The goal of setting up student care centres in all primary schools by the end of 2020 is a laudable one. These centres provide essential academic and social support to children, particularly those with working parents. The service offers parents the assurance that their children's homework is supervised and that they get a mix of enrichment and recreational activities, not to mention balanced and nutritious meals. It is difficult to envisage the greater participation of women in the workforce without the contribution that the centres make to the well-being of school-going children. Even for families that employ domestic help, the care centres provide educational support that cannot be replicated at home because students placed there benefit from greater social interaction and the experience of organised trips.
For children from disadvantaged backgrounds in particular, the centres provide a nurturing and structured environment in which to acquire good work habits and discipline. These are prerequisites for all-round development. A certain amount of levelling up is achieved in school itself among children from different backgrounds. However, the danger is that the inputs might taper off after school hours when children return to problems at home that impede concentration and study. The centres give them valuable extra time in which to hone their educational skills to gain a fighting chance on the academic field. Gratifyingly, needy families pay just $5 a month after subsidies, against fees ranging from $260 to $290 a month at most centres.
One reason for the popularity of in-school care services is the centres' close links with schools. They work with school teachers to understand the learning challenges faced by different students, and deal with them appropriately. Students benefit immensely from the physical proximity between schools and centres.
In hindsight, it appears astonishing that the social support system once functioned with few centres compared to today. Currently, 130 out of 190 primary schools have them, up from fewer than 50 only four years ago. Their popularity, seen in enrolment jumping from 3,000 to 15,000 pupils over the same period, attests to their expansive role on the educational landscape.
However, the authorities are correct in not seeking to increase their numbers speedily at the risk of compromising on quality. It is far better to uphold standards relating to physical environment, safety, health, hygiene, nutrition, staffing and administration. Without proper guidelines, centres might degenerate and be shunned. At the same time, regulations must not be so onerous as to discourage external parties, such as voluntary welfare organisations or commercial operators, which typically run the centres, from contributing to the future of children.