Delayed pre-school law set to be tabled this year

A new law giving the authorities more power to ensure that pre-schools uphold standards was supposed to have been introduced last year, after an initial delay.

But it has been pushed back - again - following some negative feedback from operators.

The Government revised the timeline to better "prepare" the sector for the new requirements, said a spokesman for the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA). The law is on track to be introduced in Parliament this year, the spokesman told The Sunday Times.

The original target was 2015, before it was pushed back to last year - and now, 2017. The repeated delays hint at the contentious nature of the new law, which will license Singapore's 1,800 or so childcare centres and kindergartens under a new Early Childhood Development Centres Act.

The law aims to raise the overall quality of the pre-school sector through a "harmonised regulatory framework for kindergartens and childcare centres", which are now regulated under different Acts.

But parts of the proposed law are unpopular with the operators.

For instance, a fine of up to $5,000 could be imposed for administrative breaches, such as not keeping a register of the particulars of enrolled children or staff members. ECDA officers will also have new powers to interview people and take photos, videos and audio recordings for "investigation and enforcement purposes".

Some operators acknowledged the need to improve pre-school quality but felt several proposed rules add pressure amid a manpower crunch.

It was announced in March two years ago that the Bill was expected to be introduced in the second half of 2015.

Last April, the Government said it would introduce the Bill later that year. Then, in October, the deadline was shifted to this year, which an ECDA spokesman said the agency is "on track" to meet.

"ECDA has made some revisions to the earlier communicated timeline to provide the sector more time for a smooth transition onto the new regulatory framework," she said, adding that more consultations with pre-school operators were held through town hall sessions last year, after the public consultation exercise.

ECDA also visited pre-schools to give "intensive on-site guidance to prepare them for the new requirements", she said.

Two years ago, ECDA had responded to feedback from public consultations, saying that administrative lapses will not be deemed criminal offences - a change from rules in the existing two Acts - and that there will be processes to ensure ECDA officers' powers are "appropriately exercised".

Meanwhile, industry players said they believe ECDA is taking more time to review the proposed rules in the light of feedback.

The head of a childcare chain with about 30 centres here, who declined to be named, said: "I think ECDA wants to have a relatively good mandate before tabling the Bill. There are other issues, such as the manpower shortage, which operators are unhappy about."

A petition, submitted to the authorities in 2015 by childcare operator Wee Care's founder Denise Lai, called for changes to the Bill and garnered about 240 signatures.

Mrs Lai said: "As long as the Government excludes early childhood education from state funding, I think it will need to frame a Bill that takes the needs of private operators into consideration."

Mr Ang Hin Kee, executive secretary of the Education Services Union - which represents pre-school teachers - hopes the delayed introduction of the Bill is beneficial to the sector. "If we rush it through, there could be unintended consequences. We want policies that grow and support this sector.

"Compliance with rules is important, but let's not make it too onerous for operators and teachers to care for the children," said Mr Ang, an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC.

Priscilla Goy

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 01, 2017, with the headline 'Delayed pre-school law set to be tabled this year'. Print Edition | Subscribe