Around the world, early childhood care and education (ECCE) has been described by some as the Cinderella within national education systems as governments begin to pay more attention to its importance in long-term human capital development. James Heckman has provided a compelling case – that investing early in young children's learning and development potentially has an ROI of 13% if a nation provides high-quality and comprehensive ECCE programmes for children from birth through age 5 (Note: in the USA, children begin elementary school at age 5).
In the United Kingdom, one of the most often cited, large-scale longitudinal studies in recent decades examined the effectiveness of preschool education and found that only high quality ECCE can have a lasting impact on children's learning and development and mitigate any negative effects that may be caused by unconducive home learning environments or even poor quality primary school education. The defining features of 'high quality' programmes: a) enriched adult-child verbal interactions that support children's thinking and curiosity; b) has a balance of child-initiated and adult-initiated activities; c) trained staff who collaborate with families, understand how young children learn, are knowledgeable about what is developmentally appropriate and motivating for children, and are able to engage children's minds; d) centre-wide practices to support children's positive behaviours through reasoning and talk.
Neuroscientists have also been drawing attention to the startling cognitive capabilities of young children as learners and moral beings, and how early brain development is highly influenced by early human relationships, secure attachment and supportive home learning environments that encourage early exploration and communication.
Internationally, ECCE services generally refer to group-based and centre-based care and education of young children from birth through age 8. For starters, ECCE is to be differentiated from the broader 'early childhood development' (ECD) which includes healthcare and programming in humanitarian response. As such, ECCE is a fairly recent invention in many societies. It has emerged as a professionalised sector in societies where governments are encouraging greater workforce participation from women, and where extended family childcare arrangements are limited. Some countries license home-based childcare services, but in Singapore, we only have three types of ECCE government-licensed early childhood development centre (ECDCs) – full-day "childcare" (for children as young as 18 months through 6 years of age), full-day "infant care" (for children as young as 2 months), and half-day "kindergarten" (for 4 to 6-year-olds).
While there is no such thing as a "pre-school" license in Singapore, the term is ubiquitous in part because the idea of "pre-school" education has been around for a little longer, with the original focus on preparation for formal schooling. These days, it is also seen as a way to transition children into school so they become accustomed to being away from their homes for part of the day, interact with other children, develop independence and some academic skills.
Depending on the age at which children must start attending primary school, ECCE programmes are given different names in different parts of the world. In Singapore, it is compulsory for all children to attend primary school; but before that time, it is not mandatory for children to attend licensed ECCE services ("childcare centres" or "kindergartens") although more than 95% of each cohort of 5-year-olds typically attend either type of service depending on their parents' preference and need. In Hong Kong, kindergartens and kindergarten-cum-childcare centres are collectively called 'kindergartens' (regulated by the Education Bureau) providing services for children from three to six years old, with some offering full-day classes but many offering half-day classes (Nursery, K1, K2, K3). In England, the Early Years Foundation Stages sets standards for government-registered early years providers catering to children from birth to age 5 (e.g., childminders, preschools, nurseries and primary schools) as it is compulsory for children to enter primary schools the year they turn 5. In Finland and the other Nordic countries, children enter formal school at age 7 and before that, parents are encouraged to take paid parental leave before their child reaches the age of three but there are provisions for childcare, including 24-hour settings that cater to parents who work nightshifts.
"... ECCE as a discipline focuses very much on policies and practices that support young children's general developmental and educational needs through planned programmes and activities"
Associate Professor Sirene Lim, Vice Dean & Head, Early Childhood Education with Minor Programme
Given its history, ECCE as a discipline focuses very much on policies and practices that support young children's general developmental and educational needs through planned programmes and activities. ECCE policies and practices generally focus on curriculum (what to teach children) and pedagogy (how to teach them). For a very long time, the 'care' aspects of working with young children (e.g., developing healthy eating habits, self-care routines, and independence skills) were left out of the equation so that the focus was more on educating children for the academic demands of primary school. Hence, the term "pre-school".
This traditional thinking about ECCE as mere "pre-school" is increasingly being replaced by a more comprehensive view of what young children need and consequently, how ECCE professionals should develop more of an "educaring" approach (especially for the younger ages), support children's natural ability to be effective independent learners, as well as enhance parents' confidence and skills as their child's most important educators. ECCE professionals should never replace the role of parents but work in collaboration with families to ensure that children have culturally and developmentally appropriate continuity of care between home and childcare/kindergarten settings.
At SUSS, our undergraduate programme in early childhood education has a strong focus on ECCE. In particular, it centres around early childhood teacher preparation, to ensure that we groom a cadre of early childhood educators grounded in ethical practice, social constructivist philosophies and contemporary brain science research that now tells us that young children (infants, toddlers and preschoolers alike) are all capable thinkers and active, curious learners who should not be passively following instructions and rote learning facts.
The sector has seen tremendous growth in the last few years as families demand more childcare services, and the government is encouraging childbirth and promoting better use of childcare services. In 2018, it was announced that 40,000 more childcare places would be provided by 2023. This has resulted in a shortage of qualified and experienced teachers and principals to staff newly set-up childcare centres.
Recent ECCE policy developments in the fast-growing sector have included the following:
- Created a singular government agency - the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) in 2014 to harmonise and regulate both 'kindergartens' and 'childcare centres' through its Early Childhood Development Centres Act 2017. ECDA is hosted by the MSF and jointly overseen by both MSF and MOE. Prior to its formation, kindergartens were registered under the MOE and childcare centres licensed by the MSF. This division in governance created inevitable differences in perspectives about what young children needed and an unproductive, dichotomous view of 'care' versus 'education'.
- Launched the Singapore Preschool Accreditation Framework (SPARK) in 2011, signalling the need for the sector to embark on quality rating and self-evaluations for improvement, before volunteering for external assessment (aka SPARK-certification). Currently, there is no accreditation yet as centres' quality rating scores are still fairly low.
- Created national curriculum frameworks: the Early Years Development Framework (for children from birth to three); and the Nurturing Early Learners Kindergarten Curriculum Framework (for children from ages 4 to 6). These are guides, not mandatory curriculum frameworks like in some countries (not "syllabuses") to guide teachers to support children's all-round development and learning in developmentally appropriate ways.
- Stipulated minimum requirements for those employed as teachers and principals: since 2008, all ECCE teachers are required to have a minimum of 5 GCE 'O' levels and an ECDA-recognised diploma qualification. The diploma could be a professional diploma qualification, not necessarily a full-time, 3-year polytechnic diploma.
- Create Anchor Operator and Partner Preschool Operator schemes to ensure that affordable childcare services are accessible to as many families as possible, as well as support operators' expenditures, raise teacher salaries and professional learning opportunities.
- Created the KidSTART programme to provide a supportive ecosystem for children from disadvantaged, low-income families and possibly those who have adverse childhood experiences.
- To enhance inclusive practices in ECCE settings and have the ECDA oversee the provision and regulation of early intervention services# by end-2020.
What do we now know about how young children learn?
In recent decades, brain science research findings have concurred that even babies are born with the innate ability to learn from observing and interacting with objects and people in their environment.
Even before they have the words to describe what they see, hear or experience, they are constantly making mental connections, finding relationships, and analysing situations based on their first-hand encounters (e.g., X happens when I do Y; when I hear X, it means…; when I see/feel Y, it means…I wonder if…let me try to …).
We know now that every child is unique, constantly learning, and learns and develops at different rates and in different ways. Genetics alone does not determine how a child develops; instead, supportive and enabling environments can promote a young child's independence, resilience, confidence, and ability to 'learn to learn' in the years ahead. Love and security in a child's world form the basis of future learning. And it is more important to nurture children's positive dispositions towards tasks, situations and relationships – dispositions are intentional habits of thinking and doing and they influence the degree in which children participate or relate to an experience or learning opportunity.
"... important to nurture children's positive dispositions towards tasks, situations and relationship - dispositions are intentional habits of thinking and doing and they influence the degree in which children participate or relate to an experience or learning opportunity."
Associate Professor Sirene Lim, Vice Dean & Head, Early Childhood Education with Minor Programme
What kinds of research would help to raise quality in Singapore's ECCE?
In line with national development and our SUSS degree programme's focus, we need more research that can inform ECCE organisational, leadership practices as well as curricular and pedagogical practices to nurture children's positive dispositions, and better-cater to children's diverse cultural backgrounds and naturally wide-ranging developmental and learning needs. In our programme, we have begun to support teachers' development as teacher-researchers, to be able to generate data within their own classrooms so as to better inform their curricular decisions (what to 'teach', how to support individual children's inquiries).
(1) Organisational and leadership practices can directly influence teachers' everyday actions and decisions, hence, research should inform these various nested systems that work together to influence children's first-hand experiences at the childcare centre/kindergarten level. For instance, centre principals' decisions about how to schedule the day, how to roster teachers, or plan the weekly menu around available budget eventually has a direct impact on how much time children have outdoors/indoors or with certain play materials, how emotionally supported or tired teachers can become, or how balanced and nutritional the children's snacks and meals are.
(2) More investigation into curricular and pedagogical practices for the various age groups, varying developmental needs, and types of ECCE settings and contexts would help Singapore to strengthen its teacher education programmes, operational practices of centres, facilitate teacher learning within individual settings and build a common understanding of "quality" ECCE that is localised and contextualised according to the specific and particular needs of children/families within different communities. Internationally, evidence has shown that there is no singular "best" model curriculum for young children – the best ones are the ones tailored for and co-created with children within individual settings. More important than having a well-written or packaged curriculum plan, is to have teachers who are effective in interacting with and engaging young children through intentionally curated experiences (as found in the UK's EPPE project)
# Early intervention services in Singapore generally comprise the following: (1) Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC) for children below age 6 who have been diagnosed with moderate to severe developmental needs involving motor, communication, social, cognitive and self-help skills and these programmes are provided outside the regular ECCE settings; (2) Developmental Support- Learning Support (DS-LS), and Developmental Support Plus (DS-Plus) are short-term intervention programmes for 5-and-6-year-olds with mild developmental and learning needs, provided within ECCE settings.
 The Heckman Equation (2020): 13% ROI Research Toolkit
 Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Global Working Group (HCEO) (2017): Adele Diamond on Executive Functions and the Brain
 TED Radio Hour (2013): What Do Babies Think?
 Scientific American (2013): The Moral Life of Babies
 Education Bureau (2019): Overview of Kindergarten Education in Hong Kong
 Foundation Years: EYFS Statutory Framework (2020)
 Finnish National Agency for Education (2020): Early childhood education and care
 Early Childhood Development Agency (2020): KidSTART
 Today (2019): Study calls for pre-school teachers to be better paid, to work more with early intervention teachers
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