Giving all children a boost early in life, via quality pre-school education, is a good that should be seen as non-excludable and non-rivalrous. The benefits abound: It gives each child a proper start so he has a better chance of succeeding later. The ethos that every child counts is thus established at the outset. A broad effect is that social mobility is enhanced and Singaporeans can move closer to becoming a fair and just society.
From the perspective of comparative advantage, younger generations are better prepared for an innovation economy. The Republic's Asian rivals have a head start in this national effort by, for example, guaranteeing pre-school places (as Shanghai does), giving more help to pre-schoolers with special needs (as in Taipei), developing progressive all-play programmes (Hong Kong and Seoul), and offering a transition curriculum in preparation for Primary 1 (Tokyo).
Here, there is still a shortage of early-years centres for children aged up to four. Those years matter too as an achievement gap of "at least an entire year of development" is evident when some are deprived of quality nursery school education, according to Columbia University professor Jane Waldfogel. That effect is compounded when universal access to kindergarten is also not available.
Recognising the need to boost the pre-school sector, the Government will double its annual spending to $1.7 billion in 2022. By around then, the Education Ministry will be running 50 kindergartens, over three times its current 15. Such intervention is necessary as the market has not been able to fulfil the expectations of all social groups, and develop and share curriculum resources and good practices to lift the entire sector. But private players will still be needed, as nationalisation is not on the cards. To boost their services, government grants are available to anchor operators and partner operators under different schemes.
Ironically, those undermining institutional efforts to give all children the best possible start in life are, at times, parents. Some might set little store by play, exploration and hands-on learning, and insist on greater preparation for primary school, rote learning and standardised tests. Others might get carried away by technology, or fail to appreciate the idea of holistic education. There are also so-called "loving lions", as coined by Institute of Policy Studies researchers, who want everything for their children - to the point of transferring parental stress to their offspring. Much more can be done to align the expectations of parents with the goals advanced by the Early Childhood Development Agency.
Low-income parents and others struggling to stay afloat must also see the value of pre-school education. To level the playing field, volunteers must help them to take advantage of the schemes devised to ensure that no child is left behind.