THE Education Ministry's (MOE's) decision to set up 15 kindergartens has drawn much attention. Last week, it gave details of the first five it will open in January next year. It announced the locations of these centres in the Housing Board heartland, the number of places and the much-awaited admission criteria. Priority will be given to children from disadvantaged homes, as well as those who live near the centres.
MOE also said it had started recruiting the teachers - six to nine for each centre. There will be a mix of graduates and diploma holders trained in early childhood education, as well as some primary school teachers.
The kindergartens aim to use the latest in early childhood education research to develop effective teaching methods and practices. The methods developed will then be shared across the sector.
The initiative by MOE to start its own kindergartens comes after years of debate on the pre-school sector, which is privatised and highly fragmented. At the top end, there are established chains like EtonHouse and Pat's Schoolhouse which charge well above $1,000 a month for programmes. Then there are the one-centre operations at HDB void decks, where fees are kept below $100.
Low pay for teachers
IN THE advertisements it has been running, the ministry spells out what the job of the kindergarten teachers entails. They have to be skilful teachers and provide the children with enriched learning experiences to nurture their social skills and prepare them for lifelong learning.
They will also have to support the development and implementation of teaching and learning approaches and resources. Parent education will be part and parcel of the job.
Those who take on the job are promised civil service benefits. But what is left unanswered is whether they will enjoy the civil service salaries paid to mainstream school teachers.
When asked about the salaries, MOE officials would only say that these will be based on the applicants' qualifications and experience, and "pegged to the market rate".
They did not specify which market they were referring to - the market rate for graduates and polytechnic diploma holders working in other fields, or what people of such qualifications currently get in the pre-school sector.
There is a wide gap between the two, with those in the pre-school sector getting less than similarly qualified people in other fields. Low remuneration is an endemic problem in the pre-school sector and explains in part Singapore's laggard position when it comes to quality in the sector.
Teacher quality was highlighted as one of the key factors for Singapore being ranked 29th out of 45 countries in a worldwide comparison study of pre-school systems carried out by the Economic Intelligence Unit last year.
One telling figure comes from the Ministry of Manpower labour report of 2011. The median pay for pre-school teachers was $1,840, while those at the 75th percentile earned $2,040. This means that 75 per cent of them earn $2,040 or less. The increment from the median to 75th percentile is only $200 - a dismal pay progression.
Some have argued that these figures are misleading as those with higher qualifications - and there is an increasing number of diploma and degree holders - draw much more.
There are indeed more diploma and degree holders joining the sector, as minimum teacher requirements for kindergartens have been raised. All new teachers must now have at least an early childhood education diploma.
But a look at the salaries advertised for fresh degree holders shows that their remuneration lags behind that of other graduates. They are offered $2,400 to $2,600, when the latest university employment surveys show the average starting salary for graduates at $3,000. That's a shortfall of 20 per cent for those in early childhood education.
Worse, going by salary figures quoted by those who have been in the job for five years, they start low and stay low - just about reaching the $3,000 mark five years later.
Inadequate and unequal salaries translate into less well-qualified teachers and greater turnover.
An Education Services Union survey of 5,000 pre-school teachers in 2007 showed that 34 per cent wanted to leave their jobs within 12 months. Some 56 per cent of those cited low pay as the key reason.
Polytechnic students emerging top of the class in early childhood education courses have been known to switch to psychology, arts, or even business, which they feel will give them better pay and career prospects.
A national pay scale?
ONE long-standing recommendation is to establish a national pay scale to match that of primary school teachers.
MOE had previously acknowledged that the quality of teachers is key to raising the quality of pre-school education, but also said it could not set pre-school teachers' salaries as it did not run pre-schools.
But now that MOE is going to run its own kindergartens, it cannot hide behind this excuse.
It should take the lead and pay higher wages to the pre-school teachers it recruits.
When it comes to remuneration, the private sector tends to take its lead from the Government, so MOE would immediately raise the benchmark salaries for pre-school teachers.
Some would of course argue that this would add to the cost pressures on other pre-school operators, and ultimately lead to higher fees for parents.
But this is where the Government should consider another suggestion offered by kindergarten operators - subsidising pre-school teachers' salaries.
One suggestion is for a direct subsidy to be given to all pre-school teachers who meet certain licensing benchmarks - such as having the requisite qualifications and three years of teaching experience. A direct wage subsidy is, however, hard to justify in a free market economy without pressing reasons. It would lead to calls for similar subsidies for people in fields such as social work and nursing, where pay scales are also low.
But the problem of how to attract and retain quality teachers in this sector remains a real one.
One way is to give grants to encourage operators to hire and retain qualified and experienced staff.
The Government already gives grants through the "anchor operator" scheme. It gives grants to two "anchor" operators - the PAP Community Foundation and the National Trades Union Congress' My First Skool - so they can employ and reward better-qualified staff and yet keep their fees affordable.
The Government is looking to add more anchor operators who qualify for these grants. This is a necessary move to propel the entire sector to raise the salaries and prospects of pre-school teachers.
In return for getting these grants, the anchor operators can be made to account for how they spend the money, to ensure that it goes to pay for higher wages for more qualified teachers and not to boost profits.
More graduate teachers
RAISING salaries should come with raising teacher qualifications.
Right now, primary school teachers who teach children aged seven and above are recruited and trained by MOE. But the important task of teaching younger children is left to the private sector, with its varying standards.
To be sure, the move to have a minimum diploma qualification is a good one. But the bar can be raised further.
Research has found that the most "effective" pre-school teachers have at least a degree and specialised training in early childhood education. Studies have also linked the language ability in children at primary school entry age to the level of education of their pre-school teachers.
The next step is to aim to have graduates form a majority of pre-school teachers. This can be done by helping existing teachers improve their qualifications.
Singapore's international success in education - at the primary and secondary school levels - has been attributed to its quality teaching staff. All students who have been in classrooms know the difference a good teacher makes to the learning journey.
The stage is set for a major transformation of the pre-school sector, with the Government recently stepping up with much more generous subsidies to make fees affordable for parents.
MOE has even taken the bold step of running its own kindergartens to set a benchmark for curriculum development and quality instruction in the sector.
The next step is to raise teacher quality. Raising wages is an important component of that effort.
MOE has to do what it takes to lift Singapore pre-school education out of the 29th position.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 4, 2013
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