Two in three pre-schoolers will, by 2023, have a place in a childcare centre or kindergarten that is run or supported by the Government, up from one in two today.
This will be achieved as more places become available at pre-schools run by anchor and partner operators - which get government grants but must meet fee caps and quality criteria - and the Ministry of Education (MOE).
About 40,000 childcare places will be added by 2022, a 30 per cent increase from now. Most will be run by anchor operators.
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.
Since Aug 1, the Government has also appointed 29 more pre-schools under a scheme for partner operators, which face requirements that are less stiff than those for anchor operators. This brings the number of pre-schools in the partner operator scheme to about 200.
At the National Day Rally last night, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said pre-schools, for children aged two months to six years, are important. "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," he said.
The Government will also 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. 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.
A new national institute for pre-school teachers will also be set up to raise standards.
These moves come 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. The Early Childhood Development Agency, which oversees the pre-school sector, said most of the additional childcare places will be at centres that take in about 200 children each, twice that of an average centre.
PM Lee noted that 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. These centres admit children aged up to four years, unlike most childcare centres that admit children aged up to seven. Eligible Nursery 2 children in the centres will be guaranteed a Kindergarten 1 place in an MOE kindergarten.
The first four centres are under construction in Punggol and expected to open next year. The other new centres will be built in new Housing Board estates for a start.
As for children aged five and six, the quality of pre-school programmes will be raised. The 15 MOE kindergartens have offered good programmes at reasonable prices, said PM Lee. "Parents know that they can trust the MOE brand."
He said raising 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 sector, which has about 500 kindergartens. Extra help is also being given to children from low-income families, under the government scheme KidStart.
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.
Civil servant S. Thevigha, 34, who has a one-year-old in pre-school, said: "With government-supported pre-schools taking a larger market share, I think that will set the price benchmark for private operators. That could help keep costs low and encourage more families to have children."