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Address by Prof Cheong Hee Kiat at the 2020 Singapore Early Childhood Education Chinese Symposium

Welcome Address by Professor Cheong Hee Kiat at the 2020 Singapore Early Childhood Education Chinese Symposium


Distinguished speakers,
Guests and friends from the industry,
SUSS students and colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen.

  1. Good afternoon to all! I am pleased to welcome you to the fourth Singapore Early Childhood Education Chinese Symposium.
  1. The theme for this year’s symposium is: Building and Strengthening Singapore’s Early Childhood Education Research. In order to understand the significance of this theme, we need to first review the transformation of Singapore’s early childhood education (or ECE) landscape in the past 20 years.

Transformation of Singapore’s ECE Landscape in the past two decades

  1. Over the past two decades, the ECE landscape in Singapore has gone through remarkable and progressive changes.

    - In 2003, the Ministry of Education (MOE) launched the Nurturing Early Learners (NEL) framework to promote consistent quality standards in kindergarten programmes island-wide. That was for children ages four to six.

    - In 2011, the Early Years Development Framework (EYDF) was launched to set the standards for quality care and learning practices catered to the needs of very young children from 2 months to 3 years old.

    - In 2013, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) was set up to regulate and grow this sector – a giant step for the tiny tots.

    - Then in 2018, ECDA launched its first national campaign “Shape Our Tomorrow” to recruit, recognise, and retain early childhood educators, highlighting the invaluable role they play in the development and nurturing of a child.

    - In 2019, MOE established the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC) as a national training institute to deliver training to early childhood educators at different stages of their career.
  1. While formerly, much of ECE was an add-on for a child’s development, when it can be afforded, and left to a potpourri of providers, today, it is a necessary precursor to advance the child well into and through the 12 years of formal education. Indeed, early development of every child is foundational to later development. Not only that, it is a key social provision by which the levelling of opportunities for every child is sought for whatever the socio-economic background, whatever the beginning circumstances of life. We must champion ECE for all and keep at it.
  1. I am proud to say that SUSS was also part of this evolution to raise the standards of Singapore’s preschool education. Back in 2010, we were the first and only local University offering a part-time degree programme in ECE. The programme, through its multi-disciplinary courses, equipped early childhood educators and leaders with advanced knowledge in curriculum design and pedagogy, keeping them relevant in this evolving industry. Now, we run full-time programme also in ECE, and remain the only local IHL to offer a full degree in ECE.
  1. So, we can see how in just under 20 years, Singapore has progressed from a system with virtually little quality control – no training requirements and minimal educational requirements - for early childhood educators to one that is standard-based and centrally monitored. Now, we have regulated pre- and in-service training for ECE professionals to meet the care and learning needs of children from 2 months to 6 years old.
  1. All these efforts reflect the high level of commitment by the Singapore government and various industry stakeholders to develop the preschool sector.

Significance of 2020 Singapore Early Childhood Chinese Symposium

  1. Looking ahead, what is SUSS’s continued role in this national endeavour, especially as a university committed to providing lifelong, learner-centric, and industry-relevant education? And, in particular our role in Building and Strengthening Singapore’s Early Childhood Education Research? Let me offer three key areas where we can contribute:
  1. FIRST, INNOVATION IN TEACHING AND LEARNING IN CHALLENGING TIMES. COVID-19 has compelled us to conduct this symposium online, for the first time. Like for many other universities worldwide, the current pandemic has presented SUSS with stressful challenges in teaching and learning. We’ve had to close our campus, conduct lessons all online, and even end-of-course assessments. We’ve had to grapple with health and safety, cyber-security, network demands, system reliability for 24/7 online operations.

    Understandably, many feel lost and frustrated, but, life must go on and we adapt.

    But not just adapt. Here is a chance for us to adjust our perspective and take the opportunity to embrace change, and continue to adapt and improve.

    Take this online symposium - while it may be a steep learning curve to adopt new technology and engagement tools, the huge plus is that we have managed to reach out to many more participants than when held in a confined space. In a virtual space, the participation is virtually limitless. Isn’t it amazing?

    So, looking ahead, SUSS intends to bring more innovation into ECE, combining technology and pedagogy to bring good practices to our pre-school providers. You must play your part – to be receptive to new ideas and readily make improvements to your own practices.

    Today’s keynote speaker Professor Dan Fei from Shenyang Normal University will be addressing this topic of online teaching and learning being the new normal amidst COVID-19. In particular, she will be sharing her analysis of, and thoughts on, how the online phenomenon of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) came about, and why such courses are valuable resources to early childhood educators. Professor Dan Fei was also a keynote speaker with us last year, and I am happy to welcome her back again.
  1. SECOND, we can contribute in BUILDING RESEARCH CAPACITY IN EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION IN THE SINGAPORE CONTEXT. The development and implementation of policy reforms must be based on strong research evidence. We cannot expect policymakers to just know what policies are best for a given context – for better decisions, good evidence is needed.

    Take the Early Years Development Framework I mentioned earlier as example. The MOE had to look to the systems in other countries, as well as gather international research evidence. It involved not only a comprehensive review of the research and literature from neuroscience, child development theories, and early childhood education, but also consultations with key stakeholders such as early childhood experts, community partners, childcare operators, practitioners, and parents to ensure that the framework was well-founded on international standards, while staying relevant to the settings in Singapore. The last point is critical - we need evidence-based research that is contextualised to our local culture.

    For this reason, I am looking forward to our two other speakers from Shenyang Normal University who were SUSS’s visiting scholars last year – Associate Professors Suo Chang Qing, and Wu Jia Li Professor Suo and Professor Wu’s research is part of a bigger research collaboration between SUSS and Shenyang Normal University. They will be presenting findings from their comparative studies, between China and Singapore, on early childhood professional development and reform.

    I am also proud that nine of our inaugural graduating batch of students from the Master of Education in Early Childhood Education (in Chinese) or MECE programmme will be sharing their research findings and implications. Though newly-graduating, they are also experienced early educators themselves. And, their studies have been compiled into a book that will be published very soon as the 9th book of the SUSS Humanities Series. This book will be the first on early childhood Chinese education research in the Singapore context. Look out for it!
  1. FINALLY, we can contribute in terms of PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATORS. The Singapore government recognises that a key piece of the puzzle to lift the standards of the ECE sector is teacher training. As recent as last month, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam reiterated the importance of early care and education in Singapore. I quote him (7 July 2020, Straight Talk, Facebook): “Most of life's inequalities can be traced back to people's childhood and that is why the Government's efforts on social mobility start when Singaporeans are young…” This commitment is reflected in ECDA’s announcement last year that annual spending by the Government on the ECE sector will double to more than S$2 billion in the next few years, from the S$1 billion spent in 2018.

    For this piece of the puzzle, we need to focus not only on the structure of the professional development, for instance degree programmes, but also the process and characteristics of the professional development. We don’t just want knowledge transfer; we want to produce meaningful change in practitioners' skills, behaviours, and dispositions.

    At SUSS, pre-school teacher training has been an important focus for some years now. It is practice-oriented, and credentialed in degree qualifications at the undergraduate and master levels, and in both English and Chinese.

    The Bachelor of Early Childhood and Chinese Language Education (BECCE) programme was launched in July 2011. This is in collaboration with the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language, and SEED Institute (now National Institute of Early Childhood Development or NIEC). It was the first local, and still is, the only local degree programme in Early Childhood and Chinese Language Education in Singapore.

    The MECE programme is a collaboration with Beijing Normal University launched in 2017 aimed to develop early childhood practitioners, curriculum leaders, trainers, supervisors, and those who wish to pursue research in ECE. The inaugural batch of students will be graduating later this year, and the second batch of 23 students is entering the second year of studies. SUSS will stay committed to continue our efforts in offering relevant programmes to improve the quality of teacher training in ECE.
  1. I would like to say a few thank you’s to those who made this symposium possible. First, a big thank you to all our presenters. It is indeed a privilege to have you with us today.
  1. I would also like to acknowledge my colleagues from the Centre for Chinese Studies@SUSS and SR Nathan School of Human Development for organising and bringing together this amazing early childhood education community. Here, I am reminded of the famous and often quoted African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It does take many hands to raise a child, and raise him or her well. In this endeavour, all of us, not just teachers and students, are part of that village.
  1. Therefore, I would like to end by thanking YOU – the participants - for investing part of your weekend with us, and for the extraordinary efforts you are making for the children of Singapore, for the future of Singapore!
  1. Thank you.
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