128-centre anchor chain

Larger chain offers clearer work system, career pathways and more space for kids

One of the chain's centres in Jurong West, where children get more space to explore.
One of the chain's centres in Jurong West, where children get more space to explore.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

My First Skool, the childcare arm of NTUC First Campus, runs 128 centres, making it one of the largest pre-school chains here.

It has grown rapidly in recent years and its centres are getting bigger.

In the past four years, it opened nearly 40 new centres, including four with at least 300 places each, three times that offered by most centres in Housing Board void decks.

By mid-next year, it will also open a centre in Punggol with 1,000 places, believed to be the largest for a childcare centre here.

Its rapid expansion is partly due to the Government's help - and requirement - to expand. Under the anchor operator (AOP) scheme, it has to offer at least 1,000 new places from 2014 to next year.

It is given priority in securing sites to set up centres at subsidised rentals, and grants to offset costs such as teachers' salaries. But it has to keep fees capped at $720 a month for full-day childcare and meet other quality criteria, such as in staff retention rates, training hours, and number of centres with the Spark (Singapore Pre-school Accreditation Framework) quality mark awarded by the Early Childhood Development Agency.

SYSTEMATIC APPROACH

It's more systematic when working in a larger childcare chain, and protocols are clearer, so we can easily refer to SOPs (standard operating procedures).

EXECUTIVE PRINCIPAL MAGGIE LIM, on the benefits of working in a larger childcare chain.

My First Skool deputy general manager Thian Ai Ling tells Insight that 90 per cent of the newer centres which opened in the past three years are Spark-certified, and all the older ones are Spark-certified too.

Staff say they appreciate the career progression opportunities and having more structure.

Executive principal Maggie Lim, 36, worked at a mid-sized private operator for five years before joining My First Skool about a decade ago. She says: "It's more systematic when working in a larger childcare chain, and protocols are clearer, so we can easily refer to SOPs (standard operating procedures)."

Career progression pathways are clearer, too, she says.

"Larger companies create opportunities to upgrade your skills, but elsewhere, you have to create that opportunity yourself. In some childcare chains, for training, they send you for only the minimum that's required."

She has gone to places such as Hungary and Hong Kong for training and study trips.

With clearer progression pathways, Ms Thian acknowledges that there are also more rank-and-file positions in My First Skool, compared to other smaller chains.

  • MY FIRST SKOOL

  • COMPANY SIZE: 128 childcare centres

    FOUNDED IN: 1977, as NTUC Childcare, before being rebranded as My First Skool in 2009.

    At one of the centres...

    WHERE: 10 Jurong West St 65

    FEES: $770.40/month for full-day childcare, after GST

    CAPACITY: 329 places. Currently, enrolment is low as the centre opened just last month, but it is expected to reach 80 to 90 per cent capacity by end-June.

"It's not to create bureaucracy, but it's so that everyone is clear about their roles and what they can do to benefit the next group (under them)," she says.

Staff at centres have also been increasingly given autonomy as the senior management is aware that "it may not always be effective" if all direction is from the headquarters, she says.

"For instance, if an eldercare centre nearby wants a childcare centre to join them for Chinese New Year celebrations and the principal thinks this would benefit the children, she need not ask the HQ for permission."

Ms Lim, who works at a two-storey centre in Jurong West, also points out: "Larger centres offer the children more opportunities to explore, as they have more space. There is also more room to store large equipment such as tricycles."

Parents like the larger space, too. Accounts executive Fanny Liaw, 36, has a daughter, four, at the centre. She says: "When I heard that a mega childcare centre would be built nearby, I was very happy. It's more spacious and comfortable, and children are happier when they have more room to play."

Priscilla Goy

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'Larger chain offers clearer work system, career pathways and more space for kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe