SINGAPORE - Young parents can expect more childcare places, more quality kindergartens and better-trained pre-school teachers with the setting up of a new national institute for the profession.
About 40,000 childcare places will be added by 2022, a 30 per cent increase from now.
Similarly, the Ministry of Education (MOE) will run 50 kindergartens by 2023, more than three times its current 15. With the increase, the ministry will have greater scale to influence the kindergarten sector and raise quality standards.
A new National Institute of Early Childhood Development will also be set up for pre-school teachers.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who announced the measures at the National Day Rally on Sunday (Aug 20), said pre-schools for children aged two months to six years are important in giving them "a good start and the best chance to succeed in life".
"We must do this because every child counts. If we get this right, we will foster social mobility, and sustain a fair and just society," he said.
The Government will double its annual spending on the pre-school sector to $1.7 billion in 2022 - "a heavy investment, but worthwhile and necessary", said PM Lee. In his Chinese speech, he also said he hopes that with this financial support, government-funded pre-schools would be as good as government-funded primary and secondary schools.
More childcare places
The move is taken amid rising demand for childcare places as more parents see the importance of pre-school education in a child's development and more mothers return to work.
PM Lee noted the shortage of pre-school places is mainly for children up to four years of age. To mitigate this, more "early years centres" will be set up by anchor operators, which get government grants and priority in securing sites but must meet fee caps and quality criteria.
These centres admit children aged up to four. Eligible Nursery 2 children in the centres will be guaranteed a Kindergarten 1 place in a nearby MOE kindergarten. The first four centres are under construction in Punggol and expected to open next year.
The Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) also said that since Aug 1, it has appointed 29 more centres under a scheme for "partner operators", which also get government grants but face requirements that are less stiff than those for anchor operators.
This brings the total number of centres in the partner operator scheme to about 200.
More quality kindergartens
The quality of pre-school programmes for children aged five and six will be raised.
The 15 MOE kindergartens have offered good programmes at reasonable prices, said PM Lee, adding: "Parents know that they can trust the MOE brand."
He said increasing the number of MOE kindergartens to 50 would allow MOE to make a wider impact beyond its own pre-schools and raise the quality of the whole sector, which has about 500 kindergartens.
With more pre-school places provided by anchor and partner operators and MOE kindergartens, two in every three pre-schoolers will have a place in a government-run or government-supported pre-school by 2023, a rise from about one in two.
New national institute for pre-school educators
A national institute for pre-school educators will be set up, in a move to improve the profession and attract good people.
The National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC) will offer the full range of diploma and certificate programmes for pre-school professionals, and will be the pre-school equivalent of the National Institute for Education (NIE), which trains teachers for primary and secondary schools plus junior colleges.
PM Lee, explaining the importance of upgrading the profession, said pre-school teachers "make all the difference to our children".
With the institute, they can go through the same rigorous training as school teachers employed by the MOE.
School teachers attend NIE before they start teaching, and to upgrade their skills and prepare for senior roles. It also does research on teaching methods and keeps them up to date.
After obtaining the requisite qualifications, they can progress to be master teachers who show others how to teach, be subject specialists who develop new curricula, or school leaders like principals.
"Because teachers are trained well, paid well and have good career prospects, good people take up teaching and we have a good education system," said PM Lee.
"We will take the same approach with pre-school teachers - train them well, reward them well, and attract good, passionate people."
The NIEC - which will come under the ambit of NIE - will bring together training programmes offered by the Institute of Technical Education, Ngee Ann and Temasek polytechnics, and NTUC's Seed Institute.
It will also have the scale to develop curricula with different specialisations such as music and art, and the faculty will have more professional development opportunities in a larger fraternity.
All trainee pre-school teachers will be given training awards which fully cover their fees plus an allowance.
ECDA said it will start a three-year national campaign to attract more people to join the pre-school sector. PM Lee said the Government will also work with employers to ensure pre-school teachers have good career prospects and competitive pay.
"As we upgrade the profession, salaries need to improve further. In particular, salaries must match career progression... Only then can we upgrade the pre-school sector, and get good people to join and make it a career. Only then can we build a strong pre-school system."
Help for children of low-income families
Such children receive help from government scheme KidStart, which has been piloted for a year. It offers a range of support for children aged up to six from low-income families.
This includes home visits for babies' nutrition and care, playgroups for those aged one to three, and dedicated staff at pre-schools who focus on keeping these children in school.
There are about 400 families on the scheme. PM Lee said feedback has been promising, with parents saying their children are more talkative and expressive, and interact more with others.
'Broader social purpose'
PM Lee said the moves to improve pre-school education are not only to develop children in practical ways, but also to "achieve a broader social purpose".
"Today, every child goes to a good school. We want every child to go to a good pre-school, so that all children, regardless of family background, have the best possible start in life."
But all of the Government's investment in young children "will be for nought," said PM Lee, if young couples do not start families. "Please have more babies!" he said, to much laughter from the audience.