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Access to Quality Preschool Education Benefits All

Now, there is a growing body of research and literature which shows that the quality of early childhood education and care can have a great impact on one’s chances of success later in life.

American-based Brookings Institute discovered that between the ages of three and five, the lack of proper childcare and education can have a profound influence on a person’s trajectory in life — often bringing about poorer outcomes in cases of low-quality care[1].

A simulation model of the potential long-term economic effects of increasing preschool enrolment by 25 or 50% in low- and middle-income countries also showed a benefit-to-cost ratio of between 6.4 and 17.61. Meaning that the positive returns from early childhood development programmes among pre-schoolers from poor and neglected backgrounds could greatly outweigh initial investment in them.

Given such encouraging findings, it is vital for countries like Singapore which have a small and open economy and is heavily reliant on skilled human capital, to improve the quality of preschool education to help secure a brighter economic future.

Since the country’s independence, the Singapore government has continued to invest significantly in ensuring quality education prevails and is accessible to all. As part of this year’s budget, it was reported that government spending on education has increased by over 70% from $7.5 billion in 2007 to an estimated $12.8 billion in 2018[2]. In fact, three to four % of the country’s annual GDP is being spent on primary, secondary and post-secondary education[3]. But what about preschool education?

With education being such an effective tool in determining a person’s journey in life and its resulting impact on Singapore’s economic development, what are the steps being taken to improve access to quality early childhood education? How are we ensuring Singapore’s early childhood education standards are adhered to and improved upon?

Increased spending to level the playing field

In the government’s 2020 budget, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat shared that annual spending on the early childhood sector is set to double to more than S$2 billion per year within the next few years, up from the current $1b spent in 2018[4].

This is one of a series of measures announced to make quality education across all levels more accessible. It is a much-welcomed move, shifting attention to a long-neglected segment of the education fraternity.

The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) sector has a crucial part to play in nation and community-building, supporting child development, gender equality and an active workforce.

Globally, an important priority for many governments, including Singapore’s, is to ensure that every child has access to an inclusive and good-quality ECCE. On the matter of access, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) announced that higher pre-school subsidies will be offered, effectively extending coverage to more than 60% of households in Singapore.

This means that families with a gross monthly income of S$3,000 now pay just S$3 a month per child at anchor operator pre-schools[5]. This also means that by the time a Singaporean child reaches the age of 16, he or she would have received more than S$180,000 in education subsidies.

While these measures will go towards enhancing access, it is important we consider methods to ensure quality education continues to prevail.

Preschool models and its impact on education

Needless to say, the model of operation for each preschool has an impact on the quality of education which the centre offers to students. In most European and OECD member states for instance, ECCE forms a part of a mixed economy in which public programmes co-exist with private-for-profit and private-not-for-profit providers.

On a broader global level, such private-for-profit models within mixed markets have achieved considerable growth to become the default option in many low- and middle-income countries. A critical downside to this model is the likelihood of increased social stratification and formation of an elite class.

Depending on how government regulations are applied, an increase in private-for-profit ECCE service providers poses risks to accessibility, affordability and even service quality. To make matters worse, social stratification could also result due to the exorbitant fees charged.

In Singapore, up until 2014, the ECCE industry has been entirely private-for-profit or not-for-profit. To date, there are now 24 Ministry of Education kindergartens out of over 1,800 childcare centres and kindergartens in Singapore.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to solving such an issue, ensuring the delivery of quality ECCE services requires a strong, knowledge-driven profession to be in place. These professions will take the lead in advocating for children’s best interests across the physical, emotional and cognitive dimensions.

The business of educating young ones must also be provided by such thinking professionals who are responsive to young children’s unpredictable curiosity and enthusiasm and can develop their unique capabilities and motivation to learn.

Focus on longer-term benefits

When it comes to studying the role of ECCE in within any country, there is the tendency to take one of two views. The more short-sighted view includes creating services to meet the practical needs of working adults by providing custodial care.

On the other side, a longer-term view of ECCE is to go beyond meeting families’ logistical needs, to be part of the whole village approach to raising children for a better society. In so doing, professionals work together with parents to support children’s learning and development, not simply for primary school.

While research on low-quality education and its impact on children’s development is scarce in Asia, American and European studies have shown that low-quality ECCE can have an adverse impact on the socio-emotional and cognitive development of pre-schoolers.

The models which Early Childhood Education service providers adopt will have an impact on the kind of teachers being recruited and, as a result, also affect the quality of education which a pre-schooler receives. The competencies, actions, words and decision-making of leaders and staff within each centre will directly determine the experience children have within a given centre.

High-quality pre-school classrooms have the distinct mark of intellectual curiosity and a keen sense of inquiry shared by both children and teachers.

Quality ECCE cannot be bought

The importance of high-quality early childhood education in Singapore cannot be understated especially in view of Singapore’s open and vulnerable knowledge-driven economy.

But for quality education to prevail across the preschool, primary, secondary and tertiary levels, our nation must continue to attract capable, sincere teachers who are passionate advocates for children’s holistic development.

Over time, these professionals must also be given the support for them to evolve into critically reflective practitioners who will develop quality ECCE practices which are grounded in rigorous research-based knowledge about how children learn and grow.

This article has been adapted from an earlier commentary: “Commentary: Long-neglected but now in the spotlight, Singapore’s pre-school sector” by Associate Professor Sirene Lim, Vice Dean and Head of Early Childhood Education with Minor Programme, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).


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