Madam Speaker, I beg to move, “That the Bill be now read a second time”.
With your permission Madam Speaker, may I ask the Clerks to distribute the document that illustrates the points that I will cover in my speech.
As part of the Government’s commitment to give every child a good start and to make Singapore a great place for families, we have undertaken various efforts to raise the affordability, accessibility and quality of our early childhood sector. In support of this, the Early Childhood Development Agency, ECDA, was established in 2013 to regulate and develop the sector.
To be effective, ECDA has to work in close partnership with the operators of around 1,800 child care centres and kindergartens in Singapore. Today, parents of over 165,000 children entrust their children to these centres each day.
Such trust is possible because of committed and passionate teachers, as well as quality centres – and all this is underpinned by a sound and robust regulatory framework that upholds quality.
Regulatory standards underpin the foundation of a good quality pre-school, much like the stacking ring toy that we played with when we were young, and is commonly found in pre-schools to develop a child’s fine motor skills. It is a classic toy, with a cone, and rings in different sizes and colours, and the biggest ring goes in first to form a sturdy base.
The Early Childhood Development Centres Bill seeks exactly to be that strong and reliable base for the sector – to consistently provide good quality programmes that give our young parents a peace of mind when it comes to the safety, well-being and development of their children. In short, this Bill will ensure higher and more consistent quality standards across the early childhood sector.
Before I go into the key provisions of the Bill, I wish to thank Members of this House, the early childhood sector and the public for your support and valuable suggestions.
The proposals in the Bill were made through extensive consultations over the past two years with operators, parents, teachers, early childhood experts, industry partners and the general public. Parents that came for ECDA’s focus group discussions came to appreciate the amount of effort that operators and teachers put in to ensure that their pre-school is safe and conducive for their children’s development. ECDA received strong support on the need to raise centre quality, and also calibrated its proposals based on the feedback received.
EARLY CHILDHOOD DEVELOPMENT CENTRES BILL
Madam Speaker, let me now move on to the key provisions of the Bill.
Common licensing regime
You will notice that the Bill focuses on early childhood development – we emphasise holistic care and education as integral to our children’s growth. In this regard, child care centres and kindergartens will be collectively regulated as “early childhood development centres” under a common licensing framework, which this harmonised Bill is better able to support, rather than being separately regulated under the Child Care Centres Act and Education Act as they are today.
What this means is that, instead of the current “lifetime subscription” model for kindergartens, where they are registered one-off under the Education Act, all centres will now run on the “renewal subscription” model, which is already the practice for child care centres today under the Child Care Centres Act. Centres will be approved to operate for a period of time, and will be re-assessed when they renew their licence tenures. This places the need for centres to consciously put in effort to maintain their standards to continue their operations for another tenure. Key areas of focus include physical space norms and design, environment safety and hygiene, programme staff quality and staff-to-child ratios.
Under the new framework, we will increase the maximum licence tenure to three years, up from the current two years for child care centres. Better quality centres will be awarded longer licence tenures, and this will encourage centres to perform better. The new three-year licence tenure recognises the strong core of centres with consistently good regulatory track records of at least two consecutive two-year licences – this is a substantial portion of child care centres, at over 500 centres today. ECDA officers will continue to conduct unannounced visits to centres periodically to ensure that centres maintain their standards.
Early childhood development centres and excluded entities
The focus of this Bill is to regulate what we currently define today to be child care centres and kindergartens. The Bill therefore provides for the exclusion and exemption of premises where specialised services are provided to a niche group. It also excludes centres regulated under other legislations for distinctly different purposes, or operated by or on behalf of the Government, and hence directly accountable to this House. Examples include enrichment centres, standalone foreign system kindergartens, kindergartens affiliated with foreign-system primary schools, or kindergartens by the Ministry of Education. Such entities are currently not under ECDA’s purview, and will similarly not come under this new Act.
Ensuring quality and suitability of staff
As many of us can agree, people, especially teachers, are at the heart of every early childhood development centre. Parts 3 and 4 of the Bill has provisions to enable better and more consistent quality of staff who interact with children, especially early childhood professionals, given their important role.
For example, the Bill will ensure that all principals and teachers meet the prevailing professional qualification requirements before assuming their appointments.
In addition, all staff working in centres will also need to be approved by ECDA for their suitability before they can start work at centres. This will cover principals and teachers, cooks and cleaners, as well as enrichment vendor staff. All individuals will be assessed on their track record, especially pertaining to children’s safety.
One benefit of a common regulatory framework across the early childhood sector is a common administrative process to register staff. This facilitates our teachers’ movement between child care centres and kindergartens, which many teachers had called for earlier. I also believe that this regulatory framework will further enhance the professional standing and standards of our early childhood educators.
Nevertheless, my Ministry is very mindful of the manpower and other ground constraints faced by operators. As a regulator, ECDA will strive to ensure that its administrative processes are efficient and that its regulatory requirements are responsive to operators’ needs, while ensuring the quality and safety of our children.
For example, ECDA is exploring allowing non-teaching staff, such as cooks and cleaners, to support trained teachers in supervising outdoor play time.
As with any enterprise, good governance and management are critical success factors for early childhood development centres. Under clause 19, ECDA will continue to prohibit unsuitable persons, such as those with poor regulatory track records, from managing the centre’s business as board directors or chief executive officers, et cetera. The new Bill will further prohibit recalcitrant operators, whose licences had been revoked, from operating centres under another proxy. This allows ECDA to prevent such persons from continuing to misdirect centres. ECDA will also penalise licensees for knowingly allowing such unsuitable persons from managing their centre’s business.
As the operating environment of the early childhood sector is dynamic and needs to be updated from time to time, clause 51 of the Bill will provide for subsidiary legislation to effect more specific operational requirements. This will provide more clarity on the responsibilities of operators and centres.
Under the subsidiary legislation, we intend to enhance some requirements and introduce new ones to raise quality standards. And we will continue to consult the sector on this. We will take reference from sector best practices and ECDA’s prevailing guidelines. For example, as announced by the NurtureSG Taskforce last week, centres with full-day programmes will need to conduct at least one hour of physical activities daily, up from half-hour currently, and half-hour of which is to be conducted outdoors. Exposure to the outdoors will be beneficial for our children in preventing the early onset of myopia.
Even as we raise standards in the sector, we will streamline certain requirements which are no longer applicable, for greater efficiency – especially those that place unnecessary administrative burden on our teachers. The sector warmly welcomed these proposals when we consulted them earlier this month.
Just as how the Bill provides requirements for the set-up of centres, the Bill also provides requirements for the orderly closure of centres, under clauses 14 and 18. This is in view that, in the past, there had been cases where centres close abruptly. While this has been few, the impact on parents and children involved could be significant. Thus, to minimise such occurrences, ECDA will be empowered to require centres to put in place measures to ensure orderly closures. These include giving parents and teachers advance notice of the upcoming service disruption and ceasing the enrolment of new children to the centre.
Graduated penalty framework and enhanced investigative powers
Operators have worked hard to build the trust of parents by meeting the baseline standards. Today, errant operators form a small minority in the sector, but they undermine the hard work of the rest of the sector. ECDA takes regulatory breaches seriously and a more comprehensive, graduated penalty framework will enable ECDA to effectively and swiftly enforce requirements to safeguard the safety and well-being of young children. More importantly, it serves as deterrence against errant practices and behaviours.
With this new penalty framework, administrative lapses will be de-criminalised and replaced with administrative regulatory sanctions. There will be a wider suite of regulatory sanctions ranging from public censures, administrative financial penalties of up to $5,000, a security deposit, remedial measures and a shortening of the licence tenure. The type of penalty imposed eventually will depend on the severity of the breach and whether it was a repeated occurrence. The penalty will be proportionate to the breach. At the same time, I would like to reassure operators that ECDA will continue to adopt a measured, developmental approach in enforcing requirements by advising centres to rectify problems.
One new regulatory sanction I would like to elaborate on is the requirement of a security deposit. I am aware that operators are concerned about this requirement. The current intention is for the security deposit to apply only to the small number of centres with poor track records, such as centres with two consecutive six-month licences, which is the lowest licence standard. This security deposit is intended to spur such centres to raise their standards.
We are also mindful that the security deposit amount should be calibrated appropriately, and not be overly onerous on centres.
We are looking at a $10,000 amount, which is twice the administrative financial penalty amount for contraventions. I encourage centres with a six-month licence to take their regulatory gaps seriously, and to rectify their breaches quickly, so as to avoid being required to put in a security deposit.
At the same time, the Bill provides for criminal penalty for contraventions which pose more serious risk to the safety and well-being of our children. For example, the operation of unlicensed centres. Under the Bill, such contraventions will incur a fine of up to $10,000 and, or an imprisonment term of up to 12 months. The maximum fine amount has been adjusted to align with recent legislations like the Private Education Act. Certain offences will be made compoundable at up to half of the maximum fine amount under clause 42.
Before ECDA determines any contraventions, its officers will investigate the cases thoroughly and establish the facts from a variety of sources. Very often, a child may be involved in a case, which makes investigations more complex. Hence, ECDA officers will need enhanced investigative powers to effectively carry out their duties under the Bill.
Beyond the current powers to inspect centres, ECDA officers, under clause 37, will be empowered to search centres, interview persons, take photographs and videos of the centre, and obtain necessary documents from the centre. These are powers similar to those available to other regulators in Singapore. As we put these powers in place, we will establish internal processes to ensure that ECDA officers carry out their investigations fairly.
Timeline and transition for existing centres
I have just outlined the broad regulatory framework. We are expecting to commence the Act over the next year after gazetting the detailed regulatory requirements in subsidiary legislation, and publishing the administrative procedures in the Codes of Practice.
As kindergartens are less familiar with a licensing regime, under clause 54 of the Bill, kindergartens will be given one year from the commencement of the Act to obtain their licences. Since 2015, ECDA has also been conducting sector briefings to explain and consult on the new requirements, as well as conducting customised on-site guidance for kindergartens.
In fact, I understand that many kindergartens have already been making adjustments to prepare for the new framework. From my interactions with the sector, I am confident that almost all our operators can meet these requirements.
I believe that clear and appropriate regulatory requirements are crucial in raising standards in the early childhood sector. During my visit to Creative Thinkers Kindergarten in August last year, principal Ms Sakinah Dollah shared that a clear, common understanding among the principal, teachers and support staff of ECDA’s regulatory requirements will help centres to organise themselves better and to improve.
Madam Speaker, to summarise, the Early Childhood Development Centres Bill is an important milestone in raising the quality of early childhood care and education in Singapore, so that we can give every child a good start. It will provide parents with greater confidence that we are making Singapore a good place to raise families. We received strong support from parents, teachers and operators on the need for this enhanced regulatory framework.
The Bill proposes, first, a common licensing framework for child care centres and kindergartens. Second, all staff working in centres, will need to be approved by ECDA to ensure their suitability to work with young children. In addition, there will also be clearer and more consistent requirements to guide centres in their operations. Finally, the requirements will be enforced through a more comprehensive and graduated enforcement framework with enhanced investigative powers to strengthen ECDA’s oversight of the sector. ECDA will also work with centres closely to facilitate a smooth transition.
To conclude, the proposals in the Bill will help to set a firm and consistent foundation, positioning the early childhood sector well for the future. It complements the various efforts by the Government to partner the sector to improve the quality, accessibility and affordability of early childhood development services in Singapore.
With that, Madam Speaker, I beg to move.
Madam Speaker, I thank Members of this House for their suggestions and their
support of the Bill.
I am heartened and encouraged to hear the strong recognition by Members of
the importance of early childhood development and, in turn, the importance of this Bill in ensuring higher and more consistent quality standards across the early childhood sector. I am sure that our many early childhood professionals, operators and parents are similarly encouraged.
I strongly believe that this Bill is a step in the right direction, to give every child
a good start and to make Singapore a good place to raise families. Mr Chris De Souza remarked that this Bill is much needed and timely, and I cannot agree with him more. A sound and robust regulatory framework guides centres and safeguards the sector against errant practices and behaviours – this sets a strong foundation for the sector to further innovate teaching and learning practices and to develop higher quality programmes.
At the same time, I thank Members for raising many useful suggestions.
- Ms Cheryl Chan suggested considering alternatives to paper
qualifications when determining staff suitability.
- Associate Professor Daniel Goh suggested increasing the participation of professional bodies in the registering of professionals and accreditation of programmes
- Mr Yee Chia Hsing suggested a new training institute to ensure sufficient teachers in the sector.
Indeed, we share Members’ concerns on the manpower constraints and this is
one area we are paying close attention to. In recent years, ECDA has rolled out a
range of initiatives to attract, retain and develop good early childhood professionals. Many of these initiatives have been co-created with partners, such as SkillsFuture Singapore, pre-school operators, industry and professional associations and the union. We note A/P Daniel Goh’s suggestion for greater participation of professionals in the process of accreditation of training courses and qualifications. This is already done in the development of teacher registration and course accreditation standards where our early childhood professional representatives and subject matter experts are invited to provide their expertise.
Through the ramping up of subsidised training places, including work-and-study arrangements for mid-career entrants and ECDA’s Training Awards for aspiring teachers, we are seeing the early fruits of our labour, such as higher enrolment numbers in the early childhood polytechnic courses and more mid-career entrants joining the sector.
For teaching staff, including infant educarers, ECDA has in recent years also moved to open alternate entry pathways for them to upgrade professionally. When in-service educators apply for training courses, ECDA recognises their prior learning and working experiences, beyond their paper qualifications. We will continue to move in this direction.
We will touch more on these efforts to support the manpower needs of the sector, to provide more accessible, affordable and quality pre-school places at the upcoming Committee of Supply debate.
On curriculum requirements, some Members, such as Mr Desmond Choo, have noted that our pre-school sector provides a diverse range of programmes for parents to choose from, so as to best cater to their preferences and the different needs of their young children.
Under the Bill, we will continue requiring centres to have programmes that are age-appropriate and holistic. A/P Daniel Goh would be glad to know that within the regulatory framework, centres will continue to have the flexibility to innovate and customise their specific curriculum to suit the needs of their children. As a reference, centres can refer to the Ministry of Education’s Nurturing Early Learners Curriculum Framework when designing and implementing their kindergarten curriculum. For the early years of three years and below, centre can refer to ECDA’s Early Years Development Framework.
Nutritional and outdoor physical time requirements
I agree with Mr Desmond Choo that increasing access to healthier food options for pre-school children will help them develop good dietary habits for life. I also second Mr Louis Ng’s point that we should provide more opportunities for children to play, especially play outdoors. As announced by the NurtureSG Taskforce last week, ECDA will specify more detailed nutritional requirements to ensure that children receive nutritious, balanced and varied meals. This includes not allowing centres to serve sugary drinks and deep-fried food, and catering for the regular provision of fruits and calcium-rich food. The physical activities time for full-day programmes will also be increased to an hour daily, up from half-hour today, and half-hour of which has to be conducted outdoors.
As I had earlier explained, this Bill will provide for subsidiary legislation to be gazetted, and we will certainly take these suggestions into consideration in finalising the detailed requirements.
I am fully aware that there will be challenges faced by existing centres in the transition to the new regulatory framework. This was expressed by several Members, including Ms K Thanaletchimi, Ms Cheryl Chan, Ms Joan Pereira, Mr Darryl David, Mr Desmond Choo, Mr Yee Chia Hsing, Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Mr Ang Hin Kee, Mr Louis Ng and Mr Leon Perera.
Many of these concerns have also been expressed during ECDA’s earlier consultations with the public and operators. To briefly summarise, some of these concerns relate to:
- Potentially higher costs to operators, especially smaller operators, and in turn higher fees to parents; and
- Administrative burden on operators and teachers.
These are valid concerns. Even as we move this Bill as a key measure to raise baseline centre quality, ECDA is also undertaking many other initiatives to support the sector and to ensure quality and affordable services for parents.
Minimising impact on costs and fees
Aside from the broad-based support that ECDA has been providing to the sector to meet the new requirements, I would like to assure Members that we will take a gradual and calibrated approach in effecting the new Bill.
A number of Members raised the issue of potential fee increases arising from the higher requirements and its impact on families. Indeed, common wisdom dictates a trade-off between good, cheap and fast.
Firstly, we have looked at ways to make the regulations more flexible and streamlined without compromising on quality. ECDA field-tested the requirements on a variety of centres, both large and small. And I would like to assure this House that the requirements in the Bill and the regulatory framework have been carefully calibrated to raise the quality of programmes without unnecessarily raising costs.
For example, the new longer three-year licence tenure is intended to reduce the administrative costs of centres with consistently good regulatory track records. To Mr Louis Ng’s concern, as I have mentioned earlier, centres will need to undergo regular assessments before their licence renewals to demonstrate that they have maintained their standards. In addition, ECDA will continue to conduct unannounced audits as you have noted. To Mr Gan Thiam Poh’s concern, we take a developmental approach in performing our regulatory audits. We visit centres with poorer performance more regularly to help them level up their standards.
As I mentioned earlier, many of the new requirements have already been implemented as part of sector best practices and ECDA’s prevailing guidelines.
For example, ECDA’s advisory recommends centres to have air purifiers during haze episodes. ECDA is looking into making this a requirement in subsidiary legislation. And we note that many centres are already well-prepared for this, especially as ECDA had earlier provided funding support to centres to procure air purifiers during severe haze episodes.
We also do not plan to increase regulatory requirements around staffing numbers and space allocation, which are the main cost factors for centres. We believe that the prevailing requirements are adequate in our current context.
Some flexibility has also been catered for these requirements, even as new requirements are added. For example, to Ms Cheryl Chan’s suggestion to allow non-teaching staff to support teachers more, I mentioned earlier that operational support staff can help trained teachers supervise outdoor play time. Centres can also use neighbourhood playgrounds to fulfil their outdoor space requirements.
ECDA had been so meticulous in helping centres manage their costs that it even reviewed the number and type of first aid kit items that centres are required to keep!
In addition, ECDA has extended some funding support to not-for-profit kindergartens to help defray staff immunisation and minor renovation costs.
In addition to these, given that affordability is a concern to many parents, ECDA has also ramped up the supply of more quality and affordable places. This includes more places offered by Anchor and Partner Operators. We have also made subsidy enhancements in recent years and note A/P Daniel Goh’s suggestion to expand the support given.
Fee transparency measures
Mr Gan Thiam Poh and Mr Desmond Choo asked for the government to have some degree of control over fees, to ensure that fees are affordable to parents. Today, there are quality targets and fee caps on Anchor Operator and Partner Operator centres, which serve nearly half of the sector. For the remaining operators, we see the need for operators to determine their own fees, as their programmes may have different cost structures, and they may need to adjust their fees from time to time, to ensure business sustainability.
While the Bill will not determine the fees of different pre-schools, we will continue to require centres to provide sufficient early notification of any plans to increase fees, and explain the fee increase to parents. This will help to ensure that fee increases are done in a transparent and fair manner.
Following feedback from parents, ECDA is also looking into requiring centres to publish incidental charges, such as for field trips and supplementary enrichment activities, and to make enrichment activities optional – which means centres must continue to provide classes for children who do not opt for these programmes. This approach creates greater flexibility and fee transparency for parents, allowing parents to make informed choices and manage their costs better.
Managing administrative workload
Administrative workload is also a valid concern, and we certainly want teachers to be spending more quality time with our children rather than on administration. ECDA has also taken focused efforts to streamline administration. For example, over the past year, ECDA has been working with the sector to streamline the new regulatory standards checklist for operators’ own preparatory self-assessments.
To Mr Gan Thiam Poh’s query, we do not require operators to employ designated administrative or compliance staff. Most operators should be able to manage the new framework with their existing resources. Besides streamlining the regulatory standards checklist, ECDA has also released a series of useful templates that centres can use to guide and track their day-to-day operations. ECDA will also be enhancing its IT systems to allow centres to interface with ECDA more seamlessly on regulatory matters.
We agree with Mr Ang Hin Kee’s suggestion on the value of tapping on technology to keep costs down and free up teachers’ time for our children. Beyond streamlining requirements, ECDA has collaborated with the Association for Early Childhood and Training Services and the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore to identify smart solutions to help teachers with their daily administrative duties, such as temperature and attendance taking. These funded solutions were showcased at the Early Childhood Conference in September last year, and many operators have signed up since.
To Ms K Thanaletchimi, A/P Daniel Goh and Mr Louis Ng’s question, the Ministry of Education will continue to hold MOE Kindergartens to consistent standards of safety and quality similar to the requirements under the Bill. And MOE will continue to be directly accountable to Parliament for MOE Kindergartens, similar to the approach for mainstream schools that MOE runs. To Mr Darryl David’s question, I have also touched on the scope and focus of centres covered under the Bill to regulate what we define as child care centres and kindergartens today.
To Ms Cheryl Chan and Mr Louis Ng’s question on closure arrangements, ECDA is studying the advance notification period for centres who intend to cease their operations. We agree that sufficient time is needed for parents to look for alternatives. In determining the notification period, ECDA has to strike a balance with the feasibility of the time period for centres as well, since centres would not wish to prematurely alarm parents too.
To Ms K Thanaletchimi’s question, we will maintain prevailing professional qualification requirements and this information is available on ECDA’s website for all to refer to.
To clarify on Mr Darryl David’s point on third-party enrichment vendor staff suitability, ECDA will start by making simple assessments of these individuals’ track record. We do not intend to specify any professional qualifications required of these individuals, since these enrichment classes are optional and encompass a wide range of niche activities from sports to drama.
To Ms K Thanaletchimi’s question, ECDA intends to issue directions under clause 17 only for emergency cases, such as hazardous haze episodes, where children’s safety are at stake and centres need to act swiftly to safeguard their well-being. As such, it is a criminal offence for any non-compliance, liable up to a fine of $10,000 and imprisonment of 12 months as determined by the Courts.
I note Mr Gan Thiam Poh’s concern on the impact of temporary closures arising from disease outbreaks on parents. I would like to assure Members that it will only be invoked as a last resort, or only during emergency circumstances.
To support working parents, the Government has also enhanced child and infant care leave provisions over the years.
To Mr Louis Ng’s question, I have also touched on the application of the security deposit as well as the proposed amount. We are applying the security deposit on the small number of centres with poor regulatory track records as a form of assurance from them on their commitment to improve, while recognising that majority of our sector is well-performing. The security bond may be forfeited as a form of regulatory sanction against breaches as provided for under clause 16.
I note some of the other issues in the early childhood sector that were raised by Members which are beyond the scope and purposes of this Bill, such as:
- More support for centres and early childhood teachers caring for children with special needs as raised by Ms K Thanaletchimi and Mr Gan Thiam Poh. ECDA and my Ministry also works with training institutes and educational providers to equip pre-school teachers with the necessary skills to support children with developmental needs, such as rolling out professional development courses for in-service pre-school teachers who want to enhance their skills in this area.
- Co-location of centres with primary schools as raised by Mr Yee Chia Hsing. Many of the MOE Kindergartens are already located within primary schools, bringing convenience to parents who have children in both MOE Kindergartens and the primary schools that they are co-located in.
- Employment terms and disputes between centres and their teachers as raised by Mr Ang Hin Kee. We thank Mr Ang and the Education Services Union for the good work in supporting our early childhood teachers who found themselves caught in unfortunate circumstances. Early childhood professionals could also approach the Ministry of Manpower to file a complaint against violations of the Employment Act.
These concerns are important as it supports the overall functioning of the sector. As the Bill focuses on ensuring children’s safety, well-being and welfare in centres, these concerns are better addressed through other available avenues which Members have noted, such as civil recourse and support from other community partners.
Madam Speaker, in conclusion, the early childhood sector has made good progress in recent years and this Bill is an important milestone in our journey in raising the quality of early childhood care and education in Singapore, for our children and our families.
This Bill will complement the many initiatives that the Government has introduced to enhance the quality, accessibility and affordability of early childhood development services. This will ensure that every child, regardless of his or her background, can have a good start in life. It will also further strengthen our commitment to make Singapore a good place to raise families.
Once again, I thank Members of this House for their support of this Bill and the meaningful debate today. Thank you very much.