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The $100 v $1,000 difference

This story originally appeared in The Straits Times on Saturday, Oct 6.

Published on Oct 14, 2012 6:00 AM

Parents are paying starkly different prices for their children's early years: Those who send their pre-schoolers to an EtonHouse centre pay over $1,500 a month for a full-day kindergarten programme. Those at mass market ones like NTUC's My First Skool pay less than half of that.

Yesterday, Acting Community Development, Youth and Sports Minister Chan Chun Sing voiced his concerns about pre-schools becoming a "luxury good problem", where pricier programmes are perceived to be better.

Does money buy quality in early childhood education and childcare? Some parents may think so. Experts say higher fees may mean better facilities, but it is the teachers that really matter.

"It is how the teacher relates to children that builds the relationship and makes them respond to learning," said Dr Christine Chen, 62, founder and president of the Association for Early Childhood Educators.

Mr Philip Koh, 49, an early childhood trainer and consultant, said some parents may feel the high-end centres are better because they still associate mass market operators, such as PAP Community Foundation (PCF), with rote learning.

But programmes offered by these operators have evolved over the years, said Mr Koh. For instance, they are now focusing more on learning through play.

At the PCF centre at Block 824 in Woodlands Street 81, for example, there is no homework or tests. But parents may still think children learn by rote - a remnant of PCF centres of old, said the centre's principal Mak Kit Leng, 44.

Some parents also have the misconception that lower fees mean their children are taught by untrained teachers, said Dr Nirmala Karuppiah, an early childhood lecturer from the National Institute of Education.

All new teachers are now required to have at least an early childhood diploma.

Experts, however, acknowledge that some of the pricier centres may have the financial advantage of hiring more teachers - and better qualified ones too.

At Brighton Montessori, which charges $850 to $1,275 a month for a Kindergarten 2 half-day programme, teachers track the learning curve of each pupil. A teacher assigns each child a different activity according to his level, said its founder Connie Cho.

But pre-schools with less financial muscle can expect some help. The Government has said it would set up a statutory board to oversee pre-school education and give better training to teachers.

But some feel how well a child learns may have more to do with what is taught at home. Said Mr Koh: "A higher-end preschool teacher really just needs to build on what is already encouraged at home - where children are expressive and well-spoken."