Sunday 30 June 2013

New criteria for pre-school anchor operator scheme

Religious, commercial outfits eligible, but some keen parties concerned about requirements
By Ashley Chia, TODAY, 28 Jun 2013

Discarding some of the old restrictions, the Government has opened the door wider for potential anchor operators to enter the pre-school sector, as it seeks to improve the quality and affordability of early childhood education.

Among other things, it is opening up the Anchor Operator (AOP) Scheme, under which companies that run the schools will enjoy recurrent grants and access to heartland sites set aside by the Government, to locally-owned religious and commercial organisations.

Operators TODAY spoke to generally expressed keen interest to be part of the scheme and welcomed the new criteria, which were announced yesterday by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. However, most were concerned about the requirement for new anchor operators to provide 1,000 new places by 2018 — a “tall order”, as one of them put it, given the chronic shortage of pre-school teachers.

To meet this requirement, an operator would need to hire at least about 100 more pre-school educators — according to their estimates — over the next five years.

Currently, there are two anchor operators, PAP Community Foundation (PCF) and NTUC My First Skool , which make up 20 per cent of the 1,000 childcare centres and 15 per cent of the 500 kindergartens across the island.

It was announced during Budget earlier this year that the Anchor Operator Scheme would be opened up to more players. The Call for Proposal documents will be available from today and interested operators have until Aug 27 to submit their proposals.

Successful operators, which will receive a five-year AOP licence, subject to a mid-term review, will be announced by the end of the year. There is no set number of new anchor operators that the Government is looking for. Nevertheless, it aims to build 200 centres to provide 20,000 more kindergarten, childcare or infant care places by 2018.

At a press conference yesterday, Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing reiterated that the move is to “expand” affordable and quality childcare options for low- and middle-income families.

“We all know that the foundation we lay for the child, for his future growth, is of utmost importance, especially for the children from less advantaged backgrounds,” Mr Chan said.

Anchor operators have to cap their monthly fees at limits which are reviewed regularly by the authorities. For the new anchor operators, these will be set at S$720 for full-day childcare, S$160 for kindergarten and S$1,275 for infant care.

Since the scheme was started in 2009, some S$69 million has been disbursed to PCF and My First Skool. For the new anchor operators, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) will first evaluate their proposals before deciding on the amount of grants, which will be drawn from the S$3 billion set aside for the development of the pre-school sector.

Under this round of selection, commercial operators with a “social mission” — such as helping children from low-income or disadvantaged families — are allowed to participate. They are also required to reinvest in the sector such as through training and upgrading programmes for teachers.

Centres with religious affiliations are also eligible as long as their programmes are secular and they must accept children of all backgrounds. Interested operators must currently operate at least 10 pre-school centres or provide 1,000 places. If selected for the AOP scheme, operators have to give a financial guarantee equivalent to six months of operating costs for the number of proposed centres for the first year or S$10 million, whichever is lower.

On whether the expansion of the AOP scheme could result in a consolidation of the sector — pushing out smaller players in the process — Mr Chan said the Government wants to “preserve a diversity of options” for families. He said: “Children at this age, their learning styles ... can be quite diverse. So it is in our interest to make sure we get the diverse options to meet their needs.”

Childcare chain Carpe Diem founder Francis Ng said the financial guarantee would pose a challenge for many operators, while other childcare operators were concerned about having to expand so quickly in such a short period.

Mr Chris Lim, Director of Agape Little Uni which currently offers about 1,000 places at its 10 childcare centres, said: “To provide another 1,000 places by 2018 — that’s a tall order ... it is not just about opening new centres that is difficult but the main problem is the recruitment (of educators).”

YWCA Executive Director Leung Yee Ping estimated that an operator needs to hire at least 140 additional educators to meet this requirement. “Childcare teachers with diploma qualifications are such a rare commodity. Perhaps the criteria for entry into the course could be lowered to attract more on board,” she said.

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