99% pre-school attendance is not good enough

Self-help groups join the hunt for children who aren't attending pre-school

Despite a near perfect score of 99 per cent of children attending preschool, community groups are not resting on their laurels.

Self-help groups Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda) and the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) have joined in the search for five- and six-year-old children who are either not registered for kindergarten or are chronically absent.

This is in addition to grassroots leaders from the People's Association and social workers from Singapore Children's Society who have previously played the main role in finding these children.

The community groups' involvement, which started this year for Sinda and two years ago for AMP, comes even as the number of children not attending pre-school has fallen from a high of 2,000 in 2006.

Last year, 99 per cent of children aged five to six were registered for pre-school, an increase from 97.6 per cent in 2008, figures from the newly formed Early Childhood Development Agency show.

The uptick is due largely to rising awareness and increased efforts to find the children, said a spokesman for the agency, which was set up last month to take care of preschool matters previously under the Education Ministry.

"AMP and Sinda were able to participate and add value through targeted support to the community groups that they represent," said the spokesman.

Education is compulsory in Singapore only from Primary 1. But research has shown that attending pre-school helps children - especially those from poor families - level up.

The children's society's director of research and outreach, Ms Sue Cheng, said its efforts to find children not attending pre-school started in 2009 and it looked for children not registered with any preschool.

It now also looks for children who are registered in a pre-school but have poor attendance. These children are usually pointed out by the pre-schools.

Until recently, Sinda's involvement was in getting children with irregular attendance or who are not attending pre-school to attend a bridging programme a few months before they start primary school.

Such children were usually found when they registered for Primary 1, and a list of names was given to Sinda.

Its chief executive T. Raja Segar said by the time the children were found, there would be only a couple of months left to prepare them for primary school. So it was keen to help look for children from age five who were missing pre-school.

Likewise, AMP's senior manager, Madam Hameet Khanee JH, said: "These younger children are more likely to adapt better to pre-school as they would not have missed a lot compared to the six-year-olds."

Mr Raja said the reasons that some Indian parents do not send their children to pre-school include believing their children can catch up in Primary 1; Tamil language is not offered in the pre-school near their home; their children are not used to the food, usually Chinese, served in school; and grandparents feeling slighted that school is picked over their care.

"The parents don't look like they don't care. They are no different from others, enthusiastic when they send their kids for our classes," he said.

Sinda has a team of employees and volunteers to reach out to the families. When they succeed in persuading the parents, they help register the children at a nearby pre-school.

Sinda senior director Sarojini Padmanathan said that while the percentage of children not attending pre-school may not seem like a cause for worry, "every child counts and it is important to reach out to every kid we can reach out to".