Parents may soon be able to enrol their pre-schoolers in centres run by big-name private operators at a fraction of the fees they now charge.
Three of the biggest private pre-school operators - EtonHouse, Modern Montessori International (MMI) and Knowledge Universe which owns centres like Pat's Schoolhouse - are likely to apply to a new scheme that would see them set up more centres in the Housing Board heartland.
If they qualify for the expanded anchor operator scheme, they are required to keep fees affordable for the average Singaporean family. In return, they will enjoy subsidised rent and a government grant which can be used to hire better-trained teachers, among other things.
A full-day childcare programme, for instance, cannot cost more than $720 a month - lower than the industry median of $775. For kindergarten and infant-care services, monthly fees are capped at $160 and $1,275 respectively.
They must also cater to the needs of children from lower- income or disadvantaged backgrounds by giving out financial assistance and other forms of support.
The anchor operator scheme is open for the first time to private operators.
It is intended to offer more options for low- and middle-income families as the Government ramps up childcare places to meet demand.
Previously, the scheme was open only to non-profit organisations. There are now two anchor operators: NTUC's My First Skool and the PAP Community Foundation (PCF). My First Skool typically charges monthly fees ranging from $588.50 to $674.10 for a full-day childcare programme.
The Straits Times understands that the private operators are finalising their proposals ahead of next Tuesday, which is the closing date for submissions.
Non-profit organisation Metropolitan YMCA, which runs the MY World centres, is also expected to put in its bid.
The chosen anchor operators, which will be made known at the end of the year, are expected to enrol their first batch of children by April.
When contacted, EtonHouse, which runs nine pre-schools mainly in private estates and commercial buildings, said it will submit its proposal soon.
It is likely to model the new centres after Hampton, which was set up in collaboration with the PCF. Said Mrs Ng Gim Choo, group managing director of EtonHouse: "We hope to replicate and continue to enhance the model we have for Hampton under the anchor operator scheme as it has established itself and is well received by Singaporean families."
The first Hampton centre was set up at the void deck of a HDB block in Bishan in 2009. The second one will open in Tanjong Pagar next year.
Centres under the EtonHouse brand name charge between $1,450 and $1,900 for a full-day programme. But Hampton charges $727.60 for a full-day childcare programme mainly because of the lower rents at HDB void decks.
MMI, one of the largest commercial operators here with 28 centres, said it is likely to set up a consortium with other operators to apply to the scheme. This is so that they can save costs and keep fees low by tapping economies of scale.
But the curriculum for the new centres will be different from that of MMI, said Dr T. Chandroo, MMI's chairman and chief executive officer. Currently, MMI charges between $800 and $1,500 a month for a full-day childcare programme.
Knowledge Universe, which owns centres such as Pat's Schoolhouse and Brighton Montessori, is also likely to apply to the scheme.
Parents like engineer Wong Kim Seng, 40, who has a five- year-old son, are looking forward to having more childcare options. He said: "With more centres, there could be shorter waiting lists and it would be easier to find a pre-school for children."
Accountant Mei Teo, 32, who has two daughters aged three and five, said: "Currently, there are only two big players if parents want to go to centres which charge lower fees. The new scheme is a good idea as parents would have more options."