A dozen or so Nursery 2 children are laughing as they ride tricycles in a spacious rooftop area. It's outdoor playtime at childcare centre My First Skool's two-storey stand-alone building in Jurong West.
Over in Sengkang, at the void deck of a Housing Board block that is home to Eshkol Valley Preschool, the children play outdoors too - but the play areas nearby are hardly as spacious. They go to a playground also used by other children in the estate.The centre has an odd layout too, as it is split across two unconnected areas at the void deck.
Two pre-school centres, two different play areas. This difference reflects the uneven playing field in the childcare sector. My First Skool is a government-appointed "anchor operator" (AOP); Eshkol is not.
Earlier this month, it was announced that about 30 AOP-run centres would be part of a pilot training scheme for "allied infant educarers". Rather than stressing academic qualifications, it involves much more on-the-job training and aims to woo more people into infant care, a sector facing a chronic labour shortage. To join, candidates must be hired by an AOP-run centre.
300 to 400 childcare operators, including five anchor operators and 23 partner operators.
The Government set aside $250 million over five years for the 28 anchor and partner operators.
MEDIAN FEE FOR FULL-DAY CHILDCARE (BEFORE GST)
MARKET SHARE OF ANCHOR AND PARTNER OPERATORS*
20% IN 2012
40% IN 2016
50% IN 2020
* Anchor and partner operators get grants that help offset costs such as staff salaries, but have to meet fee caps and quality criteria. Anchor operators get priority in securing sites to set up centres.
In January, it was announced that four more mega childcare centres - each enrolling three to 10 times the number of children in a typical void deck centre - would open by the middle of next year, and these would be run by AOPs too.
The pilot scheme and the boost in centre numbers are some advantages that AOPs have over others in the industry. They also get government grants that help offset costs such as staff wages and priority in securing sites for centres, but must satisfy quality criteria and fee caps.
The pre-school scene has "partner operators" as well - the requirements are less strict than those for AOPs, but they get some grants too.
Industry observers have long called for the Government to invest more resources in the sector, to raise the quality of pre-school education while keeping it affordable.
And over the past five years, the Government has done so. This has led to consolidation in the sector, with AOPs and partner operators rapidly growing their market share - from 20 per cent in 2012 to 40 per cent now. The proportion is likely to reach half by 2020. There are 300 to 400 childcare operators, but just five AOPs and 23 partner operators make up nearly half the market.
For parents, the consolidation seems to be good news: Childcare services are more affordable and accessible. Many more childcare places are available now, although some centres still have long waiting lists.
But some industry players argue that the consolidation reduces the number of choices for parents, and has led to an uneven playing field that works against organisations not under the anchor or partner operator schemes - organisations that still serve children and thus should get similar funding help.
Insight delivers this report card on the measures so far.
The most direct impact of consolidation has been on fees. In a nutshell, parents are paying less.
This is because AOPs and partner operators - whose fees are capped at $720 and $800 a month (before GST) respectively for full-day childcare - have taken up a larger market share. This means a growing proportion of parents are paying less than $800 a month, before subsidies.
This has had knock-on effects on the rest of the industry.
The median monthly fee fell from $900 at end-2015 to $856 in January last year - the first drop in at least a decade - and has stayed at that level since, based on the latest figures.
Also, The Sunday Times reported earlier this year that 15 per cent of childcare centres here planned to raise fees this year - lower than the 20-25 per cent in previous years.
A spokesman for the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), the government body that oversees the pre-school sector, told ST previously that the AOP and partner operator schemes helped "anchor industry fees, as the operators are subject to fee caps and controls on fee increases within those caps".
That said, parents in need of childcare services are usually from dual-income families who can afford to stretch the budget. Eshkol Valley in Sengkang - an area with high demand for such services - charges about $300 more than My First Skool in Jurong West, for instance, but it still managed to fill about 90 per cent of its places.
For some, it is the challenge of getting a childcare spot that must be overcome first.
Convenience is key as centres close by 7pm and parents must pick up their children by then.
The AOP scheme was started in 2009 to provide funding support to selected operators, with the aim of increasing the availability of affordable and quality pre-school education in the heartland.
The AOPs have received help to expand quickly, and the number of childcare places across the industry has jumped by over 45 per cent since 2012, even as demand grows for such places.
There are now many more places for children, but some experts say the scheme reduces diversity in the sector and choices for parents.
Non-AOPs do not get priority in securing sites to set up centres at subsidised rents, so they cannot expand as quickly.
To be sure, non-AOPs and non-partner operators benefit from other schemes, such as grants to defray the cost of teaching resources, but they say the playing field is still not level, which makes it harder for them to offer quality programmes.
The issue is whether consolidation of the sector - and less diversity in terms of options - raises quality across the board.
Is it going to be a case of continuing to consolidate, with the Government having greater control over fees and quality - through criteria laid out in the anchor and partner operator schemes?
Or should operators be allowed to compete between themselves to raise quality to attract parents, with the Government funding each operator equitably, rather than giving more help to selected operators.
The issue was raised just last month in Parliament during a debate on legislation that would require pre-schools to adhere to higher-quality standards. The Early Childhood Development Centres Bill was later passed.
Some MPs feared that the sector would lose out in terms of diversity and competition. In reply, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said: "From a purely intellectual and theoretical basis, I would agree that it would sound sensible to allow a thousand flowers to bloom and to have many different players.
"But having a very practical perspective on this, I will tell you that the reality is not quite the same."
There are "very good small players" with interesting programmes and others with "much room for improvement", he said. "We want to encourage experimentation, but we also want to ensure a good standard of education and care."
Dr Sirene Lim, who is academic lead of the early childhood education programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, also thinks more competition is not necessarily good. She wrote in a book published this year: "This market competition foregrounds adults' needs and desires because they are the fee-paying consumers, and not their children."
" 'Quality' has been defined by the market providers and consumers who popularise certain (pre-schools) by word of mouth."
Yet, there is no evidence to show that the popular pre-school brands which charge the highest fees offer higher quality, she wrote. There is a quality certification scheme - the Singapore Pre-school Accreditation Framework (Spark) - but getting accredited is not mandatory.
Even so, other experts stress that diversity is vital in the childcare sector, to cater to children with different needs.
Dr Christine Chen, who is president of the Association for Early Childhood Educators (Singapore), said: "Variety is important - then parents can have a choice for their children, as not all kids respond the same way in pre-school."
The chairman of the Association of Early Childhood and Training Services, Dr T. Chandroo, agrees. He said: "If there are more AOPs and Ministry of Education kindergartens in the industry, we foresee that these choices will be diluted over the years."
Experts argue that non-AOPs and non-partner operators can offer quality childcare services too, although this could be a challenge because of the fewer government benefits they receive.
The experts say that the playing field is made uneven when competitors can offer high salaries while getting grants to cover staff costs (see other stories).
Dr Khoo Kim Choo, who founded the Preschool for Multiple Intelligences and has been in the sector for over 25 years, said: "(Non-AOPs and non-partner operators) face sharply rising costs from high rents for private properties and increasing salary costs.
"Even state-owned properties, which operators can bid for, have high rents - they try to outbid one another because of the shortage of suitable buildings for childcare."
To be sure, in 2013, the authorities revamped the tender-evaluation process for the awarding of sites on HDB premises and state-owned properties, to curb rental costs. Instead of the bid price being the only factor considered in awarding sites, it took up half the score.
Dr Khoo said: "The lease could be awarded based solely on quality criteria, with the rental cost being set by the authorities, instead of having a bidding process."
Dr Denise Lai, the founder of kindergarten operator Wee Care (Singapore), said: "Operators see their fee structures upended by the current market intervention strategies, but still have to struggle with rent and manpower shortages. No one has any way to know what will happen next (in policy changes). This degree of uncertainty will force some pre-schools to close."
Dr Khoo and Dr Chandroo told Insight they hope pre-schools outside the anchor or partner operator schemes will get more government help with rent and teacher salaries. "They, too, provide services to parents," said Dr Khoo.
"If the Government does not plan to take over the childcare sector, and if it believes operators not in these schemes can play a vital role to meet the needs of different parents, then government support is required," she noted.