Preschools for the People: An Examination of Singapore’s Early Childhood Education Landscape (Part 1)
In this two-part series, students from Roosevelt Network@Yale-NUS College delve into Singapore’s early childhood care and education (ECCE) landscape, examining the current state of quality and access in the sector. In this first part, the authors evaluate recent government measures to uplift quality and improve teacher training and retention. In the subsequent part, they will discuss government measures addressing barriers to access to ECCE services.
BY AFIYA DIKSHIT, DINESH SUKUMAR, LIM TIAN JIAO, SHANNA KAUR, AND ZEN GOH
Singapore’s early childhood care and education (ECCE) landscape has undergone rapid changes in recent years. As recently as 2017, the industry was showing signs of strain. Parents in young estates like Punggol and Sengkang had to wait six to twelve months for a childcare spot.[i] Low pay contributed to a high turnover rate among preschool teachers,[ii] which exacerbated the existing staffing shortage. Yet, in the rush to shore up childcare provision, onlookers cautioned that the quality of teachers must not be compromised as a result.[iii]
Since then, the Singapore government has markedly stepped up its commitment to ECCE provision. In 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore’s S$1 billion annual spending on early childhood education will “more than double” over the coming years.[iv] This target persists even amidst economic headwinds from the COVID-19 pandemic.[v] Numerous initiatives have since been rolled out, including reforms to teacher training, the tightening of preschool quality regulations, and an increased number of affordable preschool spaces.
In this two-part series, we unpack the Singapore government’s efforts to increase quality and accessibility in the early childhood sector, arguing that although much has been done to uplift the sector in recent years, several key gaps remain.
A Snapshot of the Landscape
With the exception of 36 Ministry of Education-run kindergartens,[vi] Singapore’s ECCE sector is largely privatised with about 1,900 preschools in operation.[vii] Though pre-primary education is not compulsory, ECCE remains critical for two key practical reasons beyond holistic child development: it prepares children for the rigour of formal education,[viii] and supports mothers in returning to the workforce.[ix]
In Singapore’s mixed ECCE system, for-profit and non-profit operators coexist in a loosely regulated sector. This spread of childcare options can be desirable, allowing for parental freedom in deciding early childhood education options ahead of most children entering the nationalised public education system in primary school.[x] However, the childcare landscape has also been noted to be of “uneven quality.”[xi] Stark fee differences undeniably contribute to unequal levels of access to preschool education. This is concerning as early childhood educators acknowledge that preschool can be instrumental in equipping children with essential social and cognitive competencies to effectively transition to primary school.[xii]
A baseline level of education needs to be available across the board to ensure that no child is clearly disadvantaged even before they enter the formal education system. We believe this baseline has to be achieved on two fronts: quality, which entails equipping all preschool operators to adequately cater to a child’s learning needs; and access, which involves enabling all families who wish to send their children to preschool to do so.
Quality in ECCE
A significant portion of government expenditures on the ECCE sector is allocated to enhancing quality. According to Singapore’s Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), a quality preschool education experience is one that “provides developmentally appropriate learning experiences for young children to develop holistically and nurture positive attitudes towards learning.”[xiii]
One must acknowledge that there is no consensus what “quality” ECCE entails. Beyond ECDA’s definition of the term, the early childhood sector has increasingly explored and emphasised various indicators of quality, including specific elements of curriculum development, classroom experiences, and student-teacher interactions.[xiv] These elements move beyond teaching foundational skills such as literacy, numeracy, and social interaction, taking one step further to cultivate and celebrate each child’s unique abilities and “encourage children to engage in thinking about the physical and social world.”[xv] However, we acknowledge that many pedagogical innovations—often led by private preschools which charge above-average fees—extend beyond providing baseline standards of adequate childcare provision.
From an equity standpoint, it is in the government’s interests to ensure that children receive an acceptable minimum quality of early childhood education. In this piece, we limit our discussion of quality to that laid out by ECDA. We evaluate the effectiveness of recent government initiatives to regulate and uplift base ECCE standards.
Setting standards on teacher training
A 2012 Lien Foundation report posited that although existing training accreditation schemes had been available under Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE), teachers were inclined to attend the “quickest and easiest” training and development programmes in order to achieve accreditation.[xvi] This suggests that teachers shied away from more effort-intensive programmes, which could impact teaching quality. The sheer diversity of private training providers further exacerbates quality discrepancies between various training programmes.
Recognising these concerns, the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC) was set up in 2019 to raise “standards of preschool teacher training.”[xvii] The NIEC concomitantly pursues training and research roles within the local ECCE landscape. In its training capacity, the NIEC provides foundational training to early childhood educators, having consolidated the early childhood training capabilities and expertise of the Institute of Technical Education, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Temasek Polytechnic, and the SEED Institute.[xviii] In its research capacity, it works to set and standardise early childhood training curriculums nationwide. The NIEC’s work in both capacities is done in collaboration with partner organisations such as the ECDA, MOE, the National Institute of Education (NIE), Workforce Singapore, and the Employment and Employability Institute. In doing so, it aims to better prepare and upskill early childhood educators, enabling them to deliver higher quality ECCE services.
Overall, establishing the NIEC is a promising step towards raising the quality of teacher training. However, as Dr Sandra Wu, a lecturer at NIE, believes, for effectiveness to be seen, standardisation efforts would require time, rounds of revision, refinement, and implementation to meet quality training standards.
However, the NIEC’s present training offerings mainly include new core modules in existing diploma programmes that serve as the “foundation for all diploma-level training,”[xix] and it is only just beginning to build up its teacher professional development course offerings. This narrow scope is understandable given that the NIEC itself is a nascent organisation. That being said, in order for the NIEC to effectively “oversee early childhood training and professional development programmes” nationwide,[xx] it will have to extend its reach to standardise and enforce quality expectations upon private training providers as well.
Considering that MOE’s training accreditation schemes have thus far not been entirely effective in regulating the rigour and quality of private training programmes, we believe that there is room for more comprehensive measures to ensure consistent quality from private training providers. For instance, the NIEC could consider co-creating and co-executing training programmes with private training providers. Such approaches ensure these providers align with national standards and more thoroughly understand the quality expectations of the NIEC and MOE.
Setting standards for ECCE providers
ECDA is also moving towards better regulation of quality in the industry by refining Singapore’s quality assurance framework for preschools. Established in 2011, the Singapore Preschool Accreditation Framework (SPARK) is a non-compulsory preschool assessment system that evaluates and accredits preschools using a quality rating scale.[xxi]
Kindergartens and childcare centres who opt in are rigorously evaluated across more than 40 indicators along a six-point scale categorising them as “emerging,” “performing,” or “mastering.” Upon reaching at least an “emerging” score from an assessment, these centres receive a SPARK certification valid for six years. Those “with strong teaching and learning practices” can then work with SPARK assessors to obtain a higher-tier “Commendation” certification.[xxii] SPARK’s assessment system was revised in 2019 to expand upon existing quality indicators.[xxiii]
Despite SPARK being voluntary, its take-up has been relatively strong in the sector, with close to 50 percent of preschools having been SPARK-certified as of 2020.[xxiv] Moreover, SPARK’s quality rating scale is comparable to internationally recognised assessments for ECCE centres, validating its use in quality measurement in Singapore.[xxv]
According to ECDA, SPARK serves as a guide for preschools to understand what they should aim to achieve.[xxvi] In other words, ECCE providers who choose to be accredited are equipped with quality benchmarks to measure themselves against and improve.
However, to make SPARK more effective in improving the quality of ECCE, we believe that accreditation must be made mandatory for all ECCE providers. Well-established preschools can easily attain SPARK certification and would readily do so, but others may not have the resources nor impetus to improve and attain accreditation. The latter group consists of precisely the preschools to whom the ECDA should pay more attention, and provide financial and manpower support. Thus, compulsory certification, alongside the provision of support and resources by the ECDA, will ensure all preschools in need of improvement will work towards meeting baseline quality standards.
Respect and recognition remain core issues
Furthermore, undervaluation of jobs in the ECCE sector remains a significant obstacle when it comes to hiring and retaining quality educators.[xxvii] Jobs within the ECCE sector are undervalued both economically and socially, and this impacts the ability to hire and ensure high retention of quality educators.
The government has made efforts to attract more individuals to enter the sector through traineeship postings and work attachments. Over 1,900 job postings have been made available through the skills framework developed by SkillsFuture Singapore, ECDA, and Workforce Singapore in partnership with early childhood stakeholders.[xxviii] Despite these efforts, below-average salaries continue to be a hurdle.
In 2020, the median gross monthly income from work (including Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions) for full-time employed residents was S$4,534.[xxix] However, many ECCE teachers make significantly less than this figure (see Table 1). Only educators under the leadership track, who take on centre or teacher leadership roles, can expect to earn the median or higher, between the range of S$3,100 and S$7,600.
|Median Gross (nationwide)||Educarers (work with children 2 months to 4 years old)||Educators on teacher track (work with children between 4 and 6 years)||Educators on leader track (centre or teacher leadership focus)|
|Monthly Income (in SGD)||4,534||1,800 to 3,150||2,200 to 3,550||3,100 to 7,600|
To address the undervaluation of ECCE practitioners, ECDA began giving out yearly awards from 2019 to recognise exemplary individuals in the field to increase the sector’s professional appeal.[xxxi]
However, this does little to correct the societal undervaluation of ECCE jobs in the sector. Practitioners have often cited a lack of support in their early career as well as overbearing pressure from parents as some of the challenges they face that can lead to burnout.[xxxii] Furthermore, ECCE teachers may not be eager to take on leadership positions because of lack of support and clarity of roles, as well as barriers within their organisations towards new ideas.[xxxiii]
To alleviate these concerns, the ECDA has initiated a more formalised leadership training process comprising a series of targeted skills workshops to support principals. In 2017, the ECDA started a new Professional Development Programme (PDP) for centre leaders and lead teachers, aimed at providing more holistic professional learning support to allow them to improve both organisational and curricular leadership.[xxxiv] In doing so, principals are able to better organise programmes to better support practitioners—both in terms of their daily tasks as well as reducing barriers to entry for leadership positions. Yet, benefits from these leadership-focused initiatives may not directly trickle down to address practitioners’ support needs on the ground.
At the same time, the ECCE sector has also become increasingly dynamic. More than ever before, practitioners and leaders alike need to cater to children with a wider range of abilities and needs. This requires them to broaden their existing skill sets and shift towards a more knowledge-based understanding of the profession. Due in part to these challenges, the effect of such programmes—including the PDP and other qualifications required by the ECDA—on leadership in the early childhood sector is not yet conclusive. A 2019 report notes that “early childhood leadership in Singapore is still in its early phases of development towards becoming a knowledge-based profession.”[xxxv]
Despite attempts by the ECDA to support ECCE practitioners, as both Prof Lynn Ang, professor of early childhood at University College London, Institute of Education, and Dr Wu note, challenges such as parental pressures and unsatisfactory compensation point to a large societal issue: a lack of understanding and appreciation of the vital role that practitioners play. Rather than leaving practitioners and ECDA to manage and alleviate overbearing pressure from parents, parents themselves should recognise the part they have to play in supporting practitioners—in particular, acknowledging the expertise of practitioners and working with them to provide the best quality education for their children.
A lack of adequate recognition in the preschool sector creates a vicious cycle. Faced with expectations to keep costs low, early childhood centres find it challenging to compensate ECCE practitioners at a salary level attractive enough to retain a sufficient pool of dedicated educators. This may then result in centres and educators lacking the incentive or ability to provide quality services. The lack of respect and appreciation accorded to ECCE professionals further exacerbates this issue, and combined, these factors contribute to a high attrition rate.[xxxvi]
As such, ECDA may have to consider expanding its schemes to increase workforce participation in the industry through measures such as co-paying a percentage of new professionals’ wages for a period to make salaries more competitive.
ECDA could also consider publishing a set of salary guidelines for ECCE professionals. A recent study by early childhood academics noted that the National Council of Social Services releases salary guidelines for early childhood intervention professionals who specialise in supporting children with special needs.[xxxvii] They argue that a similar standard could help to set a baseline expectation for the early childhood industry and send a signal that early childhood educators should be held in similar esteem. Ultimately, this would be part of a broader push to make salaries more competitive, reflecting the value early childhood educators bring and their professional qualifications.
The government could also directly model a clear standard for salaries and professional support and development opportunities to educators within their own MOE kindergartens. Such commitments could spill over to other providers and strengthen industry attractiveness overall.
In summary, the Singapore government has sought to uplift and standardise ECCE provision through more rigorous formal frameworks, as well as supply-side incentives to encourage more qualified professionals to dedicate themselves to the industry. While these are steps in the right direction, these measures stop short of enforcing quality control amongst all providers across the board.
Ultimately, if the goal is to provide quality ECCE education to every child, all preschools in Singapore must do so without exception. We believe there is room for ECDA to tighten minimum quality standards—be it through mandating SPARK or expanding the scope of teacher training—towards this end. In the meantime, resources should be provided to ECCE providers who require extra support to bridge this gap.
In the long term, society has to undergo a mindset shift: to recognise early childhood education’s pivotal role in child development and accord professionals in the sector with compensation and recognition that reflects this. Only then will Singapore be able to achieve the long-term retention of motivated, qualified ECCE practitioners and leaders, cultivating an environment that is conducive for building quality early childhood services from the ground-up. As such, more will have to be done to educate parents on the importance of early childhood care and education and help them cultivate a deeper appreciation of the practitioners they interact with. This way, we can move towards a more sustainable achievement of quality in the sector.
Afiya Dikshit, Dinesh Sukumar, Lim Tian Jiao, Shanna Kaur, and Zen Goh are undergraduates at Yale-NUS College and members of Roosevelt Network@Yale-NUS College, the first student-run policy think tank in Singapore. An earlier version of this piece can be found here.
Roosevelt Network@Yale-NUS thanks our expert interviewees Dr Wu Pinhui Sandra, Prof Lynn Ang, and Ms Chong Ning Qian for their valuable contributions to our series.
Featured photo by MOE via moe.edu.sg.
[i] Priscilla Goy and The Straits Times, “Mega Childcare Centres: Don’t Lose Quality in Quest for Quantity,” The New Paper, January 22, 2017, https://www.tnp.sg/news/singapore/mega-childcare-centres-dont-lose-quality-quest-quantity.
[ii] Derrick A Paulo and Sara Grosse, “Why It’s Still so Hard to Have More Early Childhood Educators in Singapore,” Channel NewsAsia, October 28, 2018, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/cnainsider/why-still-hard-get-early-childhood-educators-singapore-preschool-793946?cid=h3_referral_inarticlelinks_24082018_cna.
[iii] Priscilla Goy, “Quality Is Key for Childcare,” The Straits Times, January 21, 2017, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/quality-is-key-for-childcare.
[iv] Tang See Kit, “NDR 2019: More Pre-School Subsidies as Singapore Set to Spend More on Early Childhood Education,” Channel NewsAsia, August 18, 2019, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/ndr-2019-more-pre-school-subsidies-income-ceiling-raised-866246.
[v] Nirmala Karuppiah , “Want Your Kids to Have a High Quality Preschool Education? Here’s What It Means,” TODAYonline, March 4, 2020, https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/kids-quality-pre-school-education-parenting-childcare.
[vi] “Overview of MOE Kindergarten” (Ministry of Education, August 27, 2021), https://www.moe.gov.sg/preschool/moe-kindergarten/overview.
[vii] “ECDA Factsheet” (Early Childhood Development Agency, 2021), https://www.ecda.gov.sg/Documents/Resources/ECDA%20Factsheet.pdf.
[viii] G Kaveri, “Commentary: Getting Kids Ready for Primary School Has to Start Even before They Attend Pre-School,” Channel NewsAsia, April 17, 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/kids-preparation-for-primary-one-school-preschool-montessori-197981.
[ix] Jacob Alex Klerman and Arleen Leibowitz, “The Work-Employment Distinction among New Mothers,” The Journal of Human Resources 29, no. 2 (1994): p. 277, https://doi.org/10.2307/146099.
[x] Lasse Lipponen et al., “Vital Voices for Vital Years 2,” Lien Foundation (Lien Foundation, 2019), http://www.lienfoundation.org/sites/default/files/Vital-Voices-for-Vital-Years-2_FINAL.pdf.
[xii] G Kaveri, “Commentary: Getting Kids Ready for Primary School Has to Start Even before They Attend Pre-School,” Channel NewsAsia, April 17, 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/kids-preparation-for-primary-one-school-preschool-montessori-197981.
[xiii] “Improving Quality and Affordability of Pre-School Education,” Early Childhood Development Agency, August 30, 2013, https://www.ecda.gov.sg/PressReleases/Pages/Improving-quality-and-affordability-of-pre-school-education.aspx.
[xiv] Sirene Lim, “Commentary: Long-Neglected but Now in the Spotlight, Singapore’s Pre-School Sector,” Channel NewsAsia, September 15, 2019, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/pre-school-enhanced-subsidies-access-moe-kindergartens-859951.
[xv] Sirene Lim and Weiping Yang, “Commentary: Hong Kong and Shenzhen Showed Us What Quality Early Childhood Education Looks Like,” Channel NewsAsia, May 26, 2019, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/quality-early-childhood-education-preschool-hong-kong-singapore-878916.
[xvi] Lynn Ang, “Vital Voices for Vital Years ,” Lien Foundation, 2012, http://www.lienfoundation.org/sites/default/files/vitalvoices_1.pdf.
[xvii] “NIEC – About Us,” National Institute of Early Childhood Development, 2021, https://www.niec.edu.sg/about-niec/about-us/.
[xviii] “Setting up of the New National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC),” Ministry of Education, September 11, 2017, https://www.moe.gov.sg/news/parliamentary-replies/20170911-setting-up-of-the-new-national-institute-of-early-childhood-development-niec.
[xix] “Core Modules, New Diploma & Cross-Campus Experiences For NIEC Students,” Ministry of Education, May 10, 2018, https://www.niec.edu.sg/media/wcepenvg/press-release-on-new-ecde-11-may.pdf.
[xx] “Laying a Stronger Foundation for Our Children,” Ministry of Education, August 23, 2017, https://www.moe.gov.sg/news/press-releases/20170823-laying-a-stronger-foundation-for-our-children.
[xxi] Sandra Wu and Ambika Perisamy, ‘Infant-Toddler Care in Singapore: Journey towards Quality’, Policy Futures in Education 19, no. 2 (February 2021): 175–96, https://doi.org/10.1177/1478210320966503.
[xxii] Early Childhood Development Agency, “It’s about Quality….,” About SPARK, accessed October 5, 2021, https://www.ecda.gov.sg/sparkinfo/Pages/AboutSPARK.aspx.
[xxiii] Wu, ‘Infant-Toddler Care in Singapore: Journey towards Quality’.
[xxiv] Early Childhood Development Agency, “ANNUAL FACTSHEET ON ECDC SERVICES,” ECDA Factsheet, accessed October 5, 2021, https://www.ecda.gov.sg/Documents/Resources/ECDA%20Factsheet.pdf.
[xxv] Ching Ting Tan, “Enhancing the Quality of Kindergarten Education in Singapore: Policies and Strategies in the 21st Century,” International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy 11, no. 1 (November 2017), https://doi.org/10.1186/s40723-017-0033-y.
[xxvi] “About SPARK,” Early Childhood Development Agency, 2021, https://www.ecda.gov.sg/sparkinfo/Pages/AboutSPARK.aspx.
[xxvii] Lasse Lipponen et al., “Vital Voices for Vital Years 2,” Lien Foundation (Lien Foundation, 2019), http://www.lienfoundation.org/sites/default/files/Vital-Voices-for-Vital-Years-2_FINAL.pdf.
[xxviii] Yang, Calvin. “More than 1,900 Jobs Available in Early Childhood Sector; 8 in 10 for PMETs.” The Straits Times, November 2, 2020. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/jobs/more-than-1900-jobs-available-in-early-childhood-sector-8-in-10-for-pmets.
[xxix] “Summary Table: Income,” Labour Market Statistics and Publications (Ministry of Education, June 30, 2021), https://stats.mom.gov.sg/Pages/Income-Summary-Table.aspx.
[xxx] Yang, Calvin. “More than 1,900 Jobs Available in Early Childhood Sector; 8 in 10 for PMETs.” The Straits Times, November 2, 2020. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/jobs/more-than-1900-jobs-available-in-early-childhood-sector-8-in-10-for-pmets.
[xxxi] “ECDA Awards,” Early Childhood Development Agency, 2021, https://www.ecda.gov.sg/Educators/Pages/ECDA-Awards.aspx.
[xxxii] Lasse Lipponen et al., “Vital Voices for Vital Years 2,” Lien Foundation (Lien Foundation, 2019), http://www.lienfoundation.org/sites/default/files/Vital-Voices-for-Vital-Years-2_FINAL.pdf.
[xxxiv] “Professional Development Programme for Leaders,” Early Childhood Development Agency, 2021, https://www.ecda.gov.sg/Pages/ECDA-PDP(L).aspx
[xxxv] Lasse Lipponen et al., “Vital Voices for Vital Years 2,” Lien Foundation (Lien Foundation, 2019), http://www.lienfoundation.org/sites/default/files/Vital-Voices-for-Vital-Years-2_FINAL.pdf.
[xxxvii] Cynthia Choo, “Study Calls for Pre-School Teachers to Be Better Paid, to Work More with Early Intervention Teachers,” TODAYonline, May 9, 2019, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/study-calls-pre-school-teachers-be-better-paid-work-more-early-intervention-teachers.