Mr Deputy Speaker Sir, I would firstly like to thank Mr Yee for his views and suggestions for the child care sector.
Obviously, this is an issue close to the hearts of Singaporeans. It is also an area where the government – especially MCYS and MOE – has paid close attention and made significant efforts. Over the last few years in particular, we have invested in significant initiatives to provide parents with more accessible, affordable and quality child care and kindergarten options. I think these are the three points raised by Mr Yee in his statement just now.
Allow me to briefly share some examples.
Through the Child Care Masterplan introduced in 2008, we have improved accessibility. More than 200 new child care centres were set up. Today, we have close to 1,0001 child care centres across the island, providing up to 90,000 places. This is an increase of about 40% over 4 years. Over the next five years, we will be providing another 20,000 child care places to meet the increased demand.
To make child care more affordable, we raised the universal child care subsidy in 2008 from $150 to $300. More recently, we have enhanced child care financial assistance for families with household incomes up to $3500 and we introduced a per capita income criterion to allow larger families to receive more subsidies. Parents can also utilise funds from the Child Development Account (CDA), for which Government provides a one-for-one matching grant, to offset the cost of child care fees. With this combination of subsidies and financial assistance, a family earning $2000 a month for example, may pay as low as $15 per month out of pocket at a typical child care centre at a HDB estate.
Mr Yee’s reference to the trend in average fees in the industry may not provide a good picture of affordability for the majority of low and middle income families since average fees are skewed by high-end centres. May I Sir, point to the handouts, which show the trend in median fees for the industry and for child care centres that operate in HDB estates. As you can see, since we raised subsidies by $150 in 2008, the industry median fee for child care has increased by $120 – so parents are still $30 better off. If they use a centre in the HDB heartlands, they are about $80 better off even after taking into account fees over the years. For the lower income groups, they would have received additional subsidies.
Nonetheless, we acknowledge that families face rising costs, and there is room to do more. This is a sector where we want to seek continuous improvement, just like the education sector. As the Prime Minister has mentioned in his NDR speech, we will look into ways to make child care and infant care more affordable for low and middle income households.
Let me come to the issue of quality, Sir. To improve quality, we raised the qualification requirements for kindergarten-level teachers and educarers of younger children. We worked with training providers to increase training courses and places. Generous scholarships and bursaries were given out. Today, more than 80% of child care centres have at least 3 out of 4 of their N2, K1 and K2 teachers with a diploma in pre-school education;
We have also extended curriculum and systems support to pre-school providers. MCYS’ Early Years Development Framework, together with MOE’s Kindergarten Curriculum Framework, provides guidance to centres on designing quality programmes. MOE’s Singapore Pre-school Accreditation Framework (or SPARK for short) also helps centres evaluate and improve the quality of kindergarten-level programmes.
Sir, Mr Yee has raised some concerns on our Anchor Operator scheme. Let me also take this opportunity to explain how the government extends support to the different operators in the child care sector. Broadly, we adopt a three-pronged approach as follows:-
First, significant support goes towards the entire sector as a whole. We support all centres with measures to help raise quality and to develop a steady supply of trained manpower.
These come in the form of programme and curriculum guidelines, quality standards, subsidised consultancy, training and scholarships, and resources on good employment practices.
At the second level, we provide additional support to non-profit operators. We do this because non-profit operators have a social mission to provide affordable services to families and children, and in particularly extra help to those who have greater financial or other needs. This is in line with our objective of greater support for these groups of children and families.
We do this through providing development grants to non-profit operators to set up centres in the HDB heartlands. Rental rates for these sites are also subsidised so that the operators can offer more affordable fees.
Third, we have an Anchor Operator Scheme where we provide additional support to non-profits who meet additional criteria and who commit to stringent terms and conditions. The additional support is to enable them to significantly increase child care places that are both of good quality and affordability for the mass market, i.e., those from low to middle income families.
The basic entry criteria to the scheme are made known. In addition to development grants and subsidised rental rates, Anchor Operators also receive a recurrent grant to defray the costs of recruiting and developing good quality teachers for their new centres.
Whoever wants to take advantage of the Anchor Operator scheme and receive additional grants and support is entitled to do so. It is open to them, including those who are commercial entities and want to set-up a non-profit arm. Provided they qualify and fulfil the conditions, they are also eligible to become an Anchor Operator and receive the additional support from the Government.
In return, they are held to higher quality targets than the rest of the sector, and must commit to delivering their child care programmes at affordable fees. Anchor Operators also need to be inclusive and secular, not catering to any one ethnic or religious group. They must also be financially able to sustain their operations and achieve sufficient scale, in order to meet Government’s objectives over the long term.
Since the scheme was introduced, there are now close to 200 child care centres operated by the two Anchor Operators across the island. This is a three-fold increase and many of the centres are spread out across all the HDB estates. All Anchor Operators charge fees that are below the market median. Few of these would have been possible without the scheme.
Overall, this tiered approach has enabled us to improve the child care landscape significantly. Today we have a diverse range of operators, providing parents with choices. At the same time, we have a strong core of non-profit providers offering affordable, good quality services. We want to grow this core over time so we can reach out to more low and middle income families, and ensure no child is denied access to good quality child care.
Moving forward, the Implementation Committee for Enhancing Pre-School Education is reviewing the design of the scheme. We intend to expand the coverage of the scheme by attracting and admitting more operators so as to bring benefits to more parents and children.
Based on our statistics, we have seen growth in both the Anchor Operator market, as well as growth in the commercial sector. But the Anchor Operator scheme is very important because we are using public funds. We have to make sure that we award it to those who are non-profit and provide a public service, who are able to contain fees and yet at the same time provide good quality child care services to the public, particularly the low and middle-income families.
Notwithstanding these improvements, we know we can always do better. And we want to do better - so as to provide even better support to parents and to better prepare our children for the future.
PM’s announcements at NDR are a concrete reflection of this intent. They represent a new stage of development for our pre-school sector; a new milestone on a continuous journey which we have started years back.
In navigating this journey, we value and take seriously feedback, and we will continue to do so. This includes inputs from parents, pre-school professionals, parliamentarians, members of the public and Mr Yee himself. We study and take them into account in setting directions, developing policies and implementing programmes.
Often however, such feedback and views, including those from experts, are mixed. Just over the past few weeks, we can see that some Singaporeans are of the view that the Government should nationalise and standardise the provision of pre-school, while others prefer a diversity of programmes and players so that parents have more choices. Some parents want more structured curriculum and programmes, while others feel quite the opposite.
There is no unanimous agreement on what is the best approach for Singapore. It is not an easy issue with clear solutions. We will consider the diverse feedback we receive and study other systems. We will decide based on our circumstances and the stage of development of the sector, and especially the interest and well-being of our children. This is what we have done in the past and will continue to do.
Let me conclude by thanking everyone for their comments and suggestions. I also wish to invite others to send us their views as the Committee deliberates on the steps ahead.
1 There are 993 licensed child care centers in Singapore as of end July 2012.