Thursday 19 July 2012

Make preschool education free: Lien Foundation study

Proposal among wide-ranging reforms suggested to improve early childhood education here
By Tan Weizhen, TODAY, 18 Jul 2012

Leading preschool professionals and experts have proposed a raft of sweeping, urgent reforms to improve early childhood education here.

Among their proposals: Partial nationalisation of the preschool sector, making preschool education free for all children here aged three and above and setting up a dedicated ministry to oversee the sector.

Their proposals were included in a study commissioned by the Lien Foundation, which earlier also commissioned a global ranking of early childhood education that placed Singapore 29th out of 45 countries.

Led by University of East London senior lecturer Lynn Ang, the study involved 27 participants consisting of the heads of kindergartens and childcare chains, a Government expert on child development as well as academics and staff of family service centres.

The study collated the participants' views through a questionnaire, follow-up interviews and a group interview.

It called for a lead ministry or the formation of a new ministry "with the sole focus of overseeing the coordination and regulation of the sector combining childcare and kindergarten".

Currently, the Ministry of Education (MOE) drives efforts in the kindergarten sector while the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports takes charge of childcare.

Operators offering childcare and kindergarten services will have to liaise with the MOE on curriculum issues, and with MCYS on all other issues.

The study also reiterated the need for "cohesive national policies and Government support" to facilitate the transition for children between preschool and primary school curriculum, especially in the case of Singapore "where there are different ministries and administrations responsible for pre-primary and primary (education)".

At a panel discussion held yesterday to discuss the findings, the panelists - some of whom had participated in the study - reiterated that early childhood education should be considered a "public good".

Lien Foundation chief executive Lee Poh Wah described Singapore as "one of those weird countries whereby the preschool system is 100-per-cent privatised".

SEED Institute academic director Ho Yin Fong suggested a "70-30" model where 70 per cent of the preschools are Government-funded while the rest are run by the private sector catering to households which can afford to pay more.

Association for Early Childhood Educators (AECES) president Christine Chen noted that Malaysia has a similarly mixed model.

"If we want to have preschools to be completely under the Government (eventually) ... this could be a first step," she added.

Dr Ang noted that many of the study's participants agreed that preschool education "is essential and non-negotiable". "Then, surely it's something that has to be seen as part of the country's public education," she said. In the same spirit, the study called for free preschool education for all children here aged 3 and above.

Citing its "very high operating costs which are escalating every day", an EtonHouse spokesman told TODAY that "it will not be feasible to offer programmes without a fee".

The spokesman reiterated that it is "important to allow for diversity... as it gives parents and children the freedom to choose what suits their context".

Concurring, Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for education, felt that there is greater variety under the current structure. With competing operators offering different types of services, parents have a wider choice, he noted.

Instead of having a single coordinating ministry, Mr Lim said that greater coordination between the MOE and the MCYS would be a better solution. He pointed out that kindergartens and childcare "address different phases of the child's life". Similarly, a PCF spokesman noted that there are "peculiarities" between the childcare and kindergarten services.

But for Young Women's Christian Association of Singapore which offers both services, it is "quite troublesome" to report to two ministries, said its executive director Leung Yee Ping. Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua also felt that the current regime is "not ideal". She suggested a model where MOE leads the industry, while MCYS and the Ministry of Health support other needs such as financial and social assistance. With MOE as the lead ministry, there could also be a more level playing field for children when they enter primary schools, Ms Phua said.

- Partial nationalisation of the preschool sector 
- Make preschool education free for all children here aged 3 and above 
- Set up a dedicated ministry to oversee the sector. 
- More cohesive national policies and Government support to facilitate transition for children between preschool and primary school curriculum

'Revamp pay structure, image of teachers'
Study cites 'overwhelming concern' over turnover of experienced teaching staff
by Tan Weizhen, TODAY, 18 Jul 2012

Despite "considerable progress" in the Government's efforts to raise the standard of preschool educators, much remains to be done, say industry leaders.

Shortage of qualified teachers as a result of high turnover rates and the low pay and status of preschool teachers continue to plague the industry, according to leaders of the sector who took part in a study commissioned by the Lien Foundation.

According to the study, a majority of the participants cited the workforce as the aspect of preschool sector which needs "urgent improvement".

They also share "an overwhelming concern over the turnover of qualified and experienced preschool teachers".

To address the challenges, the participants suggested creating a more formal pay structure - comparable to the salaries that mainstream school teachers are getting - and a "minimum salary" for preschool teachers. They also called for an independent review of training programmes, to improve standards and consistency of training.

A national campaign to enhance the image of preschool teachers is also needed, the participants said.

In 2001, a national strategy to raise the qualification levels of these educators was introduced, with the recommendation that the minimum qualification for preschool teachers should be a Certificate in Pre-school Teaching (CPT), with a minimum of five "O"-level credits, including a pass in English language.

It also highlighted the "wide disparity and differences" regarding the types of preschool training available, in contrast to the formal training that mainstream school teachers receive at the National Institute of Education.

At a panel discussion on the study, SEED Institute Academic Director Ho Yin Fong, who was one of the participants in the study, suggested that the sector should attract the top 30 per cent of polytechnic and university graduates to become preschool teachers.

She also proposed a "clear roadmap" that guides the professional development of a preschool teacher.

On the various proposals to raise the quality of the preschool teachers, an EtonHouse spokesman told TODAY: "A lot has been done in this area. However, we need to continue to motivate the youth to join and offer more affordable professional development opportunities to educators."

A Cinderella, waiting for Prince Charming
by Lee Poh Wah, TODAY, 18 Jul 2012

Compared to its well-endowed step-sisters, primary and secondary education, which are fully supported by the state, preschool education is a Cinderella, left to fend for itself as a 100-per-cent private system.

Its plight was brought sharply into focus with the publication of the Starting Well Index three weeks ago. Commissioned by the Lien Foundation and conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the ranking of 45 countries in terms of the inclusiveness and quality of their preschool environments had Singapore coming in a dismal 29th.

If I were to distill the Index to just one factor of concern, it would be the quality of preschool teachers. For as the saying goes: The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.

Ask parents for their idea of a dream preschool, and I believe they would say that it should have highly-trained and experienced teachers who are able to give each child personal attention (that is, a low student-to-teacher ratio), and who will enchant them by saturating classes with playing, talking and reading.

This boils down to "4Cs" teachers: Committed, competent, caring and confident. While I have no doubt that such preschool teachers exist today - and I take this opportunity to salute them - a look at the structure of the sector gives little confidence that the overall quality of teachers is adequate.


One important element for systemic quality is effective training. But the reality is that preschool teacher training is currently in the hands of 13 accredited agencies. The stepsisters, however, have their teachers trained at a single national institution, the National Institute of Education.

Of course, it would help if, prior to training, capable and motivated candidates are recruited. Yet, the entry qualifications of preschool teachers is merely five O-Levels. Despite this low threshold, the sector is having trouble filling up the advertised positions for teachers.

By comparison, the stepsisters are moving toward an all-graduate teacher recruitment by 2015.

Already, the employer of primary and secondary school teachers, the Ministry of Education (MOE), recruits from the top 30 per cent of each cohort and selects so stringently that only 14 per cent of some 18,000 applicants are successful every year.

The vicious cycle is entrenched when preschool teachers receive low pay and have limited career prospects. This feeds into the sector's difficulty in attracting high quality candidates, which then reinforces the image of a lowly-esteemed profession.

The option of recruiting foreign teachers is not ideal because, in the long term, this may depress the wages of local teachers. The 2011 Ministry of Manpower Report on Wages puts their median monthly pay at S$1,840, lower than what a receptionist or hairdresser can command. Those at the 75th percentile earn a mere S$200 more than the median.


Low pay is a major reason why we have a leaky preschool labour pool plagued by chronic shortages.

A study by Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Humanities & Social Sciences found that 25 per cent of close to 400 teachers surveyed had intentions to quit the sector in the near term. The main reasons given were low salaries and heavy workloads.

The same study cited 2009 government data that shows childcare teachers' resignation rate is about three times that of MOE teachers'.

This problem of persistent and frequent turnover is exacerbated by the rapid proliferation of preschool centres in recent years, leading to stiff competition for qualified staff.

A major non-profit preschool operator reported turnover of as high as 40 per cent at one point, presumably because salaries were lower than that at other private preschools. In the last four years, 200 childcare centres were set up and 200 more are in the pipeline for the next five years to help more women return to the workforce.


High turnover and attrition is a corollary of a weak profession, leading to the overall poor quality of early childhood education.

The primary impact is on the child. Studies have shown that high teacher turnover is harmful for young children and the outcomes of their education as they need a secure and stable relationship with caring adults.

Teachers also suffer as they have no choice but to pick up the slack while waiting for replacements. The dearth of experienced teachers limits the profession's capacity to respond incisively to challenges and lead the way to better quality education.

For the sake of our children, and for the future of Singapore, these systemic blemishes should be addressed, and addressed soon.

Professor Sharon Kagan of Columbia University explains why: "Three strands of research combine to support the importance of the early years. From neuro scientific research, we understand the criticality of early brain development; from social science research, we know that high quality programmes improve children's readiness for school and life; and from econometric research, we know that high quality programs save society significant amounts of money over time.

"Early childhood contributes to creating the kinds of work forces that are going to be needed in the 21st century."

It is time for Prince Charming and the fairy godmother to appear. Do we have the political will to make it happen?

Lee Poh Wah is the chief executive officer of the Lien Foundation. He previously worked in the civil service where he established the Social Enterprise Fund.

Early childhood education study 'good and timely'
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 21 Jul 2012

A RECENT study by the Lien Foundation on pre-school education provides useful input for the Government's efforts to fine-tune its policies and programmes.

That is according to Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong, who was speaking at an early childhood education conference yesterday.

His comments are the first from a minister on the hard-hitting findings and recommendations of the study commissioned by the Singapore philanthropic organisation.

The study, which placed Singapore 29 out of 45 countries on a 'starting well' index, was released by the Economic Intelligence Unit three weeks ago.

Singapore did not fare well in three areas - availability, affordability and quality of pre-school services.

The Lien Foundation followed the study up by consolidating and presenting recommendations for improvement from a panel of 27 local pre-school education experts.

The panel called for pre-school education to be provided free to all children nationwide.

Other suggestions included establishing a national pay scale for pre-school teachers and designating one lead ministry to regulate and develop the sector.

'I have read the report - it is a good and timely study, and it will provide useful inputs in our efforts to further fine-tune our policies and programmes for the pre-school sector,' Mr Wong said in his opening remarks to the 13th annual conference of the Pacific Early Childhood Education Research Association (Pecera) held at the National Institute of Education.

In his speech, Mr Wong acknowledged the importance of pre-school education.

'This is the period when children inquire, explore and discover the world around them,' he said. 'This is also when they develop learning dispositions that remain with them throughout their lives.'

Mr Wong said considerable progress in pre-school education had been made here.

Apart from raising the minimum academic and professional qualifications of pre-school teachers, the Ministry of Education provides a curriculum framework and resources to help teachers design effective lessons for children.

Pecera's mission is to disseminate and support research in early childhood education within the Pacific area. About 500 participants from 16 countries have signed up for its three-day conference.

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