Monday, 18 March 2013

Keep kindergarten places for the poor

Govt programme should also include parent education and social service support
By Sandra Davie, The Sunday Times, 17 Mar 2013

Trust Singapore parents to know a good deal when they see it. So expect a rush for places when the Education Ministry starts running kindergartens, with the first five opening next year.

Several parents interviewed after news of the centres broke last week were keen to send their children there. They believe these kindergartens will provide as good an education as the leading private centres, at an affordable price.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat announced in Parliament that there will be 15 centres sited in Housing Board heartlands and they will lead the way in developing effective teaching methods and practices, which will then be shared with other pre-school operators to spur improvements all round.

His ministry will release more information soon on admission criteria, the number of places and the exact locations of the first ones to open next January.

Several parents are already hoping that one of the new kindergartens will be near their homes. Others say they won't mind sending their children there even if the centres are further away from where they live. As one said: "If they are supposed to lead the way in developing good teaching methods, they must be really good. Which parent wouldn't want that for their children?"

The enthusiastic reaction has prompted concern that some children from poor homes - the ones most in need of an early leg-up in education - may be left out if there is a big rush for these new kindergartens and it results in balloting for places.

Some have called on the Government to reserve 20 per cent or 30 per cent of the places for children from disadvantaged homes nearby. It is a suggestion the ministry must seriously consider.

Some have also suggested that the ministry send social workers to search out these families and persuade them to put their children in the new kindergartens.

Here is a golden opportunity to help poor children break out of the poverty cycle.

Several studies such as the landmark Perry project in the United States have shown that high-quality pre-schooling can change the equation for children who lack a stable, nurturing home environment.

That study done in Michigan state in the 1960s involved providing high-quality pre-school education to a group of three- and four-year-old children living in poverty and assessed to be at high risk of school failure.

They were taught by certified public school teachers with at least a bachelor's degree. The average child:teacher ratio was 6:1 and the curriculum emphasised active learning. The teachers also visited the children's homes weekly to involve the mothers in the educational process.

The children were then tracked in the decades that followed. Not only did more of them complete high school and enter college, but also they went on to get better jobs and earn higher salaries.

Some detractors have cited the mixed results of other pre-school schemes where the benefits faded as the children turned eight or nine.

But some experts such as economics Nobel laureate James Heckman have pointed out that in early childhood education, quality matters.

He has suggested that some programmes might have proven less beneficial as they were not as high-calibre as the Perry project.

So, what do you need for a top-notch programme?

Needless to say, the quality of teachers will be key.

The ministry has to pick well-trained teachers and ensure that classes are kept small.

I have seen some skilful pre-school educators work their magic in the classroom. They know how children learn and how to best facilitate their learning.

If the ministry intends to include a fair number of disadvantaged children at the new centres, it may also need to include other professionals such as social workers and educational therapists to work alongside the teachers.

This will allow staff to identify problems and address them quickly.

At the moment, children and families who need additional help sometimes face an uphill struggle.

Problems that are often multi-faceted must first be identified by a social worker or teacher. The family will then be directed to various government agencies and welfare organisations.

The social worker can become the case manager, helping parents navigate the bureaucracy of social service agencies.

Parent education must also become a big part of what the kindergartens do. This is important to reach out to the parents of children most in need.

Their parents are often too busy making ends meet, preoccupied with more urgent problems, ignorant of their children's needs or unaware that they too can help.

Experts have attributed part of the success of the Perry project to the home visits made by teachers.

They helped mothers pick the right storybooks from the library and taught them how to read aloud to their children and even how to play simple number games with common household items.

Working mothers wish childcare can be added to the kindergarten programme, so their children can have supervised meals, naptime, play time and enrichment activities.

The Government can consider this too. After all, it has seen the benefits of providing after-school care at the student care centres in several primary schools.

This is especially crucial for children from homes where both parents work long shift hours.

It is now more urgent than ever for the Government to take action through a programme that can make a difference.

The income gap has widened considerably and slowed down social mobility, making it harder for children from poor homes to succeed in school and at work in Singapore.

Some may baulk at the potential cost of providing such high-calibre programmes but, as many studies show, the opportunity costs of not providing quality pre-school education for poor children are much higher.

In a Facebook posting last week, Mr Heng explained why his ministry was taking on the enormous task of running its own kindergartens.

The Government must study what works and give every child the chance to do well in life.

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