Thursday 28 June 2012

Major PCF revamp to offer equal standards

328 kindergartens, childcare centres to come under a centralised system
By Stacey Chia, The Straits Times, 27 Jun 2012

PARENTS can expect the same standards when they send their child to a PAP Community Foundation (PCF) kindergarten - be it a branch in Bishan or Bedok.

This is what PCF, Singapore's largest preschool operator, hopes to achieve with the biggest revamp in its 26-year history.

It has embarked on an ambitious plan to bring all its 328 kindergartens and childcare centres under a centralised system.

By doing so, all the centres can have similar curricula. This would help address the problem of uneven standards across the different PCF schools, Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

With the revamp, parents can be 'assured of a certain benchmark quality' in all the centres, he said. 'PCF has done well all these years, but we have seen an unevenness in the quality across the centres,' Mr Wong, who is chairman of the PCF executive committee, told The Straits Times in an interview.

'It is bound to happen when you have a very decentralised approach and that gives us some cause for thinking that it can be improved.'

The move comes amid greater emphasis on preschool education, and keener competition with more players joining the sector.

Mr Wong noted that parents are more discerning and 'they have many more options to choose from'.

The People's Action Party started operating kindergartens in the 1960s. When the PCF was registered as the party's social and charitable arm in 1986, it took over the running of the kindergartens. It now runs 242 kindergartens and 86 childcare centres in HDB estates across the island.

Currently, centres operate on a 'decentralised' system because they are run by individual divisions. Each centre decides on its own curriculum, fees and teachers, which has led to an unevenness in quality.

Disparity in fees for the different centres can be quite stark. For instance, a PCF centre in Canberra charges about $280 a month for Kindergarten 2, while another in Bedok charges about $90 a month.

A key area under review is how to ensure consistency and standards in what the centres teach their pupils, said Mr Wong.

Details are still being worked out but he highlighted two aspects that should be standardised: language and literacy.

But having similar curricula does not mean 'insisting on uniformity' throughout the centres, he said. Each school can still retain its unique programmes, such as arts, music and sports.

'I don't expect standardisation such that suddenly it becomes a cookie cutter, that every PCF centre becomes the same,' said Mr Wong. 'In the process of reorganising, we don't want to end up undermining the very strong sense of ownership at the local level.'

The revamp, which began in March, is expected to be completed in three years.

It will also look at how centres are run.

Instead of operating as individual outfits, the centres will be regrouped into clusters of 10 to 15. For a start, 80 centres have been identified.

This will help with recruitment and retention of teachers, said Mr Wong.

With a cluster system, teachers can move on to become a principal of a centre and even possibly move on to become cluster heads. Having good career prospects would, in turn, attract more good teachers.

'If we are losing teachers, we can't continue to maintain our quality,' he said.

The recruitment process will also change with the revamp, and recruitment of teachers will be done at the headquarters.

Parents welcomed the move.

With more players entering the preschool market, PCF kindergartens have gradually lost some of their lustre, said some parents.

'The perception is that private schools have a more enhanced curriculum, and if you can afford it, why send your children to PCF,' said bank officer Eugene Teo, 37. Mr Teo, who sends his oldest child to Growing Up Gifted in United Square, added: 'If they can assure parents that the centres are all equally good, then parents will have another school to choose from.'

'Wake-up call' for S'pore kindergartens
By Leslie Kay Lim , Lin Zhaowei, The Straits Times, 27 Jun 2012

A GLOBAL survey on early-childhood education has given Singapore a disappointing report card.

The Republic was ranked 29th in a field of 45 developed and emerging economies covered in the survey into the extent to which governments provide good, inclusive early-childhood education to those aged three to six.

The top three spots were taken by Nordic states Finland, Sweden and Norway; in the Asia-Pacific, New Zealand, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia outdid Singapore.

The study was commissioned by local philanthropic group the Lien Foundation.

The 'Starting Well' Index, as it is called, evaluated pre-school education in four areas - social context, availability, affordability and quality.

Singapore fared well in 'social context'. This was a nod to its high literacy rates and standard of living, which means children here do not suffer from malnutrition or ill health.

But it scored only 'average' in availability, as children here do not have a legal right to pre-school education. The report said that making it a legal right makes governments accountable - obligated to provide pre-school to those who want it, as distinct from making it mandatory.

Despite this, the report noted that the level of pre-school enrolment here is high.

Singapore also did only 'average' for affordability.

The report noted that the Government here balances having a pre-school sector that is market-driven - with families paying for the pre-school of their choice - by providing direct subsidies to eligible lower-income families.

But Singapore's worst performance came in the 'quality' department.

Reasons for this included a high teacher-student ratio of 1:20.

Another aspect which pulled Singapore down in this area was relatively low average wages and the low entry requirements for pre-school teachers.

The median monthly wage for preschool teachers was about $1,600 in 2010, which means half the teachers were drawing above this, and the other half, below. This was just half the national median wage that year.

Qualifications-wise, pre-school teachers in the top-10-ranked economies have degrees; teachers here only need to have five O-level credits and a diploma in pre-school education.

But if this impinged on the quality of pre-school education here, the report said the Government had stepped in to provide curriculum guidelines.

The report also noted the weak link between pre-school and primary school here, and the relatively low level of parental involvement that ensures that learning continues at home.

Nordic countries top the rankings largely because of their governments' long-term investment and prioritisation of early-childhood development, said the report.

By contrast, Singapore spends only a third of what Norway does on pre-school education per child.

Calling the ranking a timely wake-up call, Lien Foundation chief executive Lee Poh Wah said research had shown good pre-school education pays off with less remedial schooling down the line - and even lower crime rates: 'If there is a weak link in our national education system, the pre-school phase would be it.

'The ideal of equal opportunity for children in our society should start from pre-school. A better playing field would give disadvantaged children a head start that could change their life outcomes.'

Pre-school education consultant Khoo Kim Choo suggested that the Government not only provide subsidies to parents, but also to pre-school operators. This could go towards raising teacher salaries and defraying rising rental costs.

The Ministry of Education could step in to take over K2 classes, she added. This would standardise the curriculum and ensure all children have a smooth transition to primary school.

How Singapore fared in the four areas assessed

THE 'Starting Well' Index ranked each of the 45 economies in four areas defining the quality of their pre-school education. Singapore's pre-school system was ranked 29th overall as a result of its performance in the following areas:

Social context: Ranked joint 1st with 27 economies such as Finland and Japan.

In this area, Singapore scored the maximum points as a result of its low infant mortality rate and high literacy among adults, among other factors.

Availability: Ranked 25th

Singapore came in the bottom half primarily because children here do not have a legal right to pre-school education, which would entail the Government being obligated to provide it. However, despite the sector being run by private players, pre-school attendance is nearly 100 per cent.

The Government just announced the building of 200 child-care centres as one among many moves to arrest the declining birth rate.

Affordability: Ranked 21st

With the pre-school sector here run by private operators, households earning less than $3,500 a month or $875 per head every month are eligible for Government subsidies on school fees.

Quality: Ranked 30th

The teacher-to-children ratio, at 1:20, is relatively high, compared to a ratio of between 1:5 and 1:11 in the economies ranked in the top 10.

The average wage and qualifications of pre-school teachers here also lag behind other economies in the index.

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