The authorities will gain new enforcement powers to ensure that pre-schools uphold standards, under a Bill introduced in Parliament yesterday.
These include powers to interview people, and take photos, videos or audio recordings at pre-schools for investigations. Currently, the authorities are allowed to enter and inspect pre-school premises, and take documents from centres.
The Early Childhood Development Centres Bill will govern the 1,800 or so childcare centres and kindergartens here, which now come under the Child Care Centres and Education Acts respectively.
However, it does not apply to pre-schools run by the Government, such as Ministry of Education kindergartens.
It aims to regulate pre-schools to "protect the safety, well-being and welfare of children" there, and "promote the quality, and continuous improvement in the quality" of pre-school services.
Regulating both types of pre-schools under the same framework also means that requirements will be more consistent, regardless of the type of service offered.
Name of Bill captures range of operators and services provided
The authorities hope to send a signal to parents with the title of the would-be legislation - Early Childhood Development Centres Bill - that was introduced in Parliament yesterday.
Explaining the name, Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) chief executive Eugene Leong told The Straits Times: "We wanted a title - unfortunately it's quite long - that captures the range of operators and services that they provide."
His remarks follow the introduction of the Bill in Parliament by Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin. It will give the authorities more powers to investigate and take errant pre-schools to task.
Mr Leong noted that some people use "pre-school" to refer to kindergarten services, which typically last half a day. Most childcare centres offer the option of full-day programmes.
He said: " 'Pre-school' could refer to preparation for school, but that's... not what we're talking about, (which is) holistic development in a child's early years."
ECDA is the government agency that oversees the pre-school sector. Its website states that the pre-school landscape "comprises both kindergartens and childcare centres".
The two types of pre-schools offer programmes for children up to the age of seven. They are regulated under different Acts, but the new Bill proposes that they come under the same framework.
Some people also have the misperception that childcare centres offer only custodial care, when they actually offer education too, Mr Leong added.
He said: "We're dealing with the same teachers and children who can move between the two sectors... The Bill helps us to harmonise and ensure consistent standards across pre-schools."
For instance, under the proposed law, kindergartens will be issued licences that have to be renewed regularly. Currently, childcare centres must renew their licences every six to 24 months, depending on the licence tenure, but kindergartens can be registered through a one-off process.
Generally, childcare centres cater to children aged 18 months to seven years old, and offer the option of a full-day programme. Some centres also have infant care services. Kindergartens cater to children aged two to seven years old, and most sessions last up to four hours.
The new Bill comes at a time when the pre-school sector has expanded significantly in recent years, owing to more mothers returning to the workforce and fewer grandparents willing to be primary caregivers of children.
The legislation has been delayed twice. It was initially slated to be introduced in the second half of 2015, before it was pushed back to last year, and then this year.
A spokesman for the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) told The Straits Times late last year that it "made some revisions to the earlier communicated timeline to provide the sector more time for a smooth transition onto the new regulatory framework".
More consultations with pre- school operators were also held last year, after a public consultation exercise in 2015.
The proposed law will have heavier fines compared with the two Acts that childcare centres and kindergartens now come under - offenders face up to a $10,000 fine and a year in jail. ECDA previously said this was to match the severity of the offences and to align with similar penalties in other laws.
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.
The Early Childhood Development Centres Bill will likely be debated in Parliament after the Budget debate, expected to be held next month.