Singapore Budget 2020: More help to ensure every Singaporean student can reach potential, regardless of family income

Students collecting their O-level results at Xinmin Secondary School on Jan 13, 2020. A raft of measures will make quality education across all levels more accessible and affordable. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Quality pre-school education will be made more accessible, so that children in Singapore can have a good start in life.

Annual spending by the Government on the early childhood sector is set to double to more than $2 billion per year within the next few years, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced on Tuesday (Feb 18). This is up from the $1 billion spent in 2018.

"Good education provides a strong foundation for children to grow, realise their aspirations, and continue a journey of lifelong learning," he said. "We are determined to give every child, regardless of circumstances, a good start in life."

The move is among a raft of measures announced to make quality education across all levels more accessible and affordable. Many of the measures are focused on helping students from lower-income families, putting them on a more equal footing with others.

Mr Heng said: "This substantial investment is how we maximise every child's potential, regardless of family circumstances. This is a promise that I, as a former education minister and now Finance Minister, am committed to keep."

For the young, among other things, government-supported pre-school places will be increased to 80 per cent by 2025, up from just over 50 per cent now.

In the primary to pre-university school years, education is already heavily subsidised for Singaporeans. Primary school is free for all citizens, while the secondary school fee is $5 a month. Students pay only a few dollars in miscellaneous fees.

Mr Heng said those from lower-income families will receive even more help.

For instance, the Ministry of Education's Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) will be enhanced, with the annual bursary quantum for pre-university students raised from $900 to $1,000. Transport subsidies for all students, and school meal subsidies for secondary school students will also be increased.

The enhanced FAS will cost an additional $9 million per year - or a total of $52 million per year.

At the higher education level, the cost of bursaries will rise from $148 million per year to $198 million per year.

Starting from the 2020 academic year, students from lower- and middle-income families in the polytechnics and autonomous universities can benefit from higher bursaries, said Mr Heng.

Bursaries for full-time Institute of Technical Education (ITE) students will also be improved. Those from the lowest-income tier will receive a full fee subsidy on top of the bursary.

ITE students from the lower- and middle-income households will also benefit from an increase in the cash bursary quantum by up to $200 a year.

By the time a Singaporean turns 16, he would have received over $180,000 of education subsidies, including about $50,000 in government subsidies over five years when they enrol in a full-day childcare programme with one of the anchor operators, said Mr Heng.

He stressed that a good education lays a strong foundation for a better future. "This is why this Government has been providing significant education subsidies for each child," he added.

In his speech, Mr Heng also touched on housing affordability for Singaporeans.

He said: "When Singaporeans are ready to start a family and own a home, we make sure that there is good access to quality and affordable housing."

Last year, the Ministry of National Development consolidated existing housing grants into the Enhanced CPF Housing Grant, which now allows first-time flat buyers to enjoy up to $160,000 in housing grants.

The monthly household income ceilings for subsidised flats and executive condominiums were also raised to $14,000 and $16,000 respectively. Around 16,000 HDB households are expected to benefit from these enhancements each year.

Education experts welcomed the move to help the young to reach their potential.

Education economist Kelvin Seah from the National University of Singapore commended the government's focus on lower-income students, noting that some studies have suggested that there is an achievement gap between students from higher-income families and those from lower income backgrounds.

"So addressing this achievement gap through policies designed to help the lower-income students would serve to reduce inequality and increase socioeconomic mobility," he added.

Associate Professor Sirene Lim, who heads the early childhood education programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said a good proportion of the pre-school investment should go into continued professional development and other benefits for teachers, which would equip them to support parents in raising their children.

"After all, parents are the first and most important educators in a child's life, and many parents need the support of confident and knowledgeable professionals," she added.

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