Thursday, 14 February 2013

Shift from kindergarten to 'kindercare'

By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 13 Feb 2013

KINDERGARTEN operators in some parts of Singapore are venturing into the childcare market on the back of a declining enrolment.

The country's largest pre-school operator, PAP Community Foundation (PCF), converted a kindergarten into its first hybrid "Kindercare" centre last year. This means it offers both kindergarten and childcare services.

PCF has closed down 13 kindergartens and converted 12 others into childcare centres after enrolment dipped from 58,163 in 2005 to 37,602 last year.

At the same time, childcare services have grown in popularity over the years among working parents who prefer full-day childcare programmes for their children, encouraged by the generous subsidies on offer.

When announcing the latest round of subsidies - which covers two-thirds of households - three weeks ago, Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said the "demand has shifted" as more caregivers are returning to work.

"The kindergarten cohort is slowly declining because of the cohort size. So there's an opportunity for us to shift some of the capacity to childcare," he said.

The number of children attending childcare centres has surged from 50,290 in 2007 to 76,174 last year. To meet the demand, childcare centres have been springing up islandwide. There were 1,009 last year compared with 743 in 2007.

The expansion of the childcare sector is in stark contrast to the number of kindergartens, which has remained stagnant. Over the last five years, the number of kindergartens has remained fairly constant at an average of 500 centres. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has declined to give enrolment figures.

Kindergarten operators who spoke to The Straits Times said they are looking into the possibility of offering childcare services, though some have no problems filling up places.

"If a kindergarten enrolment falls drastically, we may consider converting it into a childcare centre or a hybrid Kindercare centre," said a PCF spokesman.

Its first Kindercare centre in Tampines, a tie-up between the MOE and the Ministry of Social and Family Development, offers full-day childcare to toddlers and Nursery 1 children.

Once they start Nursery 2, they will attend a four-hour kindergarten programme in the morning, followed by childcare in the afternoon.

The PCF has 343 centres. Of these, 238 are kindergartens and the rest are childcare centres.

Kindergarten programmes usually last for a few hours and focus mainly on academic learning while childcare programmes include aspects such as showering and enrichment activities.

The Young Women's Christian Association, which runs 10 childcare centres and one kindergarten, said that it has been offering more childcare places as it has seen a steady drop in its kindergarten enrolment. "Parents are comparing and they find that with the childcare subsidies, they just have to top up a little more to get a lot more hours of care compared to kindergartens," said childcare manager Sandy Koh.

Mrs Elsie-Tan Chua from Living Sanctuary Kindergarten said parents have been asking if it will have childcare facilities. "There is a possibility but we need to look for space if we want to have a childcare facility," she said.

However, some kindergarten operators still firmly believe that the demand for their services will hold out. St James' Church Kindergarten is one of them.

Ms Jacqueline Chung, senior principal at St James', said: "There are parents who want their children to spend more time with the family in their formative years. Their needs should be served."

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