will be space for different operators, and so long as there are children who require spaces – with the proper positioning of the quality, the quantity will be there for the market.”
With regard to the growing number of MOE kindergartens in Singapore, Mr Ng noted that they would only make up 20 per cent of kindergarten spaces here.
Additionally, all new pre-school educators will have to go through a newly set up centralised training institute, the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC). Existing teachers would also be able to receive upgrading opportunities from NIEC. MOE will fund and drive policy for NIEC through the National Institute of Education (NIE).
NIEC is a chance for the sector to harness MOE’s expertise in curriculum research, Mr Ng said.
“One of the key reasons the Singapore school system is a world-class system is because of our teachers. And a key part of this is really NIE,” he said. “We hope to do the same with the early childhood sector. By doing so, hopefully, over a short period of time, we can have an uplifting of the quality of teachers and an enhancement of the pedagogical curriculum quality in the whole early childhood sector."
NIEC would also provide trainee teachers the opportunity to specialise. Mr Ng said this would allow them to tailor teaching methods for subjects that may be difficult for young children to pick up.
Citing the example of an MOE kindergarten lesson at Punggol Green, Mr Ng said he witnessed children learning mathematics by pretending to buy and sell pets – a stark contrast to the “rote learning” he experienced in kindergarten.
“Unlike my time in kindergarten, where my teachers would tell me: 'Chee Meng, 1+1=2, 2+2=4' - a lot of rote learning - today, the kids get to explore, discover and it engenders a sense of curiosity for them,” he said.
The concept is called purposeful play – one of the core pedagogies that MOE kindergartens use to educate children. According to MOE, purposeful play gives them the chance to learn through fun and engaging activities.
Mr Ng also pointed to a resource called Nurturing Early Learners (NEL) Big Books, an MOE innovation that exposes children to Mother Tongue, and anchors their interest in the languages.
According to the Education Minister, NEL Big Books are “very popular” resources that are used not just at MOE kindergartens, but across the sector. "Whether you are an anchor operator or a partner operator, we are looking to provide the pedagogical research and the materials. If it is useful for kindergarten (kids), we will share it.”
MOE calls the recent changes to pre-school education an effort to lay "strong foundations for our children". What this means, in essence, is social mobility, said Mr Ng.
“Each Singaporean child will have equal access, a level playing field towards a good start (and) a stronger foundation in life, starting at one of our MOE kindergartens,” he added.
This is why the Government is committed to keeping pre-school education for children up to the age of six affordable, said Mr Ng.
Parents who need help putting their children through kindergarten may tap on the Kindergarten Fee Assistance Scheme (KiFas), an initiative by the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA). Under KiFas, a family that earns S$3,500 a month pays about S$15 in monthly fees at an anchor operator or MOE kindergarten.
Depending on gross household income, school fees could go as low as S$1.50 per month. “We have made sure that affordability is almost assured for every Singaporean child in a kindergarten, whether it is an MOE kindergarten or other (qualifying) kindergartens,” said Mr Ng.