Pre-school sites won't just go to highest bidder

Quality and fees charged will also be looked at to ensure affordability

In a bid to keep pre-school education affordable, the authorities will stop awarding sites in Housing Board estates to private pre-school operators based solely on the highest bid.

Instead, they will also consider the quality of the programmes offered by the operators and the kind of fees they intend to charge.

The current system of awarding sites, including those in HDB void decks, to the highest bidders, has led to a bidding war among private pre-school operators. This has driven up the costs of pre-school education as the operators tend to pass on the increased costs to parents by raising fees.

To rein in the problem, the authorities will consider factors other than the bid amount when awarding sites to private operators. The change, to be implemented in the next few months, is among the first steps taken by the new Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) to address key issues facing the sector.

In her first media interview since taking up the post, the agency's chief executive Lee Tung Jean, 38, said: "In the past, the heartland sites were tendered out purely based on price... That made the cost structure of childcare centres much higher.

"But now, we will be looking at what kind of quality programmes they can offer, and the kind of fees they intend to charge. We will take all these into consideration before awarding the bid."

The approach came after some industry players suggested taking the track records of operators into account before allowing them to bid for the coveted HDB sites.

There are about 1,000 childcare centres and 500 kindergartens here. About two-thirds of the childcare centres are run by private operators.

Dr Lee, who took up her post earlier this month, said the review underscored the agency's key priority: making quality pre-school programmes more affordable for the average Singaporean family.

The autonomous agency was set up to help coordinate the Government's approach towards early childhood care and education.

It oversees the regulation and development of kindergarten as well as childcare programmes - which were previously under the purview of the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Social and Family Development respectively.

The agency, which has about 150 staff drawn mostly from the two ministries, also takes charge of the master planning for the sector, for example, identifying sites for schools and teacher training.

Finding spaces to house more centres will be a key challenge, with the Government planning to add 20,000 childcare places by 2017. As it is, the competition for space has jacked up rents at HDB void decks to as high as $50,000 a month in newer estates such as Sengkang and Punggol. About five years ago, the average rent was just $10,000 to $20,000. This has contributed to higher fees. The average childcare centre fee has climbed from $572 a month in 2004 to more than $800 last year.

The agency is also looking into tackling another key challenge: attracting and retaining pre-school teachers. The sector is deemed unattractive by many because of the low pay and lack of career progression. The agency is mulling over the idea of conducting "some sort of salary benchmarking exercise" for the sector, said Dr Lee. A relevant benchmark, she suggested, could be the pay drawn by the Education Ministry's allied educators - usually diploma holders, like most pre-school teachers.

The median pay for pre-school teachers was $1,840 in 2011. No corresponding figure was available for allied educators, but their pay ranged from $1,200 to $2,730.

But Dr Lee cautioned: "The challenge is that, unlike teachers, where the Government is the main employer... the (preschool) sector is so diverse. It is the sector that needs to take this up."

hwee@sph.com.sg

goyshiyi@sph.com.sg

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