Parents likely to pay lower fees for childcare as operators tap government scheme

At least six large, mid-sized operators keen to apply to government scheme

More parents may soon pay lower fees for childcare, with at least half a dozen operators keen to tap a government scheme that offers grants for centres to reduce their charges.

At least six large and mid-sized operators, which have over 5,000 childcare places in total, said they are likely to apply to the scheme announced earlier this month.

To be eligible for the Early Childhood Development Agency partner operator scheme, operators must lower fees, cap them at $800 a month for full-day childcare, and offer at least 300 childcare places each or as a group. The median fee is now $900 a month.

Smaller operators which do not meet the size requirement can partner others to apply, but those The Straits Times spoke to were unsure or not keen (see sidebar).

The application period ends on April 10. Operators will be appointed by the year end.

Major private childcare opera- tors Busy Bees (formerlyKnowledge Universe Singapore) and Modern Montessori International (MMI) said they are keen, but plan to include only their brands that cater to the mass market and have lower fees. They have more than 30 centres each and charge over $1,300 a month on average.

But MMI will have only its two centres under the Hamilton Preschool brand, which charge an average of $763 a month, take part. Busy Bees is likely to include only its three Small Wonder centres, which charge an average of $745 a month, in the scheme.

Busy Bees Asia chief executive June Rusdon said: "These centres also aim to offer good quality yet affordable services... Taking part in this scheme will expedite our cause to reach the masses."

Some mid-sized operators are also keen and are likely to have all their centres take part.

Star Learners managing director Tan Meng Wei put it simply: "We welcome any help that they seek to provide."

Just Kids Learning Place director Lurvin Lee said: "Funding will be helpful for rent, salaries, professional development course fees, and learning resources."

But with the lack of details, some operators are undecided.

Carpe Diem and Sunflower Childcare want to know the grant amount, to determine if it is financially viable for them to take part.

A spokesman for the Early Childhood Development Agency would only say: "The scheme is a competitive process. The grant quantum will be based on the submissions and other information obtained from the shortlisted operators."

With $250 million set aside for the scheme over five years, some hope that there will be many operators appointed.

Sweetlands Childcare director Chan Chew Shia said limiting the grants to some operators, such as the five current anchor operators, could lead to higher fees at centres that do not qualify.

With anchor operators getting grants and support to set up more centres, there has been more demand for teachers, resulting in higher salaries to attract them, she said. Centres run by non-anchor operators end up having to charge higher fees to cope with rising costs, she added.

Administration executive Lynnette Loong, 35, whose son attends childcare at Star Learners, is glad the pre-school is keen.

"Lower fees is good news. I hope the centres also get help in finding teachers, as a manpower shortage leads to rising staff costs and could lead to higher fees."

goyshiyi@sph.com.sg