Well-known childcare firms are setting up more affordable centres in the heartland, under a revised tender scheme which aims to make quality pre-school education more accessible.
Modern Montessori International (MMI) and Knowledge Universe - two of the biggest private operators - secured three of the four Housing Board sites on offer in the latest tender last month.
Before the tender scheme was revised last June, sites were awarded to the firm that offered to pay the most - sparking bidding wars which drove up rents and, as a result, fees.
Since then, only half the total tender score depends on the bid price. The rest focuses on other criteria, including affordability, which makes up 20 per cent of the score.
In the latest tender - the second under the revised scheme - applicants had to propose fees lower than the median $799 a month for full-day childcare by private centres in Housing Board areas.
For Knowledge Universe, which owns four brands including Pat's Schoolhouse, none of its 46 centres are in Housing Board estates, and its fees for full-day childcare are usually more than $1,200 a month.
But it intends to charge $735 a month at the two sites it has been awarded, at Blk 211A Punggol Walk and Blk 348A Yishun Avenue 11. They will come under a different brand called Small Wonder.
MMI plans to charge $735 a month at its new site at Blk 463B Sembawang Drive - about 30 per cent lower than the fees at the eight centres in Housing Board void decks it already runs.
This new centre will be the first to come under its Hamilton Pre-school brand.
Sweetlands won the tender for the fourth site on offer, at Blk 886C Woodlands Drive 50. Its proposed monthly fee of $735 is also lower than the fees at its other 10 centres, where they are at least $850.
All three operators failed in their application to be anchor operators, which get priority in securing Housing Board sites but cannot charge more than $720 a month.
While the curriculum at Sweetlands will be the same as the one it has for its other centres, this is not the case for the new centres by Knowledge Universe and MMI.
These two operators gave the assurance that this does not mean a drop in quality. Instead, they want to tailor their education to a new demographic of pre-schoolers.
Dr Janil Puthucheary, MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, an area with high demand for childcare services, said it was good to have diversity among pre-schools in the heartland.
"The more we can get more players into the space, the more options parents have," he said.
Knowledge Universe trumped 33 other bidders for the Punggol Walk site. Each of the other sites had 19 to 25 operators bidding for it. All four new centres are expected to open by end-September.
Auditor Edwin Ong, 30, who lives near Punggol and intends to enrol his one-month-old son for pre-school soon, welcomed the news of lower fees charged by the operators.
"It's good that they can pay lower rents and charge parents less. But I hope the quality would not differ too much from that offered by their other centres."