Forum: Grant low-income families greater access to non-subsidised pre-schools, early childhood education

We agree with Ms Lam Yin Yin that pre-school should be made mandatory and provided free for those who are unable to afford it (Consider mandatory pre-school, and make it free for vulnerable children, July 25).

The Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) has spoken to many low-income mothers who report few vacancies and long waiting lists at the subsidised childcare centres located close to them. At the same time, private childcare centres are inaccessible to them due to the high fees.

This conundrum can prevent mothers from taking up full-time paid employment. In 2021, women formed 62.4 per cent of those outside the labour force, with 38.2 per cent citing housework or caregiving as the main reason for not working. This was in stark contrast to men outside the labour force, of whom only 3.7 per cent cited the same reasons for not working.

At least two low-income single mothers from Aware's Support, Housing and Enablement (S.H.E.) Project experienced this problem. When they applied for their children to attend childcare centres near them, they were placed on year-long waiting lists. Without anyone else to care for their children, they had no choice but to delay seeking employment.

Making high-quality pre-school accessible would be crucial in increasing mothers' labour force participation, as they would not have to worry about their children's safety and well-being when at work.

Additionally, studies have shown that high-quality early childhood education can benefit children in their skill acquisition, improve quality of maternal care, and protect against the development of behavioural problems in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We are glad that the KidStart programme provides low-income families with support for child development, such as organising playgroup sessions and helping with pre-school enrolment, in selected neighbourhoods. We hope that the programme can be expanded to be available nationwide so that more families can access it.

We also echo Ms Lam's call to make pre-school free for lower-income households. Access to high-quality childcare services should be a right of every child.

Meanwhile, to address the current shortage of childcare vacancies, we recommend allowing lower-income families to access non-subsidised childcare centres (including private childcare centres) for free until 2023, when an additional 10,000 new full-day pre-school places will be developed. This scheme could be limited to those who have tried but failed to enrol in subsidised childcare, and therefore would be forced to enrol their children into more expensive centres.

Lee Yoke Mun
Project Executive
Association of Women for Action and Research

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