Saturday 15 February 2014

New system to improve childcare locations; Intakes cut at 4 of 5 MOE-run kindergartens for 2015 admission

Database to capture more accurately the demand for places
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 14 Feb 2014

A NEW system to more accurately gauge demand for childcare places is in the works, so that new childcare centres can be built where they are most needed.

It comes amid moves to meet growing demand for childcare services, which saw the Government pledge last year to add 20,000 more childcare places - or about 200 centres - by 2017.

This will provide enough places for one in two children here, up from one in three in 2013.

While a centre's waiting list can provide some indication of demand, it suffers from one key problem - duplication. This is because some parents put their children's names down for places at several childcare centres at the same time, even when the children may already be enrolled in one centre.

To get around this issue, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) is putting together a database which will filter out repeat applications, and reveal the actual number of people waiting for a place.

Coupled with its existing database of enrolment, this will help it better plan where to open new childcare centres.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing, who revealed this new initiative in an interview with The Straits Times this week, said the new database is expected to be ready by the second half of the year.

Explaining the need for it, he added: "Some parents register their children at many places and that messes up the projection of demand... Some may even continue to register their children in the queue, even though their children are already in a particular centre."

The ECDA is interested in knowing who is in the queue only for the purpose of ascertaining its length, he said.

He acknowledged it may be a "sensitive issue" for childcare centre operators to share their waiting lists with ECDA. But he said the data would be kept confidential, so operators would not know their competitors' waiting lists.

Currently, in planning where to locate centres, the ECDA relies on geospatial software which shows the location of existing centres, and demographic data such as the number of children eligible for childcare places in an area.

This year alone, at least 45 centres will be set up islandwide, with most of them sited in newer estates such as Punggol and Sengkang, where there is a higher proportion of young families and more demand for childcare services.

A spokesman for My First Skool, which has six centres in Punggol, said waiting lists give "very limited insight" into the demand for childcare services in an area.

Besides parents registering at multiple centres, some parents whose children are already in childcare centres in other areas may register interest in a specific centre after increased publicity about the centre, she explained.

Accountant Michelle Tay, 35, said it would be good if parents too could know the actual number of people queueing up for a place at centres in a particular vicinity.

Said the Punggol resident, who put her four-year-old daughter's name down on waiting lists at three childcare centres from 2010, before getting a place about a year later: "We'd be less anxious when looking for a childcare place."

Progress seen in childcare sector
Minister is 'cautiously optimistic' that quality, affordability improving
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 14 Feb 2014

ALMOST a year after outlining a five-year plan to improve the childcare sector during last year's Budget debate, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing is "cautiously optimistic" about how the sector has progressed so far.

His mantra is to improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of pre-school education.

"We are cautiously optimistic that the pieces are moving into place," said Mr Chan in an interview with The Straits Times earlier this week.

He added that there has been "very rapid growth" in the number of childcare places, which grew from being enough for about 17 per cent of the cohort eligible for pre-school five years ago, to covering 33 per cent early last year.

The goal is to add 20,000 places by 2017, to ensure there are enough places for 50 per cent of the cohort. Last year, 8,818 places were added.

To better gauge demand and decide on the location of childcare centres, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) will set up a database of those in the queue for a childcare place by the second half of the year.

Mr Chan said improving accessibility is more straightforward than improving affordability and quality of childcare services.

He said he hopes the five anchor operators, including three which were appointed last month, will provide good benchmarks and "set the pace" of how childcare programmes should be priced.

Anchor operators get government help, such as rental subsidies and priority in securing Housing Board sites for new centres, in return for keeping fees low. Their monthly fees for a full-day childcare programme cannot exceed $720.

Mr Chan said: "We cannot prevent people at the extreme edges going for niche programmes... and realistically, there's no way that you can stop them. But for the mass market, you must give them confidence that the programmes provided by the anchor operators are good enough."

A panel of experts in pedagogy and child development evaluated the curriculum of the new anchor operators before selecting them, he said. The ECDA will also ensure that "the basic meal that they serve is nutritious enough", he added.

Asked about concerns of taxpayers' money being used to subsidise profit-making operators - the anchor operator scheme was expanded to include for-profit operators - he said taxpayers would benefit in the long term.If an anchor operator can make a profit, "the whole society benefits". "I'd have received valuable information on how the curriculum and sector can be organised more efficiently.

"If I mandate that they will never make any money from this, then there are all sorts of ways that they can pretend to not make money. There's no efficiency gained at all." But there is a "short-term safeguard". A "substantial" portion of an anchor operator's profit has to be reinvested into developing the capability of the sector, he said.

More effort will be made to retain teachers, too. "Every time we lose teachers, we have to retrain another batch of teachers. That takes up resources... It's better for us to keep the teachers who are good and passionate in the sector."

Last year, Mr Chan announced a new Continuing Professional Development Masterplan, which includes a road map outlining key responsibilities for staff, who will have to complete courses to move ahead in teaching and leadership pathways. While he did not disclose how teachers' pay will be raised, he said the ECDA had shared salary data for the pre-school sector with operators in December.

Some operators, particularly the smaller ones, do not know what the salary benchmark in the market is, he said. "We hope that by sharing such things, it will encourage them to look at some of their human resource practices... We hope it will be a first step to at least get things moving."

Intakes cut at 4 of 5 MOE-run kindergartens
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 14 Feb 2014

THE Ministry of Education (MOE) has decided to cut by as much as half the number of new enrolments at four of its five kindergartens next year.

The only exception is its kindergarten in Punggol, where residents have long complained about a lack of pre-school facilities. It will continue to take in as many as 120 children.

However, the kindergartens in Telok Blangah, Farrer Park and Tampines will now offer just 60 places each. The one in Bukit Batok will have 80 spots.

When these MOE-run kindergartens were first announced last year, each of the four centres sited within primary schools had space for 120 kids. The Tampines kindergarten - the only one to be located in a void deck - had 80 places.

MOE explained yesterday that the numbers were revised to "better reflect the projected demand for pre-school places in the surrounding areas". But it is prepared to increase the number of places if the need arises, said an MOE spokesman.

The Straits Times had reported last year how most centres had faced a low take-up rate, with parents complaining about the lack of childcare and school bus services. Care services will be offered at the centres in Punggol and Telok Blangah next year.

Registration for kindergarten places will be held on April 4 and 5, from 9am. The five centres will hold open houses on March 1, from 9am to 11am.

Priority will be given to siblings of children studying in the kindergartens now and those from lower-income families. The rest are for citizens, with priority for those who live nearby. If there are any places left after that, they will be allocated to permanent residents.

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