Wednesday 12 June 2013

Better, more affordable childcare by 2014: Chan Chun Sing

By Hetty Musfirah Abdul Khamid, Channel NewsAsia, 10 Jun 2013

Better quality and more affordable childcare services could come as early as next year, said the Ministry of Social and Family Development. The new initiatives are set to be announced later in June. Plans are also underway to build a childcare centre within each cluster of new flats, where possible.

Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing revealed this in an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia.

There are currently about 1,000 childcare centres across Singapore, and the government has said it plans to build 200 more by 2018 -- all to give parents the peace of mind that their little ones will be well taken care of while they are off at work.

However, it is not just about having more childcare centres. Parents want them accessible as well -- near their workplaces and within walking distance from their homes.

Currently, demand for childcare places exceeds supply, especially in newer towns.

Mr Chan said: "When it comes to accessibility, it's really about having the childcare centres at the correct place and this usually means near the parents' house or near the workplace, which is why we are encouraging the workplace owners to actually start up new childcare centres.

"At the same time, we want to design the new HDB estates to have an in-built childcare centre within each of the precinct. So that has to do with accessibility because that minimises the logistics challenge and at the same time, the transport requirements for the parents."

Besides accessibility, parents also want childcare services to be of good quality, and at a cost that is affordable -- something especially important for the lower and middle-income families in Singapore -- so that their children will not miss the chance to get a head-start in life.

To address parents' concerns, the government is unveiling a slew of initiatives in the coming weeks.

To keep childcare fees low, the Anchor Operator Scheme will be extended to more operators and tender details will be released end-June. Currently there are two anchor operators -- the PCF (PAP Community Foundation) and the National Trades Union Congress' My First Skool -- which receive government grants and charge fees below the industry median.

With more anchor operators offering more childcare places at affordable fees, the increased competition is expected to help raise quality and drive down the costs.

The median monthly fee for the industry stands at S$775 for a full-day child care programme. For the anchor operators, it is S$615.

Families with a household income of S$2,500 or less can pay a monthly fee of just S$3. That is because children attending centres by the anchor operators receive government subsidies, which have been further enhanced since April 2013.

Mr Chan added: "On the supply side, we want to make sure that the cost is kept low through our direct subsidies at the back-end through the operators, while they maintain affordable fees.

"On the other hand, we give tiered subsidies to the parents -- to those who have less, we give more -- so that we all achieve the aim that if you need to send your child to a childcare centre, it should not take up more than 10 per cent of household income and that will make us comfortably within the top end of the OECD countries' averages."

On calls for the government to nationalise the sector to standardise childcare services, Mr Chan said that may not benefit young children.

He said: "If you nationalise the childcare sector, then you will lose the desired diversity that we have in the sector... I think from the research done in other countries, the younger they are, the more diverse their learning style and learning habits, so it is very difficult to have a one-size-fits-all (solution).

"But as you grow older, then it is probably easier to have a national syllabus and I think that's the approach that we have taken so far."

Currently, sites are tendered out to the highest bidder. However, the ministry will soon reveal "quality factors" which operators must meet. The factors may include affordability of fees and programmes being offered.

New learning guidelines to be introduced for young children
By Hetty Musfirah Abdul Khamid, Channel NewsAsia, 11 Jun 2013

By the end of this year, there will be a formal set of developmental and curriculum guidelines for children aged between 18 months and six years.

Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing revealed this in an exclusive Singapore Tonight interview.

The guidelines will not only help parents get their children to learn at a pace suited to their age but also benchmark the childcare sector.

With different operators offering a diverse range of programmes, parents shopping for their child's development programmme are sometimes at a loss. Experts have said the key lies in choosing programmes that are “age-appropriate”.

Early childhood development experts are concerned about some parents' misconception that a bigger price tag for their children's programmes equates better quality.

Another unhealthy trend is parents pushing their children to learn as much as possible in their early years, and very often, more than what is expected or appropriate for their age.

Dr Jane Ching-Kwan, CEO of KLC School of Education, said: “The victim will be the child. When children are put through activities and learning experiences that are not appropriate for their age group as well as their individual abilities, then we create stress in the child in the way we expect too much, teach too much.

“When parents are not informed and they ask for the programmes, businesses like pre-school centres perceive that as consumer demand, so they try to meet parental expectations and it inevitably sometimes compromises on giving more than what a child really needs.

“So perhaps we really need to pull back and look at informing and educating parents about what to expect for their children so that they know how to make those decisions for themselves in asking for the right and appropriate types of learning and then being able to match that with what centres are offering."

Mr Chan said: "Very often as parents we want to send our children to a school that helps them develop their music or artistic potential but our child may not be musically or artistically inclined. He or she may actually be better off developing his or her athletic potential. If we give them the wrong area of focus, it does not help them at all. It may actually even make them less willing to go forth and learn.

“On the other hand, sometimes there is a tendency for us to be quite anxious about our children's development and we want to see whether they can be stretched as much as possible, so we tend to load them a bit more and we send them for classes that are a little beyond their age, thinking that they may have a head-start compared to their peers. But in the process we might inadvertently cause the child to lose his interest in a particular field of study or field of pursuit. So it may actually be counter-productive."

The Ministry of Education (MOE) recently updated its kindergarten curriculum framework to give parents and educators a better idea of what children need to learn by the time they go to Primary One.

Building on this, the Social and Family Development Ministry is now working with MOE to extend the guidelines to younger children of pre-kindergarten age.

The aim is to help parents make informed decisions when choosing programmes to suit the child's age, strengths and weaknesses.

Mr Chan said: "For example, if you let the parents know that for this particular topic, this is the standard expected for a child of this age and when a child has reached this particular standard, the parents can rest assured that the child is developing appropriately. And they don't have to keep pushing the child to develop even higher-order skills set which are over and beyond the child of this age.

“On the other hand, once you reach a certain standard to be expected of a child at that age, you can actually spend time pursuing other interests, developing the interests of the child in other ways and that makes for more holistic development. So in this aspect, when we try to choose a programme for our children, we must make sure it is appropriate for his respective needs."

Mr Chan said the guidelines will be proliferated across the entire sector.

He said: "You can even put this on the web, on the internet for parents to have access to this and to make their own assessment, so that at the end of the day, they can make informed choices for the development of their own children.

“I think when the centres see this, they will also know how to moderate their offerings to the parents, and that's what we want so we don't end up in a rat race, whereby everybody tries to outdo each other to the detriment of the child's development."

Experts say such guidelines could serve as a benchmark, but parents must remember that every child is unique.

Dr Khoo Kim Choo, member of the Child Development Network Advisory Committee, said: "We need to use it as a guideline, because we do not want to panic and say ‘oh no he can't count one to five, or at this age he is not speaking yet’… It really depends on the individual child, so we do not want the parents to panic in this case."

The guidelines will be formalised progressively over the next two to three years.

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