Stiffer regulation of pre-schools likely

Children having a meal at a childcare centre in Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
Children having a meal at a childcare centre in Ngee Ann Polytechnic.PHOTO: ST FILE

Some proposals: New operators to provide security bond; larger penalties for infractions

Parents could have greater peace of mind about the quality of care and education for their children in childcare centres and kindergartens, under proposed rules that will give the authorities more teeth to ensure that pre-schools uphold standards.

New operators may have to provide a security bond, and there could be larger penalties for not meeting licensing conditions.

These are some of the details revealed in a public consultation paper on the proposed regulatory framework for early childhood development centres.

The proposed laws will regulate childcare centres and kindergartens, which now come under the Child Care Centres and Education Acts respectively. But they will not apply to pre-schools run by the Government, such as Ministry of Education kindergartens.

  • DETAILS OF BILL

    • Ministry of Education kindergartens will not be regulated under the proposed law.

    "They will be held to comparable standards as the rest of the early childhood sector, through direct government oversight and accountability," said the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA).

    • More power for ECDA officers in enforcing regulations.

    In addition to the existing power to enter and inspect centres, ECDA officers will have new powers to interview people and take photos, videos and sound recordings for "investigation and enforcement purposes".

    • A licence can be granted for up to three years. This is longer than the current maximum licence tenure of two years for childcare centres. Kindergartens now go through a one-time registration process only.

    The proposed change is to lower the administrative burden and cost for pre-schools which perform well, such that they need not renew their licences that often.

According to the paper released earlier this month , the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) is considering requiring a security bond only from operators with "no or poor track records".

This is to better ensure that they meet conditions and put in place transition measures should they stop running the centres.

An ECDA spokesman told The Straits Times: "The bond will apply only to a small group of licensees which have a higher chance of not meeting requirements."

These include those with no experience in running centres or those which have broken rules before.

The bond requirement could be lifted after the concerns are adequately addressed, he added.

Currently, under Manpower Ministry regulations, employment agencies also have to provide a security bond, in the form of a banker's guarantee. The amount depends on the licence type and other factors such as the number of demerit points chalked up.

Ms Liaw-Tan Xinhui, who set up pre-school Ameba Schoolhouse in 2013, said that whether the bond deters new players would depend on the amount but, she noted, new players already have to consider other costs such as high rentals.

"They will just have to factor this in when they're doing their sums. And if they don't have enough capital, then perhaps they should not be in this business," she said.

"But I am also a parent, and from the parents' point of view, I think it's good to have such a move, so they don't end up losing their deposits if a centre folds."

ECDA has also proposed larger penalties - with the maximum being a $10,000 fine and a year in jail - so that they match the severity of the offences and also to align them to similar penalties in other laws such as the Private Education Act.

Currently, the maximum penalty under the Child Care Centres Act is a $5,000 fine and a jail term of two years; that under the Education Act is a $2,000 fine and a year in jail.

But ECDA also noted, given that all breaches of the two Acts are criminal offences, the penalties may cause "unnecessary service disruption" for minor breaches, so it is opting for a more graduated approach in the proposed framework.

Administrative breaches - such as failing to keep a register of staff members' particulars - will warrant a fine of up to $5,000 and/or a letter of censure, but will not be considered a criminal offence.

Ms Jane Choy, honorary secretary of the Association for Early Childhood Educators (Singapore), welcomed the move. "Centre staff may overlook certain administrative tasks at times and categorising such lapses as criminal offences may be too harsh," she said.

Meanwhile, some parents hope penalties would be imposed with discretion. Said business analyst Felix Tan, 31, who has two children enrolled in childcare: " I hope teachers won't be bogged down by administrative work or with complying with all the rules, so much so that they can't focus on teaching and caring for the children."

•The public consultation paper is at http://bit.ly/1IQHTzV. The last day to submit feedback is July 22.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2015, with the headline 'Stiffer regulation of pre-schools likely'. Print Edition | Subscribe