Pre-school to be free for some children as NTUC First Campus ramps up support for low-income families

Ms Thaneswary Sangra Narayanan and her daughter Tansikaa Letchumanan at My First Skool in Boon Lay on Sept 23, 2019. NTUC First Campus will be raising the monthly household income ceiling for its child support schemes from $3,500 to $4,500 from January 2020. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH
NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, touring My First Skool in Boon Lay on Sept 23, 2019. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - More children from lower-income backgrounds will have access to financial and social help, with pre-school education even made free for some of them, as Singapore's second largest pre-school operator ramps up support for disadvantaged families.

NTUC First Campus will be raising the monthly household income ceiling for its child support schemes from $3,500 to $4,500 from January 2020.

This will help more than 10,000 children from less well-off families over the next five years. They will also enjoy priority admission to My First Skool centres across the island.

My First Skool is one of the pre-school brands under NTUC First Campus.

Announcing this at an event at a My First Skool centre in Boon Lay on Monday (Sept 23), NTUC First Campus chief executive Chan Tee Seng said that in 2020, the pre-school operator will spend about $8.6 million on programmes, which range from learning support and enrichment to financial assistance. This is up by 26 per cent from this year.

In addition, OCBC Bank will be giving $1 million to help make pre-school education free for about 500 children each year from 2020 to 2024.

This applies to children of union members with gross monthly household incomes of $4,500 or less, who start at My First Skool next year.

Under this scheme, each eligible child will receive a one-time payout of $400 into his Child Development Account, and this will be matched dollar for dollar by the Government.

The total amount of $800 can cover the first two years of childcare fees for families earning $4,500 or less, which add up to $720 after government subsidies.

For families whose household income is $3,000 and below, any excess funds can be used for other education and healthcare expenses.

OCBC will also be organising regular financial literacy workshops for parents from next year.

The partnership between the bank and the pre-school operator was signed on Monday by Mr Samuel Tsien, group chief executive of OCBC, and Mr Chan.

Said Mr Tsien: "With the recent announcement of hefty subsidies for pre-school education... fees to be paid by low-income families will range from $36 to $360 a year. Yet we understand that there are still some families who may struggle to put their children in school. And for some others, this sum of money can continue to be a reason not to send their children to school.

"That is why we thought, why not help to make pre-school education free for these families for at least the first two years?"

This comes after the news that about 330 centres, or one-fifth of childcare centres in Singapore, will be charging higher fees next year, with the median increase being "within 5 per cent of fees".

When asked about this, NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, who was present at the event, said: "There are always adjustments of fees according to what is needed in the market. But the Government, recognising that this is an important concern of parents, we're stepping in to help with the overall cost of education.

"So as a whole, by next year, we will see that the fees for pre-schools will come down with government subsidies," he said.

His comments come a day after Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee had said at a separate event on Sunday that the increase in childcare fees next year do not exceed the recently announced subsidies.

Encouraging more companies to step up to support the pre-school sector, Mr Ng said the increased financial help will go a long way to help less advantaged children learn both in and out of classrooms, through field trip excursions and literacy programmes for instance.

These are part of the Government's efforts to strengthen the pre-school sector so that children have access to affordable and quality education in the first six years of life, he added.

Madam Thaneswary Sangra Narayanan, 34, whose daughter just turned three and is attending a My First Skool centre in Boon Lay, said more financial support will be a relief for her family.

She works as a patient service associate at the National University Hospital and her husband is in a course to become a bus driver.

Their gross monthly household income is less than $2,500 and she is also five months pregnant. The couple currently pay about $70 in monthly pre-school fees for their daughter.

With the government subsidies, this will be lowered to $3.40 per month next year. And with OCBC Bank stepping in, they will not need to pay for their daughter's pre-school education.

The funds in her Child Development Account can also be used for field trips and healthcare expenses.

"Then I can have more personal savings for other expenses like education, travel, and the upcoming baby. We plan to send her for dance classes in future because she's interested in dance, and there's also less worry for our second kid," she said.

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