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 part one, the authors discussed Singapore’s progress towards improving quality in the ECCE sector. Here in part two, they now turn towards the accessibility of ECCE services, and subsequently synthesise the issues of quality and access to deliver insights regarding the industry as a whole.
BY AFIYA DIKSHIT, DINESH SUKUMAR, LIM TIAN JIAO, SHANNA KAUR, AND ZEN GOH
Access to ECCE
The push for more affordable childcare
Singapore’s preschool enrolment rate is very high—as of 2016, over 90 percent of Singaporean children aged five to six years are enrolled in preschool.[i] Even so, the government has taken further steps to widen the affordability and accessibility of childcare. For instance, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) has expanded its childcare subsidy schemes to make raising children more affordable. These measures provide up to $767 in monthly subsidies to households with a monthly income ceiling of $12,000.[ii]
ECDA established the Anchor Operator (AOP) scheme in 2009 and the Partner Operator (POP) scheme in 2016 which support childcare centres and preschools to provide good quality and affordable early childhood care and education. ECDA has appointed 324 childcare centres under the POP scheme[iii] and five preschool operators under the AOP scheme as of now.[iv] Both schemes provide additional subsidies for lower income families.
From 2018, anchor operators also opened so-called “mega childcare centres” in high-demand estates, offering a total of 2,700 places.[v] These bring affordable childcare within convenient reach of many families.
Some still fall through the cracks
While the government has taken commendable action to expand access, there is still room to reach out to specific demographics, such as children from low-income families. While preschool enrolment rates are high on paper, some of these children fall through the cracks. Additionally, for those that are enrolled, preschool teachers have flagged higher absenteeism as a source of concern.[vi]
This is concerning because quality ECCE has lasting effects on a child’s holistic growth and learning potential, even more so for those growing up in disadvantaged backgrounds.[vii] Upon entering the formal school system in Primary 1, children are also expected to demonstrate a baseline of cognitive and social competencies, much of which can be learnt in preschool.[viii] Should children from low-income families be unable to tap on a strong ECCE foundation, academic and social inequality could snowball in their formal schooling years.[ix]
Ms Chong Ning Qian, former senior executive at the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), was part of the research and advocacy team that produced a report on low-income women’s experiences juggling work and care.[x] She explained that despite prevailing subsidies, low-income households may find it difficult to access the highest level of subsidies due to high compliance costs. To unlock a significant Additional Subsidy from ECDA, which is worth up to $1,160 monthly in infant care or $617 in childcare subsidies, mothers (or single fathers) must work at least 56 hours a week.
|Working Applicant||Non-working Applicant|
|Basic Subsidy (in SGD)||Additional Subsidy (in SGD)||Basic Subsidy (in SGD)||Additional Subsidy (in SGD)|
|Infant Care (2-18 months)||$600||Up to $710||$150||NA|
|Child Care (18 months-2 years)||$300||Up to $467||$150||NA|
In AWARE’s experience, many low-income mothers face issues meeting the work requirements. In cases of informal or home-based work, work hours could be irregular and difficult to document. Those on short-term contract jobs may also find it difficult to get the full range of subsidies if their contracts are not renewed.
Moreover, childcare centres are unable to accommodate low-income parents who work flexible hours or overtime. Ms Chong observed that as of August 2020, only about 4 percent of centres operated beyond 7 p.m. on weekdays, catering to the needs of parents who work outside standard hours. As a result, childcare centres become less attractive to parents working odd hours and they must look for alternatives.
Special Approvals are available for individuals that do not meet the requirements for specific reasons, including mothers who are pregnant or looking for employment. However, applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis, often require substantive supporting documentation, and lead to a limited period of assistance. As such, applicants often require assistance from a social worker who guides applicants through the process. In some cases, a social worker’s “letter of recommendation” becomes key to accessing subsidised childcare.[xii] However, not every applicant is assigned a social worker and they may thus be excluded from accessing the full range of subsidies.
Furthermore, while childcare operators are compensated by the government for the additional subsidies themselves, processing subsidies incur high administrative costs which are not fully captured by the existing subsidy system. Maintaining records of subsidy appeals and grants as well as mothers’ employment status requires extensive paperwork and continuous communication between the operators, parents, and ECDA. This places immense pressure on the operators, which then creates a “disincentive for operators to enrol low-income children.”[xiii]
The need for greater, more targeted support
To widen access, further government support is crucial. The government is making encouraging moves in this direction, announcing that by “around 2025,” eight in 10 (or about 200,000) children will have a place in a government-subsidised preschool.[xiv]
On the other hand, ECDA could go one step further to overcome the high costs of accessing subsidies by making childcare automatically free for all low-income families, Ms Chong suggested.
Implementing free childcare for low-income families incurs little additional funding from the government given that significant government expenditure is already committed to childcare subsidies. Reducing monthly fees to $0 from the current maximum subsidy of S$3 would incur minimal additional costs to the government.[xv] Yet, this move would greatly reduce compliance costs for parents and monitoring and paperwork costs for the centres, dissolving a large roadblock to families being able to easily access the subsidies they are already qualified for.
For select groups of children, such as those from lower-income families or those with special needs, more targeted interventions would be helpful in addition to the general schemes available. Tackling the root causes of why some lower-income children have lower attendance rates, or supporting kindergartens in their capacity to take in children with special needs, for example, could prove fruitful.
To this end, existing government programmes such as KidSTART, a holistic programme that supports children in low-income households up till the age of six with programmes such as home visitation, community-based playgroups, and enhanced preschool support, are promising. KidSTART has served 1,000 children since it was established in 2016, and plans to serve 5,000 more by 2025.[xvi] We believe that programmes such as this are essential in meeting more complex needs and supporting children through preschool education.
To better meet the needs of working parents, the government could consider encouraging a number of preschools or childcare centres to operate beyond regular timings. Funding could be set aside for selected anchor or partner operators to extend their hours. Kindergarten Care (KCare), a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. childcare service, is already available in all MOE Kindergartens located within primary school—the MOE could extend KCare hours in selected kindergartens to accommodate parents who work at odd hours.[xvii] This would incentivise parents to send their children to care centres, with their needs for flexible hours met.
Quality and Access: Putting it All Together
Early childhood education is hugely important. Beyond being a vehicle for parents to re-enter the workforce, quality education has lasting impacts on children’s holistic growth and learning potential, and sets the stage for a child’s education in the years to come.[xviii]
In an ideal world, quality and accessibility in early childhood education should come hand in hand. However, these goals are not always easily attainable in tandem.
A clear tension exists between ensuring preschool affordability and delivering a high quality education. For example, making SPARK qualification compulsory would hold the sector towards clearer and more transparent standards, while setting a competitive baseline salary guideline for educators could go a long way in attracting committed and driven educators to the industry. However, in devoting resources to these goals, preschools necessarily incur higher costs that may be prohibitive for some parents. This disproportionately affects lower-income children, the very group that stands to benefit the most from preschool education.[xix]
On the other side of the same coin, measures to improve access may inadvertently impede efforts to improve quality. For instance, centres operating under the AOP and POP schemes have stated commitments to capping their fees in the name of affordability, but these may allow them less leeway to invest in improving their current levels of provision.
Faced with complex trade-offs between quality and accessibility, the ECCE sector has to tread a thin line between both. Against the backdrop of this delicate balance, government support is essential in achieving both goals. Be it supply-side subsidies, support for parents, or boosts for educators, these interventions are the only way to make quality, affordable education viable for all.
More government intervention, not less, will be instrumental in the coming years. Government policy will set the tone for the value Singapore places on childcare, as well as the way forward in improving the quality of preschool education. While recognising the government’s budget constraints, we hope that due attention will be focused on the ECCE sector as a critical bridge for equality and quality learning.
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.gov.sg.
[i] Ministry of Social and Family Development, https://www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/Statistics-on-Singaporean-children-who-have-not-attended-pre-school.aspx.
[ii] “Subsidies and Financial Assistance,” Welcome to ECDA, https://www.ecda.gov.sg/Pages/Subsidies-and-Financial-Assistance.aspx.
[iii] “Partner Operator Scheme,” Welcome to ECDA, https://www.ecda.gov.sg/Parents/Pages/POP.aspx.
[iv] “Anchor Operator Scheme,” Welcome to ECDA, https://www.ecda.gov.sg/Parents/Pages/AOP.aspx.
[v] Priscilla Goy, “Quality is Key for Childcare,” The Straits Times, last modified January 21, 2017, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/quality-is-key-for-childcare.
[vi] “The Big Read: Educators Flag Absentee Rate of Children of Low-income Families As a Concern,” TODAYonline, last modified December 22, 2015, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/big-read-educators-flag-absentee-rate-children-low-income-families-concern.
[vii] Sirene Lim, “Commentary: Long-neglected but Now in the Spotlight, Singapore’s Pre-school Sector,” CNA, last modified September 15, 2019, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/pre-school-enhanced-subsidies-access-moe-kindergartens-859951.
[viii] “Primary 1 English: 8 Things Your Child Must Know Before He Starts Primary School,” AsiaOne, last modified May 21, 2019, https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/primary-1-english-8-things-your-child-must-know-he-starts-primary-school.
[ix] 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.
[x] AWARE, “Why Are You Not Working”, (AWARE, 2019), https://www.aware.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/Advocacy-report-why-are-you-not-working-updated-2-April-2019.pdf.
[xi] ECDA, “Government Subsidies for Infant Care and Child Care,” https://www.ecda.gov.sg/Documents/Subsidies_Financial%20Assistance/A3%20infant%20and%20childcare%20subsidies%20(Final).pdf
[xii] AWARE, “Why Are You Not Working,” (AWARE, 2019), https://www.aware.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/Advocacy-report-why-are-you-not-working-updated-2-April-2019.pdf.
[xiv] “How is Preschool in Singapore Being Made More Affordable and Accessible?,” Gov.sg, last modified June 26, 2020, https://www.gov.sg/article/how-is-preschool-in-singapore-being-made-more-affordable-and-accessible.
[xv] ECDA. “Subsidy Calculator.” https://cms.ecda.gov.sg/prweb/SubsidyCalculator/zGwoaxwY6Bz0rcpuMWgTMg%5B%5B*/!STANDARD.
[xvi] “KidSTART,” Welcome to ECDA, https://www.ecda.gov.sg/Parents/Pages/KidSTART.aspx.
[xvii] “KCare | MOE,” Ministry of Education (MOE), last modified August 30, 2021, https://www.moe.gov.sg/preschool/moe-kindergarten/kindergarten-care.
[xviii] Sirene Lim, “Commentary: Long-neglected but Now in the Spotlight, Singapore’s Pre-school Sector,” CNA, last modified September 15, 2019, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/pre-school-enhanced-subsidies-access-moe-kindergartens-859951.