Mr Speaker, may I have your permission to answer PQs 33-52 on today’s Order Paper?
Mr Speaker, my response will also cover related questions raised by Members which are scheduled for subsequent sittings. I would invite Members to seek clarifications, if need be. If their questions have been addressed, it may not be necessary for them to proceed with these questions for future sittings.
System of Multi-layered Safeguards
Mr Speaker, when the Kinderland @ Woodlands Mart incident first surfaced on social media, like many members of the public, parents, and preschool educators, I was shocked and alarmed. The videos were painful to watch.
This incident and the others at the Kinderland centres should not have happened. Our children deserve to grow up, learn and play in a safe and nurturing environment and our 1,900 preschools and 24,000 strong team of preschool educators are committed to providing this safe and conducive environment, day in, and day out.
What we saw is not reflective of the wider preschool sector. Many preschool educators have expressed shock and dismay. They have been dedicating their time and energies in caring and nurturing our children, putting the children’s well-being as their top priority.
To prevent such incidents from happening, ECDA will work closely with the preschool sector to strengthen our system of multi-layered safeguards which has been built up over the years.
As a sector regulator, ECDA sets out clear policies and requirements that establish the baseline for a safe and positive learning environment in our preschools. There are explicit provisions in the Early Childhood Development Centres (ECDC) Act and Regulations which make clear what actions educators cannot subject children to. And this includes force feeding, corporal punishment (e.g. striking a child or any other form of aggressive contact), neglecting the child and causing psychological trauma. These are prohibited actions.
ECDA has also issued a Code of Practice to further detail what preschools have to do to meet these requirements, while stipulating that educators’ interactions with children must be respectful, responsive and reciprocal to support our children’s learning and development. Educators must also use positive and developmentally appropriate methods to manage and communicate with children.
ECDA will take action against operators and educators found to have breached any of these requirements, whether in the Act, Regulations or Code of Practice. For educators, ECDA can issue warnings or bar them from working in the sector. For serious cases where there may be criminal wrongdoing, the case will be reported to the police for investigation and the individual may be prosecuted in court. For operators, ECDA can impose financial penalties, shorten the preschool’s licence tenure, and in the worst case, revoke its licence.
ECDA recognises that it cannot work alone to safeguard children’s safety in preschools. Our system of multi-layered safeguards requires operators, centres, and educators to also do their part. Our Regulations thus make clear the obligations of operators, centres and educators in discharging their duty of care for children.
All operators are required by our Regulations to put in place standard operating procedures (SOPs) and appropriate policies within their centres to maintain a safe environment for our children. They must also ensure that these policies are implemented effectively and consistently by all their centres and staff.
Centres are responsible for complying with the policies and SOPs their operator has put in place to ensure child safety. Centre leaders need to ensure that all staff are aware of these rules. This is done during orientation and induction training, with further emphasis at regular staff meetings. They are also expected to carry out regular observations of staff-child interactions and provide timely feedback to the educators on their management of children, as well as intervene when necessary.
All educators must be certified by and registered with ECDA before they can be deployed in our preschools. ECDA verifies their professional qualifications and conducts background checks. If there are educators assessed to pose a risk to children’s safety, they will not be allowed to be deployed. This includes those with previous criminal offences involving children, as well as former educators whom ECDA has earlier barred from working in the preschool sector. ECDA also requires individuals seeking employment in the sector to declare if they have a history of mental illness and if so declared, the individual must obtain a certification from a psychiatrist that he or she is suitable to work with young children. Like other jurisdictions and many other professions, we do not impose mandatory psychological screening.
a. We also ensure that our educators are well-trained and equipped to work effectively with young children. The training curriculum for educators strongly emphasises the educators’ responsibility to ensure child safety and equips them with a range of classroom management strategies to work effectively with young children. They learn about children’s developmental milestones and how to interact positively with them to meet their needs and support their holistic development.
b. The training also lays out what educators must not do, such as corporal punishment and inappropriate child management practices. They are taught that such actions are an offence under the ECDC Act and Regulations. They are also made aware that they can be liable under other laws such as the Children & Young Persons Act.
c. Moving forward, ECDA will work with the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC) and other training providers to strengthen training programmes so that all educators are clear of their duty and obligations to ensure child safety. Apart from expanding coverage of positive child management strategies, training materials will be more explicit in what constitute inappropriate and prohibited methods. This will help our educators be better equipped to call out child mismanagement practices in their preschool.
As part of its enforcement approach, ECDA conducts regular unannounced visits to preschools to check on their compliance with regulatory requirements.
a. During such visits, officers observe the educators’ classroom management practices and their interactions with children, as well as assess whether the children appear well-adjusted and that the physical environment is safe. ECDA also checks that the centre has implemented policies and SOPs to ensure child safety and briefed their staff accordingly.
b. Unannounced visits to preschools are conducted on average once a year. More frequent unannounced checks are conducted for preschools that require close monitoring, due to a higher incidence of feedback or incidents. Where non-compliance or breaches are identified, follow-on checks are conducted to ensure that these are rectified.
As part of our system of multi-layered safeguards, there are clear rules on the requirement for incident reporting. As several Members have pointed out, this includes reporting by educators who witness child mismanagement in their centres.
a. The ECDC Act and Regulations impose a duty on all educators and preschool staff to report child mismanagement or abuse to ECDA. So, for example, if a child is abused at home and observed in the centre to be unusually withdrawn or displaying abrupt behavioural changes, the educator must report this to the authorities. Likewise, if a child is abused or mismanaged in the preschool, the educator is required to report it. Signs of child abuse and the obligation to report to ECDA are covered in the training curriculum for all educators.
b. At the same time, ECDA’s Code of Practice requires operators to implement a policy for internal reporting of wrongdoing. When an incident affecting the health and safety of children or involving alleged child mismanagement by any staff occurs, the operator must notify ECDA within 24 hours. And educators can also report directly to ECDA.
c. There are multiple reporting channels. Preschools are required to set up their own internal reporting mechanism, at both centre level and the operator level. There is also a direct reporting mechanism to ECDA via its hotline, email or website. Apart from reports from operators, ECDA also receives reports directly from educators.
d. ECDA will continue to reinforce awareness of reporting obligations and channels among the educators. It will also get operators to improve and clarify with all their staff what they need to do if they witness any wrongdoing, and how to use the various reporting channels.
Some Members have asked about the use of personal mobile devices by staff, in relation to collecting evidence of wrongdoing. I wish to emphasise that any operator’s policy on use of personal mobile devices at work should not hinder their staff from reporting any wrongdoing in their centres. If so, this is a clear breach of the operator’s duty to implement an effective reporting mechanism and ECDA will take action against the operator.
Some Members have asked about the installation of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in preschools. ECDA has announced that the installation of CCTV cameras will be made mandatory in all preschools from 1 July 2024. Members may wish to refer to ECDA’s 31 August 2023 media release for more information.
a. ECDA did not come to this decision lightly or in reaction to the recent spate of incidents. Since 2022, ECDA has been engaging the sector and in February 2023, it shared with preschools its plan to mandate CCTV cameras. Ms Hazel Poa asked if the deadline to install CCTVs could be brought forward. We fully recognise that some parents may be worried and want the CCTV cameras in place earlier. I fully understand that. However, it is important that we give the preschools the time needed to procure and install the CCTVs correctly, so that CCTVs are installed in appropriate venues and the necessary protocols are in place to ensure that privacy of children and staff even as we leverage on CCTV footages to improve security.
b. ECDA has provided the sector with a set of guidelines to facilitate implementation and we encourage centres who can achieve the CCTV mandate earlier to do so. So please install CCTVs earlier if you can. To Mr Louis Chua’s question on ECDA’s tracking of preschools with CCTVs, I wish to clarify that ECDA does not track this as CCTV cameras are currently not mandated and it would be unfair for us to track something which is not stipulated. In our earlier engagements, ECDA conducted a one-off survey last year to seek centres’ views on the CCTV mandate, which included the question on whether they have CCTVs.
Ultimately, operators need to foster a strong safety culture where all staff always feel empowered to report to their principal and HQ management team when they see inappropriate practices in their preschools.
Strengthening Our System
Ms Mariam Jaafar and Assoc Prof Razwana Begum Abdul Rahim asked about the frequency of child mismanagement incidents. There are about 10 substantiated cases per 100,000 enrolled children each year and this figure has remained low and stable over recent years.
But of course, every case is one too many and when an incident of child mismanagement happens, ECDA takes it seriously and will take appropriate action. ECDA has established protocols that ensure that every report received, regardless of whether there are visible injuries or not, is promptly followed up on. At the same time, there is a due process in any investigation, and time will be needed to ensure the investigation is thorough, robust and objective.
For the Kinderland@Woodlands Mart case, investigations by ECDA commenced the day after the video footages were received. There was thus no delay in the commencement of investigations. Members can refer to ECDA’s 4 September 2023 media release on the investigation outcomes and subsequent follow-ups. While the Kinderland @ Woodlands Mart case was followed up promptly, ECDA has acknowledged and apologised for a lapse where the educator ought to have been removed from classroom duties sooner given the clear evidence and severity of the educator’s actions. We will learn from this case. ECDA is reviewing its procedures to strengthen this protocol and ensure better oversight of cases under investigation.
Ms Tin Pei Ling asked about the adequacy of the regulatory actions for the Kinderland cases. When determining the appropriate penalties, ECDA takes into account all the facts of the case and imposes a penalty that is proportionate to the circumstances.
a. When considering what action to take against errant educators, ECDA can impose administrative actions like warnings or stern reminders, coupled with a requirement to undergo retraining. This is what it did for some of the educators in the recent Kinderland cases. If an educator commits a serious act of mismanagement, ECDA can bar the person from working in the preschool sector, as per one of the educators in the Kinderland @ Woodlands Mart case. This educator has also been charged in court.
b. For operators that fail to adopt reasonably practicable measures to ensure that their centres and staff comply with the applicable regulations, ECDA may impose financial penalties, shorten the centre’s licence tenure or revoke its licence. For Kinderland @ Woodlands Mart, the operator was fined $5,000, and this is the maximum permitted under current laws. It also had its centre’s licence tenure reduced to six months. The shortened licence will impact the centre’s operations, as it will influence parents’ decision to enrol their child at the centre in the coming year. ECDA has also withdrawn the centre’s SPARK certification.
Mr Speaker Sir, colleagues, the current regulatory framework came into effect only in 2019. With the experience gained in operationalising this regulatory framework, ECDA intends to strengthen the framework and review the provisions to see if penalties imposed on operators for child mismanagement should be enhanced, including whether financial penalties should be raised.
As I have said at the beginning, the incidents at Kinderland should not have happened and are not representative of the vast majority of preschool educators. They have worked tirelessly to care for our children and provide them with a safe space to play, to learn, to grow.
I am grateful that Members such as Mr Melvin Yong have acknowledged that most educators are exemplary and that we ought to boost their morale as they have been affected by the recent incidents. These are educators who, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, showed up every day for work at our preschools. They provided an essential service to our frontliners and essential workers, who in turn kept Singapore going because they knew their children were in the good hands of our educators. I am glad to see that parents share this sentiment as well over the past few weeks, both online and in forum letters. I agree with Ms Victoria Soen Minyi, a parent who wrote to The Straits Times (8 Sep 2023), "We should not forget about the rest of the teachers who have been doing their job well. There are many passionate, wonderful teachers in our midst.” We should not let the errant acts of a few tarnish the good work of the whole.
ECDA is doing their part to improve the career proposition and working conditions of preschool educators.
a. In October 2022, ECDA announced efforts to uplift salaries of educators to be market-competitive and commensurate with their growing competencies. We do so because we recognise and take pride in the improvements in the training and professionalism of our 24,000 strong workforce over the years and we want to retain the good quality educators that we have and attract more to join. We have worked with government-funded operators to implement the increases in salaries this year and will continue to do so in 2024.
b. ECDA also provides resources for educators to take charge of their professional development, deepen their expertise, and plan for career advancement.
Some members are concerned that the workload is heavy and contributes to stress on educators which can lead to adverse incidents. I thank members for your concern. ECDA has been taking steps to improve working conditions.
a. One major shift we announced in July this year was the removal of the requirement for childcare centres to operate on Saturdays. This is to enable educators to have better work-life balance and sufficient rest to recharge. This will take place from 1 January 2025.
b. More moves are also being planned, such as ECDA’s review of preschools’ practices on non-contact-time. This is to provide educators respite during working hours to refresh and complete non-teaching tasks. The outcome of the review will be shared with the sector soon.
c. We will need the support of parents to operationalise these improvements in work conditions for the sector. Teachers who are cared for, can better care for our children.
At the same time, operators must also do their part and take the lead in supporting the well-being of their employees. We encourage educators who may feel overwhelmed to have open communication with their centre leaders or management on their work commitments and well-being.
a. To help operators support their employees, ECDA has launched a Good Practices Guide to guide them in implementing best workplace and Human Resources (HR) practices to foster a supportive work environment and support the well-being of their staff.
b. ECDA also works with the Health Promotion Board and the Workplace Safety & Health Council to offer programmes to operators and educators to support their overall well-being.
Mr Speaker, I have met many teachers who have devoted their time and energies to raising our children with love, while putting their well-being as a top priority. I fully understand that it is not easy to care for young children, but it is our teachers’ passion and commitment that spur them to stay the course. Our children’s well-being is at the heart of what they do every day.
The recent spate of incidents of child mismanagement are not a reflection of the state of the preschool sector and educators. In our continuous efforts to ensure the safety of our children and support their growth and development in a positive and nurturing environment, we will learn from recent incidents to strengthen our system of preventing child mismanagement cases.
First, ECDA will strengthen its investigation protocol to ensure better oversight of cases under investigation. Second, we will enhance our regulatory framework, which includes a review of the penalty provisions for errant operators. Third, we will work with NIEC and training providers to strengthen educator training in both prohibited and positive child management strategies so that educators are better equipped to ensure child safety.
We have a system of multi-layered safeguards. Let us work together to strengthen it – ECDA, operators, preschools, educators and parents – to provide a safe and nurturing environment for our children to learn and thrive.