SINGAPORE - By 2021, NTUC First Campus will add another 4,000 places across its pre-school brands, including My First Skool, to bring the total number of children it serves to 24,000.
The early childhood anchor operator, which is the second-largest in Singapore, announced this on Thursday (May 23) at the official opening of My First Skool's first and largest Early Years Centre in Punggol Drive.
The centre, which opened its doors in May last year, can take in up to 1,065 children and infants.
It now has more than 600 children aged two months to four years old, which is the largest enrolment for an early years centre, said NTUC First Campus.
Early years centres were first announced in 2017 and are part of the Government's efforts to raise the quality of pre-school standards in children's early years and meet the growing demand for full-day childcare places.
Under the scheme, eligible Singaporean and permanent resident Nursery 2 children in these centres will be guaranteed a place in a nearby Ministry of Education (MOE) kindergarten.
In a recent Straits Times report, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) said the number of children on the waiting list for childcare centres has almost halved in just two years - from 13,800 in 2017 to about 8,000 now.
A third of these children are already in a centre, but their parents hope to transfer them to another one.
The list has shortened because the Government has ramped up the number of childcare places by more than 80 per cent since 2012, ECDA added.
From around 90,000 childcare places in 2012, the number has since shot up to about 170,000, and will reach 200,000 in 2023.
NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, who attended the centre's opening on Thursday, said: "My First Skool wants to provide Singapore's families with accessible, affordable, high quality childcare, to ensure that our children have a good start in life.
"What makes our country unique and special is that we not only desire success on a macro scale for Singapore, but want to make sure the average Singaporean, including our kids, has a share of success. Education must be a keen policy lever for social levelling."
Referencing his time as Education Minister (Schools) from 2015 to 2018, Mr Ng added: "In my first speech in Parliament, I remember clearly stating that... I cannot guarantee that each child's journey in the education system will have the same outcome. That is not possible.
"But I said that I would do my best to provide as level a playing field (as possible) for all our kids, regardless of social status, income levels, race or religion."
There is more to be done, Mr Ng said, but "this is a very good start".
Children from the Punggol centre will have the option of attending one of three MOE kindergartens in Punggol in the year they turn five.
It is My First Skool's largest childcare centre, spanning three storeys with a usable floor area of 8,785 sq m.
Reading is made more enjoyable with designated areas designed to look like tanks or trains.
Outdoor facilities include rock-climbing mounds for young children to try out bouldering on a smaller scale and a playground with a designated cycling track, complete with a zebra crossing, to teach the children about traffic safety.
The centre also has an in-house commercial kitchen that is able to cater to large numbers.
Ms Thian Ai Ling, general manager of My First Skool, said it is important for the children to receive good nutrition, and that food safety is a priority.
"A practice that will kick in soon is to keep small samples of food," said Ms Thian.
In the event of a food poisoning outbreak, for instance, the food samples will help the authorities to trace the source and cause.
A second My First Skool early years centre opened in Punggol East in June last year. It now has 180 children and infants.
A third such centre, which can take in about 170 young children, is slated to open next month at Punggol Bayview.
PCF Sparkletots, Singapore's largest pre-school operator, has also previously announced that it will have 38 early years centres up and running by 2021.
It currently operates 12 such centres, which are mainly located in new towns like Sengkang and Punggol. Another two centres will open in Toa Payoh by the end of this year.