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Pre-schools for the have-a-lots

Meals by a chef are fine but children also need to learn to mix with peers from different backgrounds

Risk analyst Ting See Hua, 34, and her husband pay about $1,800 a month for childcare for their four-year-old son - that too after subsidies. This figure is almost double what many other parents pay, on average.

For this sum, Ms Ting enjoys full-day care for her son at a centre near her office in the Central Business District; and particularly important for her, there is the assurance of small class sizes. The teacher-child ratio for a Kindergarten 2 class at this centre is 1:5, far lower than the cap set by the authorities of 1:25.

While Ms Ting says she cannot be sure about the quality offered by centres that charge lower fees, her sense is that "they typically have larger class sizes, so teachers may give less attention to the kids and could be overworked".

Several of these premium pre-schools opened in the past year. Some have facilities like swimming pools or provide violin lessons. One serves kiddy meals designed by a paediatric nutritionist and prepared by a former hotel chef.

There may well be more of these upmarket pre-schools in future, as private sector operators seek to differentiate their services in the midst of sweeping change that will see the Ministry of Education ramp up the number of kindergartens under its charge between now and 2023.

Could the emergence of ever-more upmarket and exclusive pre-schools have an impact on equality of opportunity and social cohesion?

Or will entry into the national schools system at age six help to close a gap between the children of have-a-lots and everyone else?


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

HIGH FEES

The pre-school landscape includes childcare centres and kindergartens. Generally, childcare centres offer full-day programmes, while the kindergartens offer half-day programmes.

The median fees for kindergartens are $171 a month and for full-day childcare $867 a month. Pre-schools run or supported by the Government charge less than the median fees and they have been taking up a larger share of the market as the Government moves to make affordable and good-quality pre-school places available to more children.

It has been supporting more centres run by selected operators - giving them grants, and in some cases priority in securing Housing Board sites at subsidised rents - while requiring them to meet fee caps and quality criteria.

It has also set up more Ministry of Education kindergartens - from zero in 2013 to 15 now, and 50 by 2023. That's a large increase in just 10 years.

The Government's larger role in the sector has had a knock-on effect on fees. For instance, the median fee for full-day childcare fell from $900 in 2015 to $856 last year - the first drop in at least a decade.

The median fee - which is the midpoint of fees charged in the sector - is a more accurate measure of what pre-schools tend to charge than the average, as that tends to be skewed by outliers which either charge a lot more than anyone else, or a lot less. But the difference between the median and average fees is useful as it provides a sense of the direction outliers are moving in.

It is telling that the difference between the median and the average fees has more than doubled in the past decade - from $77 in 2007 to $165 as at end-June. Five years ago, the difference was $100.

This suggests that even as the market share of private operators - that is those not supported by the Government - is shrinking, more of them are charging fees far higher than the average.

National University of Singapore (NUS) economics lecturer Kelvin Seah said private operators can respond in one of two ways to increased government presence in the sector: either reduce fees to attract more customers, or differentiate themselves such that parents are willing to pay higher fees.

"Most operators will likely choose to respond by differentiating the services and facilities they provide, because they know there is a limit to how low prices can go," he said.

MARK OF QUALITY?

Price, however, is not necessarily a mark of quality.

Fees charged by pre-schools with the Spark (Singapore Pre-school Accreditation Framework) quality mark awarded by the Government vary widely. Applying for the quality mark is also not mandatory and some pre-schools may not want to do the paperwork needed to apply for the Spark mark. That is no reflection of the quality of education and care they provide.

There are, however, some aspects of a quality pre-school education that come at a price. Smaller class sizes, for instance, allow teachers to devote more attention to each child, but it means more staff are needed and wage costs would go up. Staff salaries typically make up the bulk - as much as 70 per cent - of a centre's operating costs.

It also stands to reason that a better-qualified teacher would command higher pay.

Enrichment lessons, premium food ingredients and other learning resources make up a smaller share of costs, but muffins cost more than char siew bao and such costs can add up and translate to higher fees, especially for smaller operators which do not enjoy economies of scale.

Those extra features - deemed by some as frills and by others as value-add - contribute to different learning environments for pre-schoolers. Pre-school experts say it is important to have diversity in the sector.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had also said in 2012 that allowing for a diversity of operators is "useful for parents because different parents will have different views (of) what their kids need".

But when a child goes to a pre-school whose physical environment is vastly different from most others, and mixes with peers of similar socio-economic background, what happens when he later goes to a primary school that is noisier and interacts with peers from different backgrounds?

SOCIAL NETWORKS

Associate Professor Irene Ng, from NUS' social work department, said: "Without regulation of fees and other frills, one negative consequence of differentiation through expensive pre-schools is greater inequality - not only through children's education and development, but also the children's and parents' social networks.

"When class-based networks are formed so early in life, the stratification will compound to greater and greater segregation and inequality as the child grows up."

Dr Seah agreed, adding: "Segregation of children by socio-economic status at young ages could be problematic because it reduces social harmony and the ability of children of different status to identify with one another."

But this could be mitigated when the children go on to primary school. Said Dr Seah: "Although some primary schools have more children of a certain socio-economic status, it remains a fact that compared with pre-schools, primary schools would have a greater mix of children from different socio-economic status."

Singapore Children's Society chief executive Alfred Tan agreed, but said the adjustment to primary school life could be harder for children used to mixing with peers of similar socio-economic status.

"A child may have had premium food in a pre-school, but in a primary school canteen, he's going to have to eat the same chicken rice sold as everyone else," he said.

"Frills or no frills, the focus at the pre-school level should be on a child's character development. When a child can easily adjust to interact with peers who are different from him, he could also be more successful as an adolescent and adult. During national service training, for instance, you can't choose who you partner with and you have to work well with him."

Premium pre-schools say they inculcate values in their curriculum. Some do so through fund-raising and volunteer activities for charities. Mr Ng Yixian, executive director of EtonHouse International Education, said: "Empathy, charity and social and environmental responsibility are core tenets of our curriculum and are woven into the learning outcomes offered in our schools.

"We reach out to the community and engage in charity initiatives throughout the year. Our children definitely do not stay in a 'bubble' and are nurtured to be responsible and caring individuals."

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser said parents play a vital role in inculcating values.

"Just trying to facilitate mixing of children from different social backgrounds would not work, unless the children have been 'inoculated' against snootiness. Parents of children in premium pre-schools should also be mindful to reinforce these values in word and deed," he said.

"In ensuring that all pre-schools are good pre-schools, the approach should not be to disallow premium ones, but to ensure that all can contribute towards helping children fulfil their potential and that, broadly speaking, class origin won't determine class destination."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2017, with the headline 'Pre-schools for the have-a-lots'. Print Edition | Subscribe