The number of children enrolled in childcare centres has surged, as more such centres are set up and mothers go back to work, and there is a rise in parents' confidence in the quality of programmes offered.
Childcare enrolment hit a high of 95,414 last year, more than double the 44,224 in 2005, according to latest figures from the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA).
This has grown alongside a significant increase in the number of childcare places - there were 123,327 last year. A decade before, the figure was just 59,433.
ECDA, the government agency that oversees pre-school education, told The Sunday Times that there are enough childcare places for one in two children, a target that was set for 2017 but has been met ahead of schedule.
There were enough childcare places for one in three children three years ago, and one in six in 2009. Last year alone, 113 new centres opened - an average of two each week. This is the largest increase in at least a decade, bringing the total number of centres to 1,256 as at end-December.
More are set to open this year, including five mega centres that can each take in 300 to 500 children.
95,414 - Numberof children enrolled last year, more than double the 44,224 in 2005.
113 - Numberofnew childcare centres thatopened last year, an average of two each week.
1,256 - Totalnumberof centres as at end-December.
ECDA explained that half of the new centres last year were opened by anchor operators (AOPs), which get public funding and priority in securing HDB sites.
The image of childcare centres has changed over the years. For a long time, (childcare centres) were viewed as places which provide custodial care by child-minders. Now they are seen as centres with qualified teachers holding a diploma, or even a degree, in early childhood education.
DR KHOO KIM CHOO, founder of Preschool for Multiple Intelligences, on the rise in childcare enrolment. 95,414 Number of children enrolled last year, more than double the 44,224 in 2005. 113 Number of new childcare centres that opened last year, an average of two each week. 1,256 Total number of centres as at end-December.
They also have to offer affordable prices, with full-day fees capped at $720 a month. Most of the centres are at HDB void decks.
Around 26,000 new HDB flats were completed last year, close to the record set in 2014, when 28,000 flats were completed.
CHANGE IN FAMILY NEEDS
Experts said having more childcare places lets more mothers return to the workforce, since fewer grandparents are keen on being the primary caregivers of the children.
Ministry of Manpower figures show that the labour force participation rates among female residents have been on the rise.
From 2000 to last year, the rate for women aged 30 to 34 jumped by 13 percentage points, and by 20 points in the 35 to 39 age range.
About eight in 10 women in these two groups are working or actively looking for a job, making dual-income families more the norm.
The founder of Preschool for Multiple Intelligences, Dr Khoo Kim Choo, who has been in the early childhood field for more than 25 years, said: "Grandparents from the era of baby boomers are more educated, less willing to be full-time babysitters, and prefer to spend their time attending classes, being with their friends and doing the things they enjoy."
Mr Chan Tee Seng, chief executive of NTUC First Campus, one of the largest childcare chains, said the rise in enrolment is more likely driven by family dynamics and economics, rather than a race to prepare children for Primary 1.
With data showing almost all children aged five and six are in either a childcare centre or kindergarten, Mr Chan believes the spike in childcare enrolment is driven by admissions of younger children, ranging from babies to four-year-olds.
"Some parents are moving their children from kindergartens, which typically offer half-day programmes, to childcare centres, as they prefer the full-day programmes there," he said.
Also, increasing awareness of the benefits of a pre-school education has led to parents being more willing to enrol their children at such centres at an earlier age.
Dr Khoo said: "The image of childcare centres has changed over the years. For a long time, they were viewed as places which provide custodial care by child-minders.
"Now they are seen as centres with qualified teachers holding a diploma, or even a degree, in early childhood education."
And as more children are enrolled in childcare and kindergartens, experts said it is important that disadvantaged families are not left out.
Schemes like the AOP initiative help to provide more affordable childcare services in the heartland. Social workers and grassroots volunteers also try to encourage parents of five- and six-year-olds to enrol their children at pre-schools.
More can still be done, experts said. Dr Sirene Lim, a senior lecturer at SIM University, said: "As a nation, we should be focused on ensuring that the most disadvantaged children have full and easy access to care and education as early as possible, to mitigate poverty and other difficult circumstances they face."
Mr Chan suggested reaching out to parents and grandparents caring for younger children at home so they can organise activities in a way that best contributes to their children's development.
With a rapidly expanding childcare sector, operators said they still face a shortage of teachers - a problem that, if not managed well, could affect the quality of programmes.
There are about 15,000 staff in the childcare sector, with a further 1,500 needed over the next two to three years, said ECDA.
It already has several initiatives to attract and retain staff, such as career progression plans and incentivising teachers to go for training.
But some operators said the quick ramp-up of childcare centres has also led to high turnover rates, as teachers leave for better pay, as well as higher costs because of the need to attract and retain teachers.
AOPs and partner operators (POPs) - which have to keep fees below $800 a month and had to make a one-off fee cut on Jan 1 - get government grants.
But Dr T. Chandroo, chairman of Modern Montessori International, said other operators should also receive more support.
"The authorities need to actively support operators which are not under the AOP and POP schemes as they still offer childcare services in the neighbourhood, business districts and workplaces," he said.
"The cost of running a childcare centre has increased significantly."
Besides manpower costs, rents have also risen, said operators. So while accessibility of childcare has increased, experts said the cost issues have to be addressed so that quality is not affected.
Mrs Denise Lai, founder of Wee Care (Singapore), said: "Does the provision of more places mean quality access for all children, rather than mere access? The job before us is far from over."