Parents of young children may have one less worry when four mega childcare centres open by the middle of next year, adding to the five such centres already in operation. Located in Punggol, Sengkang and Bukit Panjang - areas dense with young families - the new centres will be able to accommodate 2,700 children in total. These keenly-awaited facilities will help to fill an urgent gap in Singapore's childcare market, where there is only one spot for every two children, and waiting lists for some pre-schools reportedly stretch as long as 12 months.
The childcare centres also reveal the emphasis being placed, and rightly so, on an educational ecosystem that recognises the importance of early childhood nurturing and of making it widely available. All four centres will be run by government- appointed anchor operators, who must cap fees at $720 a month for full-day childcare, compared with the median fee of $856 across the island. Such affordable rates are facilitated by government grants, and also by the economies of scale made possible at these extra-large centres, where mandatory child-staff ratios and the use of space per child can be maximised more easily.
However, it is important to ensure that the benefits of scale and efficiency do not outweigh each child's need for individual attention and physical space. Pre-schoolers require close care and personalised interaction as they begin to explore their environments and emotions, and to test the limits of their inquisitiveness and other people's patience. Smaller, intimate establishments may be more ideal settings, but the goal can be achieved also in larger set-ups if there are sufficient pre-school teachers and activity spaces.
Another concern - and one that all parents will be familiar with - is the possibility of contagious diseases spreading more widely or more frequently with up to 1,000 children packed into a single childcare centre. Pre-school operators have emphasised that children will be separated into smaller groups and stringent health checks will be conducted.
But the seemingly preternatural ability of pre- schoolers to spread germs in common spaces - and the resultant inconvenience to a potentially larger number of parents who will have to keep their sick children at home - will remain a fear. Again, having enough staffing and clearly demarcated areas to reduce the chances of crowding would help to mitigate this worry.
Given the acute childcare crunch, the mega childcare centres are an effective way to address the mismatch in demand and supply, and to support the longstanding policy push to boost the population. The centres would gain from parental involvement, support and feedback - and a corresponding scaling up of care givers and pre-school educators.