The Minister for Social and Family Development (Mr Tan Chuan-Jin): Madam Speaker, I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time". With your permission, Mdm Speaker, may I ask the Clerks to distribute the document that illustrates the points that I will cover in my speech.
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: As part of the Government’s commitment to give every child a good start and to make Singapore a great place for families, we have undertaken various efforts to raise the affordability, accessibility and quality of our early childhood sector. In support of this, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) was established in 2013 to regulate and develop the sector.
To be effective, ECDA has to work in close partnership with the operators of around 1,800 childcare centres and kindergartens in Singapore. Today, parents of over 165,000 children entrust their children to these centres each day.
Regulatory standards underpin the foundation of a good quality pre-school, much like the stacking ring toy that we played with when we were young. The one with the concentric circles, increasingly smaller. We find that in pre-schools today, it is a toy that helps children to develop their fine motor skills, it comes in different colours and so on. The biggest ring is at the base, and it forms a foundation.
The Early Childhood Development Centres (ECDC) Bill seeks exactly to be that strong and reliable base for the sector – to consistently provide good quality programmes that give our young parents peace of mind when it comes to the safety, well-being and development of their children. In short, this Bill will ensure higher and more consistent quality standards across the early childhood sector.
The proposals in the Bill were made through extensive consultations over the past two years with operators, parents, teachers, early childhood experts, industry partners and the general public. Parents that came for ECDA's focus group discussions – I think they came to appreciate and realise the amount of effort that operators and teachers have to put in to ensure that their pre-school is safe and conducive for their children's development. ECDA received strong support on the need to raise centre quality, and we also calibrated our proposals based on the feedback received from the different stakeholders.
You will notice that the Bill focuses on early childhood development – we emphasise holistic care and education as an integral part of our children's growth. In this regard, childcare centres and kindergartens will be collectively regulated as "early childhood development centres" under a common licensing framework, which this harmonised Bill is better able to support, rather than being separately regulated under the Child Care Centres Act and Education Act, as they are today.
What this means is that, instead of the current "lifetime subscription" model for kindergartens, where they are registered one-off under the Education Act, all centres will now run on the "renewal subscription" model, which is already the practice for childcare centres today under the Child Care Centres Act. Centres essentially will be approved to operate for a period of time, and will be re-assessed when they renew their licence tenures. This requires centres to consciously put in effort to maintain their standards to continue their operations for another tenure. Key areas of focus include physical space norms and design, environment safety and hygiene, programme staff quality and of course staff-to-child ratios.
Under the new framework, we will increase the maximum licence tenure to three years, up from the current two years for childcare centres. Better quality centres will be awarded longer licence tenures, and this will incentivise them and encourage them to perform better. The new three-year licence tenure recognises the strong core of centres with consistently good regulatory track records of at least two consecutive two-year licences – this is a substantial portion of childcare centres, at over 500 centres today. ECDA officers will continue to conduct unannounced visits to centres periodically to ensure that centres maintain their standards.
The focus of this Bill is to regulate what we currently define today to be childcare centres and kindergartens. The Bill therefore provides for the exclusion and exemption of premises where specialised services are provided to a niche group. It also excludes centres regulated under other legislations for distinctly different purposes, or operated by or on behalf of the Government, and hence directly accountable to this House. Examples include enrichment centres, standalone foreign system kindergartens, kindergartens affiliated with foreign-system primary schools, or kindergartens by the Ministry of Education. Such entities are currently not under ECDA’s purview, and will similarly not come under this new Act.
As many of us can agree, people, especially teachers, are at the heart of every early childhood development centre. Parts 3 and 4 of the Bill have provisions to enable better and more consistent quality of staff who interact with children, especially early childhood professionals, given their important role during children's formative years.
In addition, all persons working in centres will also need to be approved by ECDA for their suitability before they can start work at centres. This will cover, for example, principals and teachers, cooks and cleaners, as well as enrichment vendor staff. All individuals will be assessed on their track record, especially pertaining to children’s safety.
One benefit of a common regulatory framework across the early childhood sector is a common administrative process to register staff. This facilitates our teachers' movement between childcare centres and kindergartens, which many teachers had called for earlier. I also believe that this regulatory framework will further enhance the professional standing and standards of our early childhood educators.
Nevertheless, my Ministry is very mindful of the manpower and other ground constraints faced by operators. They have given us feedback, and we do understand them. As a regulator, ECDA will strive to ensure that its administrative processes are efficient and that its regulatory requirements are responsive to operators' needs, while ensuring sevice quality and the safety of our children.
For example, ECDA is exploring allowing non-teaching staff, such as cooks and cleaners, to support trained teachers in supervising outdoor play time. The constant dialogue that we have with the sector must continue, so that the feedback can come back to us and this allows us to calibrate these proposals.
As with any enterprise, good governance and management are critical success factors for early childhood development centres. Under clause 19, ECDA will continue to prohibit unsuitable persons, such as those with poor regulatory track records, from managing the centre's business as board directors or chief executive officers, et cetera. The new Bill will further prohibit recalcitrant operators, whose licences had been revoked, from operating centres under another proxy. This allows ECDA to prevent such persons from continuing to misdirect centres. ECDA will also penalise licensees for knowingly allowing such unsuitable persons from managing their centre’s business. As the operating environment of the early childhood sector is dynamic and needs to be updated from time to time, clause 51 of the Bill will provide for subsidiary legislation to effect more specific operational requirements. This will provide more clarity on the responsibilities of operators and centres.
Under the subsidiary legislation, we intend to enhance some requirements and introduce new ones to raise quality standards. We will continue to consult the sector on this. We will take reference from sector best practices and ECDA’s prevailing guidelines. For example, as announced by the NurtureSG Taskforce last week, centres with full-day programmes will need to conduct at least one hour of physical activities daily, up from half-hour currently, and half-hour of which has to be conducted outdoors. Exposure to the outdoors will be beneficial for our children in preventing the early onset of myopia.
Even as we raise standards in the sector, we will streamline certain requirements which are no longer applicable, for greater efficiency – especially those that place unnecessary administrative burden on our teachers. The sector warmly welcomed these proposals when we consulted them earlier this month.
Just as how the Bill provides requirements for the set-up of centres, the Bill also provides requirements for the orderly closure of centres, under clauses 14 and 18. This is in view that, in the past, there had been cases where centres abruptly close. While this has been few, the impact on parents and children involved can be quite significant. Thus, to minimise such occurrences, ECDA will be empowered to require centres to put in place measures to ensure orderly closure. These include giving parents and teachers advance notice of the upcoming service disruption and ceasing the enrolment of new children to the centre.
Operators have worked hard to build the trust of parents by meeting the baseline standards. Today, errant operators form a small minority of the sector but they undermine the hard work of the rest of the sector.
ECDA takes regulatory breaches seriously and a more comprehensive and graduated penalty framework will enable ECDA to effectively and swiftly enforce requirements to safeguard the safety and well-being of our young children. That is our foremost priority. More importantly, it serves as a deterrence against errant practices and behaviours.
With this new penalty framework, administrative lapses will be decriminalised and replaced with administrative regulatory sanctions. This will allow us a wider suite of regulatory sanctions ranging from public censures, administrative financial penalties of up to $5,000, a security deposit, remedial measures and a shortening of licence tenure. The type of penalty imposed eventually will depend on the severity of the breach and whether it was a repeated occurrence. The penalty will be proportionate to the breach. At the same time, I would like to reassure operators that ECDA will continue to adopt a measured and developmental approach in enforcing requirements by advising centres to rectify problems.
One new regulatory sanction I would like to elaborate on is the requirement of a security deposit. I am aware that operators are concerned about this requirement. The current intention is for the security deposit to apply only to the small number of centres with poor track records, such as centres with two consecutive six-month licences, which is the lowest licence standard. This security deposit is intended to spur such centres to raise their standards.
We are also mindful that the security deposit amount should be calibrated appropriately, and not be overly onerous on the centres. We are looking at a $10,000 amount, which is twice the administrative financial penalty amount for contraventions. I encourage centres with a six-month licence to take their regulatory gaps seriously, and to rectify their breaches quickly, so as to avoid being required to put up a security deposit.
At the same time, the Bill provides for criminal penalty for contraventions which pose more serious risk to the safety and well-being of our children. For example, the operation of unlicensed centres. Under the Bill, such contraventions will incur a fine of up to $10,000 and/or an imprisonment term of up to 12 months. The maximum fine amount has been adjusted to align with recent legislations like the Private Education Act. Certain offences will be made compoundable at up to half of the maximum fine amount under clause 42.
Before ECDA determines any contraventions, its officers will investigate the cases thoroughly and establish the facts from a variety of sources. Very often, a child may be involved in a case, which makes investigations more complex. Hence, ECDA officers will need enhanced investigative powers to effectively carry out their duties under the Bill.
Beyond the current powers to inspect centres, ECDA officers, under clause 37, will be empowered to search centres, interview persons, take photographs and videos of the centre, and obtain the necessary documents from the centre. These are powers similar to those available to other regulators in Singapore. As we put these powers in place, we will establish internal processes to ensure that ECDA officers carry out their investigations fairly.
I have just outlined the broad regulatory framework. We are expecting to commence the Act over the next year after gazetting the detailed regulatory requirements in subsidiary legislation, and publishing the administrative procedures in the Codes of Practice.
As kindergartens are less familiar with a licensing regime, under clause 54 of the Bill, kindergartens will be given one year from the commencement of the Act to obtain their licences. Since 2015, ECDA has also been conducting sector briefings to explain and consult on the new requirements, as well as conducting customised on-site guidance for kindergartens.
In fact, I understand that actually many kindergartens have already been making adjustments to prepare for the new framework. From my interactions with the sector, I am confident that almost all our operators would be able to meet these requirements.
I believe that clear and appropriate regulatory requirements are crucial in raising standards in the early childhood sector. For example, during my visit to Creative Thinkers Kindergarten in August last year, the principal, Ms Sakinah Dollah shared that a clear, common understanding among the principals, teachers and support staff of ECDA’s regulatory requirements will help centres to organise themselves better and to improve.
Mdm Speaker, to summarise, the Early Childhood Development Centres Bill is an important milestone in raising the quality of early childhood care and education in Singapore, so that we can give every child a good start. It will provide parents with greater confidence that we are making Singapore a great place to raise families. We received strong support from parents, teachers and operators on the need for this enhanced regulatory framework.
The Bill proposes, first, a common licensing framework for childcare centres and kindergartens. Second, all persons working in centres will need to be approved by ECDA to ensure their suitability to work with young children. In addition, there will also be clearer and more consistent requirements to guide centres in their operations. Finally, the requirements will be enforced through a more comprehensive and graduated enforcement framework with enhanced investigative powers to strengthen ECDA's oversight of the sector. ECDA will also work with centres closely to facilitate a smooth transition.
To conclude, the proposals in the Bill will help to set a firm and consistent foundation, positioning the early childhood sector well for the future. It complements the many, many efforts by the Government to partner the sector to improve the quality, accessibility and affordability of early childhood development services in Singapore. With that, Mdm Speaker, I beg to move.
Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines): Mdm Speaker, the early childhood sector in Singapore has expanded significantly over the years. While we now have more choices of operators and services, quality and standards can differ greatly. I stand in support of the Bill to further regulate the sector to improve the quality of these centres and to protect the safety and well-being of our children.
One of the key provisions in this Bill is for all centres to be licensed. Licensing should improve quality. But we should be mindful of compliance costs. How will ECDA mitigate against centre operators from passing on compliance costs to parents? Right now, the fee variation is significant – from over $600 per month to $2,000 per month in high-end childcare centres. Both Anchor Operator and Partner Operator (POP) schemes are useful in moderating fees. However, fees of others outside of such schemes might continue to rise. Will further steps be taken to moderate the costs by having more centres involved in these schemes? Or should centres justify significant fee increases to ECDA?
(In Mandarin): Mdm Speaker, many young families have to cope with the high cost of living − anything from daily living expenses, maintenance of parents and expenses to take care of their young children. The cost impact can be quite high for the young parents. Both husband and wife must work to maintain the cost of living. Childcare centres, therefore, have become a necessity for young families. Currently, Singaporeans can enjoy a $300 basic subsidy. From April 2013, the Government provided an additional subsidy for families with income below $7,500. This is at the 40th percentile. From 2011 to 2015, the median fee of a full-time childcare centre has increased 25%, but the subsidy given to middle-income families has remained at $300 since 2008. I urge the Government to give a higher subsidy during this period of economic downturn to mitigate the financial burdens of young parents.
There are also women who cannot take up full-time jobs due to family needs. However, current policies only allow non-working mothers to receive a subsidy of up to $300. While the intention to encourage mothers to go back to work is good, many mothers have no choice but to stay at home, especially those who have to take care of their parents and young children. What is more, there isn’t much flexible work in Singapore. These mothers may face even heavier financial burdens. I hope the Government can increase the basic subsidy for non-working mothers, a gesture which can be seen as "sending coal amidst snow".
(In English): Mdm Speaker, let me resume in English. Another aspect of this Bill looks at ensuring holistic care and education of our children. This is critical and laudable. Recent studies show that obesity in school children has risen from 10% in 2000 to 12% in 2014. Our war on obesity and diabetes must start with our young children. The NurtureSG taskforce has given thoughtful and important recommendations. They include ensuring that children have adequate exercise, sleep and healthier food. I hope these recommendations can be adopted widely because healthy lifestyles need to start at a young age. I hope that ECDA will require operators to provide healthy and well-balanced meals for the children under their care.
Madam, I would also like to better understand how ECDA intends to support centres in improving their curriculum or standardising core components. Having a "better" curriculum certainly goes beyond preparing for primary school education. It is also about life values and developing a love for learning. Because of the centricity of early childhood education to a child’s future learning, there would be value in ensuring certain core components are taught in the curriculum. Would ECDA consider such limited standardisation?
Improving the curriculum also means that teachers will have to be properly trained and equipped. Since this Bill also provides for teachers to have greater professional standing, what kind of support will ECDA offer to smaller centres that are lacking in manpower and may face challenges in getting their teaching staff to go for courses and further training? Will centre operators also be required to review the salary of their teachers and staff, and consider increasing their salaries as they become more professional?
Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong (Non-Constituency Member): Mdm Speaker, I am a father of two young boys, the oldest in Kindergarten 1 and the youngest likely to enter Nursery 1 next year. I am thus speaking from the point of view as a parent and I support the Bill. I support the Bill for two reasons.
Second, and more importantly today, the proposed legislation opens up the possibilities of developing the pre-school sector. In this regard, I will speak of the three potentials of enhancing innovation, professionalism and affordability in the pre-school sector.
But before I do so, I want to clear a nagging issue with the Minister, which has been bothering me since I read the Early Childhood Development Agency’s response to the specific feedback back in November 2015. The explanation given by ECDA to the exemption of Ministry of Education (MOE) Kindergartens from the regulatory framework is that this is in line with the fact that the Council for Private Education regulates private education institutions under the Private Education Act, while all national schools, Polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education come under MOE.
Now, this argument is rather weak. On what grounds should the regulation of the pre-school sector be organised in a similar way as the education sector? The two sectors are very different in purpose and pedagogies. The pre-school sector entails the application of childcare skills as well as holistic education approaches that recognise the difference between early childhood development and late childhood education.
Furthermore, in the education sector, the national schools serve as the primary and centralised arbiter of standards and allocation of public resources, with private schools only playing the role of augmenting public-led education to raise our young people to become productive workers, enterprising leaders and good citizens. Since the November 2015 response by ECDA, the Council for Private Education has been turned into the Committee for Private Education and absorbed into SkillsFuture Singapore.
There is no equivalence in the pre-school sector. The pre-school sector is a lot more diverse and decentralised. Even as the Council, the CPE was no equivalent to the ECDA, which regulated almost the entire pre-school sector except the few MOE kindergartens. It is certainly no equivalent now as the Committee. ECDA, not MOE, sets the standards. MOE is only one of the players in the pre-school sector. Symmetry may be beautiful, but it is wrong in this application.
What we need to ask instead are the role and function of MOE kindergartens in the pre-school sector, and whether the role and function, therefore, justify the exemption. If MOE kindergartens cater to a specific constituency, say, low-income families, but seeks to be consistent in standards with the ECDC Act and SPARK, then there is no justification for the exemption.
There is also the strange suggestion in the ECDA public consultation response that since MOE is directly accountable to Parliament, there is no need for the inclusion of the MOE kindergartens under the regulatory framework. Surely, Parliament cannot be expected to perform the role of ECDA, since it is a legislative body and cannot play a regulatory function to closely hold MOE kindergartens to consistent standards.
Let me turn now to the three potentials. The first is the potential of enhancing innovation. It is good that ECDA will be empowered to regulate the curriculum of childcare centres and kindergartens under the licensing regime. It is also a positive thing that ECDA said in its public consultation response that broad guidelines would ensure the programmes are developmentally appropriate while giving centres the flexibility to customise lesson plans.
I believe this is a crucial stance to maintain and I would urge ECDA to keep this openness to the diversity of early childhood education models. I also hope ECDA would consult widely with stakeholders, professional bodies and educational experts before rejecting any particular curriculum, so as to protect the diversity as much as possible.
The pre-school sector is poised to be a field of innovation. There are some interesting innovations on this front spearheaded by the Lien Foundation. There is an inclusive pre-school set up by Lien Foundation and the Asian Women’s Welfare Association for typically developing children and children with special needs to learn and play together. There is also the collaboration between Lien Foundation and NTUC First Campus to develop model pre-schools for the heartlands, and for training teachers and conducting research on early childhood education.
The Lien Foundation examples are well-publicised examples. They are not the only examples of innovation. Many smaller pre-schools are quietly innovating. The regulatory framework must remain broad-based and not primed for consolidating and centralising the pre-school sector, and ECDA must remain open-minded and consultative to continue to encourage the innovation.
The second potential is the potential for enhancing the professionalism of early childhood educators. It is good that ECDA will be overseeing the registration of early childhood professionals and the accreditation of early childhood training programmes for now. I believe it is right that ECDA gently rejected the call for an independent professional body to register the programme staff, as there is no such body that can properly perform such a task at this point in time.
However, having said this, I believe there is scope to aim to increase the participation of professional bodies in the registration of professionals and accreditation of the programmes, so as to develop the overall professionalism of the pre-school sector.
It is a positive thing that ECDA develops the standards for registration and course accreditation in consultation with stakeholders, representatives of the professionals and the education experts. But taking input for implementation is not the same as opening up the process to participation by the professional bodies so that these bodies could grow and develop.
The development of these professional bodies should not be neglected by ECDA. These bodies play an important role in providing platforms for the sharing of expertise and innovation, and the exchange of knowledge and best practices. In the spirit of Budget 2017, ECDA would do well to aim to forge and deepen partnerships with these professional bodies, so that the pre-school sector could also prepare for the future economy so as to prepare our children for the future economy.
The third potential is the potential for enhancing the affordability of early childhood education. Research has shown that pre-school education is crucial for reducing inequality. Children who are ill-prepared and lacking the foundation for formal schooling tend to do badly in school, while putting a child in pre-school improves her chances of graduating from college. Affordable quality pre-school education is, therefore, the great leveller, improving the odds of low-income families to break out of the poverty trap.
One of the main fears related to this legislation is the increase of regulatory and compliance costs that would be passed on to parents through increased fees. In its public consultation response, ECDA reassured the public that regulatory costs would be low for operators who have been complying with existing regulations. This is fair enough, since much of the regulatory framework is already in place and this legislation is a formalisation and consolidation of the existing regulations.
Nevertheless, there will be some regulatory costs and knock-on effects on fees. This, therefore, presents the Government with the opportunity to review its subsidy schemes, especially with the view of ensuring low-income families can afford pre-school education for their children.
In this respect, I would like to call for two things. The first is for the per capita income eligibility criteria for the Additional Infant and Child Care Subsidies and the Kindergarten Fee Assistance Scheme to be based on four or more family members in the same household, including at least two dependents, rather than on the existing five or more family members with more than two dependents. The four family members with two dependents demographic is more aligned with the low-income family profile. This will allow more low-income families to benefit from more subsidies in a context where fees are under cost pressures to go up.
The second is to open up KiFAS subsidies to eligible parents of children enrolled in kindergartens operated by Partner Operators and Voluntary Welfare Organisations. The Partner Operators complement Anchor Operators in keeping fees affordable while ensuring the quality of the programmes. Likewise, kindergartens operated by VWOs are non-profit institutions and help keep fees affordable. I do not see any reason to keep Partner Operators and VWO operators out of KiFAS. The subsidies would not benefit the operators, only the low-income families who would have a greater selection of kindergartens to choose from.
Mdm Speaker, I hope this Bill will set the stage for enhancing the innovation, professionalism and affordability of the pre-school sector. Notwithstanding the unjustified oddity of exempting MOE kindergartens from a good regulatory framework, I support the Bill.
Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah): Mdm Speaker, I stand in support of this Bill for it is much needed and timely. In order for parents to have the added possibility of the mother returning to the workforce, the quality of the care of their children is, understandably, extremely important. Hence, the enhanced regulatory framework to ensure excellence in care and education is crucial.
Through an enhanced regulatory framework, this Bill seeks to ensure and advance the quality of care and education in the pre-school sector. This is important as more young parents in Singapore look to pre-school centres for care management. As pre-school centres are geographically spread out across Singapore, centre-based care becomes more convenient and attractive to parents. Furthermore, as more women and seniors participate in the workforce, the need for quality preschool services has increased. There is a real need to increase the support for young parents who may prefer centre-based care over care given by domestic workers or nannies.
This need to ensure quality is especially important as more parents require longer hours of care for even younger children. What I am referring to is the shift in enrolment numbers from kindergartens to childcare centres. Kindergartens are normally half-day, while childcare centres provide longer hours. Last year, it was noted that over the past three years, kindergarten enrolment dropped by about 6% and the number of kindergartens dropped from 500 to 480. On the other hand, childcare enrolment shot up by about 50%, from 76,000 to about 100,000. Furthermore, the demand for infant care for children under 18 months has increased. Since 2012, the number of infants enrolled in infant care has increased by 60%, now accounting for about 10% of the infants. This trend is projected to increase in the next few years, especially since increasing centre-based infant care featured in the Budget Statement last week. These changes necessitate an enhanced regulatory framework to ensure continued excellence in a growing and important service sector.
This Bill seeks to maintain and advance the quality of care and education by pre-school centres through various angles, with the child's well-being as a priority. For example, clause 6 of this Bill introduces a licensing framework for both kinds of pre-school centres. This furthers the accountability with regard to kindergartens, which were previously able to come under a one-off registration process. Another example is found in clause 10(3)(e), which may require licensees to undergo an audit.
Further, clause 12 provides that a security deposit may be required and may be calibrated according to the licensee's track record and its likelihood to attract regulatory action proceedings. This adds another accountability mechanism ‒ this time, a financial one.
The Bill also deals with the leadership of the early childhood development centre. Under clause 8(3), it places importance on the key appointment holder's character and the fitness to operate in an application for a licence, while clause 19 ensures that this is continued by a possible disqualification of a key appointment holder.
This Bill also provides for measures to help protect the children's wellbeing. For example, clause 17 empowers the Chief Licensing Officer to issue directions to act in a certain fashion or refrain from doing something with immediate effect if there are circumstances that may endanger the safety, wellbeing and welfare of children or other individuals at the early childhood development centre.
Another key aspect of this Bill which I support is to ensure the reliability and continuity of the care centre. It is imperative that parents are not stuck in stressful limbo when a centre closes. Therefore, the initiative under this new law to mandate that assistance be provided to parents for alternative care placements and education arrangements, when a centre closes, is key. It is for this reason that clause 18(4)(g) is to be supported.
Ms K Thanaletchimi (Nominated Member): Madam, the Bill seeks to regulate the operation of early childhood development centres. It contains the regulatory framework for operators of early childhood development centres. It provides the approval framework for those performing the duties and approval framework for third-party education providers.
Madam, I would like to seek the following clarifications in regard to the Bill. Section 3 states that the Act does not apply to certain centres. Why does this Act not apply to pre-schools run by the Government, such as the Ministry of Education Kindergartens? Should it not be that standards be applied to both the Government and privately-run pre-schools? Section 17 spells out the directions concerning the safety and well-being of children. Thus, the licensee who fails to comply will be imposed a fine of up to $10,000 or not exceeding 12 months' imprisonment. How does an agency make sure that every licensee complies with the directions and not wait until someone whistle-blows or complains?
Section 23 states the approval for performance of and deployment of individuals to perform prescribed duties. Pre-school teachers play an important role in detecting developmental issues among children. Will there be training for teachers in caring for children with special needs? Also, the Bill does not provide much reference or guide on the qualifications and experience required for such teachers. What other fees or charges are to be paid in respect of the services and other areas mentioned in section 51 under "Regulations"? Madam, notwithstanding these, I rise in support of the Bill.
Mr Leon Perera (Non-Constituency Member): Mdm Speaker, it is important that we regulate our early childhood development centres sensibly and responsibly to ensure good outcomes for our precious children who will carry the light of Singapore forward into the future. While I do not oppose the intent of this Bill, I shall raise questions about specific provisions and its implementation.
Firstly, the requirements spelt out in this Bill, for example, on registration of personnel under clause 25 in the context of the shortage of qualified childcare teachers as well as the greater administrative requirements may trigger many smaller independent centres to either merge with or be acquired by larger players, or else close down altogether. I am concerned about the status of smaller centres that may offer niche services, for example, to children with special needs.
Madam, the quality of education and childcare services should come first. The interest of children should come first, ahead of industry considerations. But at the same time, if we foster an industry landscape which is effectively an oligopoly of the AOPs, POPs and MOE kindergartens, that may pose some risks in terms of losing an element of diversity and of competition. Diversity is important, particularly in respect of centres catering to children with special needs, as I mentioned.
In fact, the year 2000, Dr Aline Wong, then Senior Minister of State for Education said and I quote, "Today, different pre-school providers with their different philosophies and approaches to child development offer a wide range of pre-school education models in Singapore. There is merit in this arrangement as it promotes healthy competition and provides a futile arena or innovative practices." I would like to ask the Ministry: does it expect a major consolidation in the industry as a result of this Bill? And if so, what will be done to ensure that this takes place in a way that protects diversity and choice while also safeguarding the interests of the children? For example, will other Government agencies like SPRING, reach out to the sector to provide advice and the systems in respect M&A or alliance possibilities?
Next, on licencing requirements. Will ECDA demonstrate flexibility on a case-by-case basis in line with the spirit of the regulations? The case in point may be where individual teachers may possess good qualifications from institutes abroad or at home and could be required to undertake an abridged or accelerated form of the current PQAC accredited advanced diploma that is required. Will ECDA practise flexibility and accept different pathways to accreditation of personnel, taking into question individual professional qualifications and their experience, or will it rigidly require all professionals to conform to the same PQAC accredited pathway?
Next, will the Ministry consider setting up an independent advisory body to inform policy formulation? This was the recommendation from a study authored by Dr Lynn Ang for the Lien Foundation in 2012 referring to the pre-school sector. And I quote from the study, "While the increasing Government involvement to regulate the sector is generally welcomed by most participants in the study, there is a concern that the overwhelming influence of Government may stifle the independent voices of pre-school teachers and other stakeholders. As such, a consultative approach to policy development and implementation is seen as key in galvanising support and moving the sector forward.
One example of a consultative approach could entail the setting up of an independent advisory body comprising representatives from different key stakeholders such as pre-school teachers, service providers, teacher training providers, health professionals, family educators, community workers, social workers, parents, voluntary welfare organisations (VWO) and other relevant agencies and experts who are involved in the care and education of young children."
Since the Opening of the Thirteenth Parliament in January 2016, the Government has stated that one of its key themes is partnership. Such consultative policy formation and implementation would demonstrate that such commitments are being honoured in practice and not only in rhetoric.
Next, as my colleague Assoc Prof Daniel Goh has argued, the exemption for MOE kindergartens is hard to accept. In its consultation paper of 20 November 2015, ECDA said that the MOE kindergartens are exempt because of strict oversight from MOE headquarters and because MOE is accountable to Parliament. This seems to conflict two functions – broad oversight on the one hand and operational inspection responsibility to ensure quality standards and service delivery on the other.
If indeed MOE's regulation of MOE kindergartens is more strict than the standards required under the ECDA Act, that is problematic from the standpoint of equity. If it is on par with the standards required under this Bill, will it not be more reasonable and efficient to transfer supervisory oversight over MOE kindergartens to ECDA, thus alleviating the oversight burden on the part of MOE headquarters and levelling the inspection and enforcement playing field.
And lastly, Madam, I would like to make a very exploratory suggestion. The quality of pre-school education has been shown to be a critical factor in determining educational success downstream. This was argued by an EIU report entitled "Starting Well" commissioned by the Lien Foundation in 2012. The same well-known report placed Singapore 30th in the global ranking of pre-school education quality, and 21st in terms of affordability. We do face a challenge of inequality in Singapore with Gini coefficients above the forty level. These have been coming down which is a positive development, but they are still very high by the standards of other developed countries.
Madam, breaking the poverty cycle should be a priority for Singapore. Not only is this right thing to do from the standpoint of social justice, not only will this help cement social solidarity and protect us from the divisive politics that is being seen in some other countries in the world today, it will also help unlock talent that could power our economic future, fire our imagination and inspire our spirits. One of the children in a large poor family living in an HDB rental flat today could be the next Ron Sim or Sim Wong Woo, the next Joseph Schooling, Yip Pin Xiu or Theresa Goh, the next Iskandar Jalil, the next Catherine Lim.
We know how important it is to ingrain good learning habits at a very young age. Children who miss the boat because their families lack the money or understanding to invest in their pre-school years, will struggle in Primary school and are likely to become demoralised, widening the gap with their peers. This could be why the director of a social service centre I spoke to shared that he is now seeing cases which are the children of the at-risk clients he served over 20 years ago.
It is well-accepted that programmes that reward poor families for keeping their children in school can play a helpful role in breaking the poverty cycle. The pioneering programme globally in this respect was the Bolsa Familia programme in Brazil which has inspired many similar programmes around the world.
The Bolsa Familia basically incentivises, and I am saying this at the risk of some over-simplification, but the Bolsa Familia basically incentivises poor families to keep their children in school. It is also well-known that many other developed countries offer or partly free pre-school education. In Sweden, all children receive at least 525 hours per year free of charge, beginning from when the child reaches the age of three.
In the longer term, and as a first step, will the Ministry explore the idea of making a more aggressive financial intervention to provide free, good quality kindergarten and childcare to all at-risk children in poor families, perhaps tied to certain conditions? There is already an initiative which the Minister launched previously – KidSTART – that can serve as platform for a more expansionary vision here.
Moreover, there is anecdotal evidence that children from many poor, low-income families, sometimes attend kindergartens or childcare centres only a few times a month which is the minimum to continue receiving the KiFAS or CFAC subsidies. In other words, absenteeism by children from poor families may be very high. Will the Ministry conduct a study of this absenteeism phenomenon and also consider policies to address this? Such policies could include making pre-school compulsory or providing some conditional benefit to parents from such families to ensure high attendance rates which is the idea behind the Bolsa Familia policy. Thank you.
Mr Yee Chia Hsing (Chua Chu Kang): Mdm Speaker, this Bill aims to raise the overall quality of early childhood care and education through a harmonised regulatory framework for kindergartens and childcare centres. I welcome this Bill as it seeks to ensure higher and consistent standards across the early childhood care education sector.
As the number of young families having both parents working become increasingly common, the need for childcare or infant care becomes more urgent. I am glad that this Bill will give young parents assurance that the safety and welfare of their children will be protected and that the childcare centres their children attend will be professional and of high quality. Apart from the various monetary incentives the Government has provided, I think this is a right step towards providing a more holistic approach to encourage and help young couples start their family.
Mdm Speaker, I would like to offer three suggestions for consideration. First, I would like to suggest that the Early Childhood Development Agency, or ECDA, works with the Ministry of Education to co-locate primary schools and childcare centres. The main benefit will be that young parents who send their elder child to school need not make a separate trip to send their younger child to a childcare centre. These parents will also have the option of engaging the school bus service to send both children.
My second suggestion is regarding training. Early childhood educators must attend an ECDA-recognised course or diploma programme conducted at ITEs, Polytechnics or ECDA-accredited training agencies such as SEED Institute or MMI Academy. To further alleviate the shortage of childcare staff, can the Ministry consider setting up a new institution to train more early childhood educators?
My third suggestion is also regarding staffing, which is a big issue as many childcare centres have trouble hiring staff. I observe that currently, childcare staff is relatively young. I would like to ask ECDA if it can consider doing a HR study to see how to reach out to those who have been retrenched or may be considering a mid-career change to join this industry. This will be a win-win situation as it will help alleviate manpower shortage faced by childcare centres as well as help our middle-age workers.
Er Dr Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon): Mdm Speaker, early childhood education takes place during the formative years, a time when a child is most receptive to learning. It is crucial to their development and sets the cornerstone of their adult years. It is good that the Government is constantly reviewing the needs of this sector. I support this Bill which I feel will help to improve the learning experience and development of the children in their pre-school years.
I am pleased to note that relevant authorities are now empowered with more investigation powers. It also should be a requirement across the board that a robust system be in place to screen all staff who work at the centres. Background records must be accessible and up to date. Certainly, anyone with a history of hurting children or have pedophilic tendencies must be weeded out. I hope the Ministry will share the measures taken to do this.
I would like to raise some potential issues with these rules. As with all changes, transition is often a matter of concern, especially for the smaller centres where they could be facing manpower and resource constraints to cope with the change. Can the Minister share with the House how this transition period can be best managed, such that the provision of childcare and education will not be disrupted in any centre? We are already facing childcare shortages, especially in new BTO areas where families are younger. This Bill should not make the shortages worse.
Under this Bill, for a centre to engage a third-party education provider, it is mandatory to apply to the Chief Licensing Officer (CLO). I propose that third-party education providers should also be licensed, and the centres can then take their pick from a list of the licensed providers at any given time. This would be more efficient when a centre needs to engage providers on an ad-hoc basis.
Under the same proposed rule, centres cannot give guest speakers, performers and the like any rewards without a licence. Can we make this rule more flexible, as not all talents can afford to be generous with their time?
In light of the current staff shortage in the industry, those who are undergoing training should be allowed to function as relief teachers or teaching assistants. This will give them valuable hands-on exposure, while helping to ease the manpower crunch. Of course, a longer-term solution to the manpower crunch is to review the salaries of childcare teachers, especially the disparity with MOE teachers.
I note with concern that some centres are exempted from this Bill. They include MOE pre-schools and kindergartens. Why? Why are MOE pre-schools and kindergartens exempted? Is this double standards? Is it that they are unable to meet the KPI? I think there should be more uniformity across schools catering to the same type of education level. This means subjecting MOE pre-schools and kindergartens to the same Act, or else subjecting the private pre-schools and kindergartens to the same requirements as the MOE's. In fact, I think it is good to subject MOE pre-schools and kindergartens under this same Act. This can ensure that whatever requested by ECDA is practical, is something that can be done. In fact, if there is anything that is not practical, something that needs to be fine-tuned, MOE can then whisper to ECDA.
Enrichment centres, therapy services, standalone playgroups, children gyms and student care services are also exempted. These are common places where children are sent to for learning and to be cared for. There must be adequate regulations to protect their well-being, health and safety. I request that while they do not need to comply with all the rules in this Bill, the Government should look into a simpler set of rules for them. For example, their staff should also be registered.
(In Mandarin): Both the parents and childcare centres are concerned about whether they will be affected by the new regulations. For example, if a smaller centre did not apply a permit in time, will the authorities help them to make sure that students are not affected?
In addition, some centres are exempted from this Bill including MOE kindergartens. Why is so? Why are MOE kindergartens not regulated under this Bill? Is this not double standard? I understand that these kindergartens already have a set of stringent rules in place but consumers may feel that the Government did not apply the same standard, or that some kindergartens are better than the others. I feel that there should be uniformity when it comes to educating children of the same age. In fact, centres under MOE should set an example to make sure that ECDA's requirements are practical and reasonable.
Other types of pre-school education centres such as children's gyms and enrichment centres are also exempted from the Bill. Can the Government stipulate a set of simpler rules to protect the children when they are at these places too?
Mr Ang Hin Kee (Ang Mo Kio): Mdm Speaker, I stand in support of the Bill. Currently, there are over 1,300 childcare centres in Singapore, with close to 500 of them offering infant care services at the same premises.
Together with about 500 kindergartens, they provide pre-school services so that our children can receive quality care and education in their foundation years. Amongst them, there are Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) as well as bigger ones with more than 10 branches each. Regardless of the scale, it is important that all operators deliver high levels of professional care and services. Under this Bill, operators with ill practices will either shape up or exit the market.
Madam, I would like to also declare my interest as the Executive Secretary of the Education Services Union. At the union, we, too, received complaints against the management of childcare centres by early childhood educators. These concern issues with regard to salaries and even abdication of responsibilities by the management. These incidents serve as reminders on the need for a rigorous system to ensure that lapses in management can be detected early or prevented.
I feel that we do need to avoid some unintended consequences and strengthen work in other areas. Firstly, with tighter compliance, some early childhood educators are concerned that operators may unfairly pass on all responsibilities to them in cases where non-compliance or gaps are detected. It is disconcerting to the educators if it is perceived that operators command the rights and can transfer all or a majority of the responsibilities to their staff. Hence, I urge the Ministry and the trade association to take a firm stance against operators who do so. We, in the union, stand ready to work with the Ministry and trade association to work out proper guidelines when operators conduct checks and inquiries.
At the same time, I hope the licensing framework also takes into account where there is evidence of unfair treatment meted out by the operators against their staff. Will the Ministry consider having measures to encourage whistle-blowers from among the centres to come forward and share their insights if they know of any ill practices?
Furthermore, sudden and unexpected closure of centres has also resulted in loss of income for the teachers and staff. I know of operators who have been cited by the authorities to pay staff who are owed wages but they have been uncooperative.
I hope the regulatory agency will be given more muscle to compel the operators to comply, rather than having the staff to resort to filing civil claims. In this context, the Ministry can coordinate with the Ministry of Manpower or the union to find out more details.
Secondly, on unintended consequences, smaller operators with limited resources may also find it tough as they gear up to comply with the new regulatory requirements. Many of them are genuine in wanting to provide and deliver professional quality care to their children.
We should not end up with only big players who are the only ones who can meet the requirements. I hope the Ministry and trade association can work together to assist smaller operators transform their operations, not just to meet the higher compliance requirements but also to ensure that their staff upgrade, their operations are streamlined, and they take advantage of available technology.
Finally, a less than desirable situation will see even bigger operators raise fees to deal with higher compliance costs. I can understand that operators need additional resources and time towards putting in place administrative tracking to fulfil the compliance requirements.
I hope that under the strategies identified by the Committee on the Future Economy, assistance will be available to help centre operators do more with the same resources. This should help to bring about significant improvements in the overall efficiency for both the operators as well as the sector. Madam, I support this Bill.
Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar): Mdm Speaker, I support the Bill. Regulating childcare centres and kindergartens under a single framework ensures consistency in the enforcement of standards and other operational requirements. I congratulate the Ministry for a well-thought through piece of legislation, and commend the effort to engage all stakeholders in the process of drafting this Bill. In this regard, I hope that the Ministry will consider seriously some suggestions on the planning of pre-school centres.
On top of setting high standards and enforcement measures for operations, health and safety and teaching methods, we ought to recognise that our pre-school centres cannot help families effectively if they are not there where they are needed and when they are needed.
It is, therefore, important for our pre-school centres to be located at accessible and convenient venues. There can be better planning in advance so that the building of new childcare centres and new Build-to-Order flats can take place almost simultaneously. This will ensure that there will be sufficient places for the enrolment of children in the estates.
More often than not, the building of flats and childcare centres/kindergartens do not take place concurrently, and parents would have to opt for other childcare centres around their neighbourhood, most of which may also be located further away. For a few housing estates with high childcare demand, the long waiting list for the choice childcare centres is a great source of frustration amongst parents.
More and more families these days have both parents who are working. We cannot assume that there is a grandparent or domestic helper available in every household to take care of the child in the event that there is no vacancy.
In addition, we must consider the role of grandparents who are involved in childcare. Often, these grandparents are the ones who send their grandchildren to school. By building the new childcare centres alongside the BTO HDB flats, it will ensure convenience for these senior citizens who would otherwise have to walk long distances or take public transport with the children to and from the centres.
I hope for a greater degree of coordination between MND, including agencies like HDB, and MSF, so that the issue of childcare vacancies does not burden parents, especially when we want to encourage young parents to consider having another child.
Finally, when building childcare centres, we should also plan ahead for the health and exercise requirements of our pre-school centres. Given the new recommendation by the NutureSG Committee for pre-school children to have at least one hour of physical activity per day, incorporating facilities within the childcare centre to enable this would be essential. This will promote a more active lifestyle amongst the pre-school children. By learning the importance of healthy eating and exercising, the children would be able to inculcate these good habits from young. Hopefully, these measures will decrease the number of obese children entering Primary school in the future.
Miss Cheryl Chan Wei Ling (Fengshan): Mdm Speaker, as we encourage families to have more children, the need for caregivers rises correspondingly. These days, most young families are dual-income, and children would be placed with the childcare centres very early in their lives.
In the past, children are placed at the childcare centres for shorter hours, like those equivalent to a play school or a kindergarten. Today, the role of these childhood development centres have expanded both in terms of the scope and extent of caregiving. Many centres are not simply learning and interactive grounds for our young infants, but also seen as preparatory school before they begin formal education. With more demand, different options of child-minding facilities have emerged over the years. However, often, there are inconsistencies among the operators. With parents placing more responsibilities and expectations on our centres, it is thus necessary to have a framework that regulates and guides the basic operations.
I see this effort as a first step to ensure the minimum standards amongst operators in order to facilitate an equivalent early childhood development centre. In doing so, there will be a few areas where potential concerns that may arise, and I seek the clarifications from the Minister, and would like to provide some suggestions.
One, cost of operation. Will the cost of operating a centre increase in tandem with the need to comply with these new regulations? While it is understandable to have a range of prices from different centres that cater to varying groups and it is the parents’ choice to decide what best meets the needs of their child, the affordability of these centres must always remain accessible to a broad group of children.
Two, availability of resources. Does the Ministry have an indicator of the impact these new rules will have on our existing centres and the new centres to be built? Under current conditions, there is already a shortage of certified persons who can perform duties in a childcare centre. For some centres, the intake of the children is much lesser than the enrolment capacity allowed as they have insufficient staff-to-student ratio. As I understand it, sometimes, the intake was managed in accordance with the availability of staff to ensure that each child can safely progress from nursery to kindergarten within the same centre. Depending on the allowable duties specified subsequently, this may further worsen the staffing situation.
Would the Ministry consider different sets of qualification criteria for non-teaching staff where relevant experience, rather than ECDA’s recognised educator certifications are being used? Can the ratio of non-teaching staff be increased to assist the teachers from the workload of having to care, teach and manage the administrative tasks? An appropriate balance can be made in accordance to the classes of licence that will be issued. I believe this may help to strike a better balance, create employment and relief some of our short-term staffing shortages in the industry.
Three, compliance. In this Bill, there is no mention on the frequency of audits and whether a standard checklist will be made available for the centre’s staff to have information documented and prepared on an on-going basis. This will help reduce the administrative load and preparation time of our centres when it comes to audit as they are usually operating close to 5.5 days each week.
Four, serious violation and cessation of operators. As much as we hope this will not happen to any of the centres, but pre-emptive measures must be taken to safeguard the children and staff. What is the notice period that will be given to the parents and staff should such an incident arise? Both the staff and parents will need assistance and adequate time to look for alternatives, if available. With the current vacancies limitation, finding a suitable alternate arrangement may prove to be a tall challenge.
Five, the third-party education service providers. Businesses of third-party education service providers have flourished in the pre-school sector over the past few years. More are set to join this industry. While there is nothing wrong in providing options and variety for children to learn, the approach in which it is offered has created inequality amongst the children.
Today, in many centres, these additional curricula are optional classes. Sometimes, the classes are held within the centre, and other times at external locations. The issue is that not all families can afford their children for additional classes. These children often have to sit out or take rest breaks while seeing their friends continue to be engaged and learning. It is unknown to us what psychological effect this may have on a young child. Furthermore, we should not be practising differing standards on the children at that tender age. Thus, I urge the Ministry to reconsider if there is a need to have additional classes conducted by third-party service providers, unless the learning opportunity is given to every child enrolled.
Mdm Speaker, children are our country’s most valuable resource and every child should have equal opportunity to experience and to learn. The framework that we seek to introduce here will be a step in the right direction. I hope this will bring about more consistency and give our parents some peace of mind. I support the Bill.
Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang (Nee Soon): Mdm Speaker, I stand in support of this Bill and I thank the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) for the extensive public consultation it has conducted. Notwithstanding the many positives in the Bill, I would like to seek several clarifications from the Minister, many of which have actually been raised already.
Firstly, the decision to include licence conditions is certainly a good move as it is testament to the effort to ensure that the quality of early childhood development centres is maintained. However, it appears that an audit of an Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC) may not be compulsory. Can the Minister clarify under what circumstances would an audit be required? I do understand that ECDA already conducts such audits, and the officers generally visit centres at least once a year. Why not then codify this into the Act?
Secondly, mandating the provision of a security deposit would be helpful in incentivising a licensee to operate within the boundaries of the relevant laws and regulations. Can the Minister clarify why we are not making the provision of a security deposit compulsory for all licensees?
In cases where a security deposit is required, can the Minister clarify under what circumstances will the security deposit be forfeited? In addition, can the Minister provide a range of the amount of security deposit required?
Thirdly, the requirement of a licensee to give the CLO prior notice before ceasing operations or surrendering a licence is a good mechanism in this Bill. This gives parents time to search for alternative ECDCs for their children. Can the Minister specify the minimum notice period for the licensee to issue such a notice?
Fourth, I understand that MOE kindergartens are not regulated under this Bill. Many Members in this House have also shared the same concern. While ECDA has provided explanations publicly about this, I urge the Minister to reconsider as it does seems like there are double standards here. This new Act should apply to all parties, regardless of whether they are operated privately or by the Government.
Lastly, Mdm Speaker, I understand that on curriculum, we will continue to provide broad guidelines to ensure that programmes are developmentally appropriate. I urge the Minister to ensure that we do not become too focused on academics. These are children who are under seven years old. I see that there are already assessment books for kindergarten children and I see that there are already tuition classes for them as well.
We must remember that for these children, play is important and perhaps should be the focus of our ECDCs. Dr David Whitebread from the University of Cambridge stated in his paper "The importance of play" that:
"What is increasingly recognised within the research and policy communities, however, is that one vital ingredient in supporting healthy intellectual, emotional and social development in young children is the provision of opportunities and the support for play."
His view is also supported by the European Parliament who on 12 May 2011 adopted a resolution on "Early Years Learning" in the European Union, which notes that the early years of childhood are critical for children's development and highlights that "in addition to education, all children have the right to rest, leisure and play".
Mdm Speaker, as we enact this piece of legislation, perhaps it is timely to remember that the best teachers are the parents and the best ECDC is really our homes. This, we cannot legislate. We cannot legislate that parents spend time with their children nor can we legislate that parents impart the rights values to their children.
This is entirely up to us parents and the lessons we teach our children is far more important than the lessons in school. Ultimately, children copy what their parents do and it is their parents' behaviours that shape theirs the most.
We cannot spend every minute with our children but perhaps an important time is bedtime. My daughter's favourite bedtime story is "The things I love about bed time". I must have read this story close to 100 times now. On Sunday night, she fell asleep after I read her this story and for the first time I read the notes for parents and care-givers at the end of the book. I should have read that much earlier but at least I am honest.
Playing a fun bedtime game, sharing a story, listening to them recount their favourite moments of the day, discussing dreams and future events they are looking forward to, praising them for a task well done, and telling them how much you love them – all of these things create an environment in which you child will feel happy, safe, secure, loved and valued.
Ultimately, these are simple rituals that contribute to an increase in the positive emotion of your child. For you as the parent, this is precious time in which you can be consciously and constructively be involved in building a positive state of mind. Your child will hopefully internalise this optimism and it will guide them on a path to a full and happy life."
I have to admit that I wish I read more bedtime stories to my daughter and in writing this speech, it made me reflect on this and I hope that all parents think about this as well – think about how important a role we play as parents and as teachers.
I look forward to reading this book another hundred more times to my daughter and well another 200 hundred times to my twins. In fact, I read them both this story this morning and they probably heard the story many times already when they were in my wife's womb.
Mdm Speaker, it seems that whenever there is a Bill by MSF, I have something to share about my parenthood journey and this time, I am happy to share that my twins were born last week. They were so eager to come into this world that they came two months early. These two little girls gave us quite a scare last week and to be honest, it has not been an easy week.
I have actually told the twins that last year, I asked Minister Heng whether he can backdate the start of the First Step Grant which was announced during Budget 2016. I told the twins that Minister said "no" and so, I urged them to please be born after the Committee of Supply debates, after any new parenthood policies are announced.
As always, children never listen and so I pray that for any new policies that Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo and Minister Tan Chuan-Jin will be announcing shortly, the start date will be the beginning of this year and not with immediate effect from the date of the announcement.
Mdm Speaker, this Bill is an important step forward for early childhood education but we must remember that it is only a part of the equation. We must remember this quote by George Santayana, and it reads: "A child educated only at school is an uneducated child."
Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio): Mdm Speaker, I rise in support of the Bill. Our childcare centres and kindergartens are as varied as the uniforms, or lack of, for the children in their care. There is a wide range of fees, programmes and facilities. Yet all of them must meet certain health, safety and teaching standards to ensure that the children are well cared for and ready for our Primary schools. Hence, I fully support regulating all pre-schools under a single regulatory framework for consistency.
The new framework will further safeguard the interests of our children and their parents through requirements, such as getting operators to clearly state their registration and admission processes and giving parents sufficient notice if they decide to increase their fees. I am happy to note that centres will continue to have the flexibility to customise their lesson plans within broad guidelines which ensure that the programmes are developmentally appropriate.
However, the Bill does not address how the Ministry will ensure that centres charge reasonable fees. Some centres claim that they offer unique, high quality programmes and charge fees which can match our Universities’ tuition fees. Although this is a free market, some degree of control from the Ministry would be helpful.
I was reassured to find out that new administrative requirements are clear and will not be too onerous upon the operators. Operators should have no difficulty adhering to the new regulations, minimising operational inefficiencies and costs, while safeguarding centre quality and standards. Notwithstanding, I would like to ask the Minister whether operators will be expected to employ designated operation, administrative or compliance staff to ensure that they are running their centres according to the new framework.
I am also concerned about the impact of temporary centre closures in the event of disease outbreaks. There are clear conditions under which centres will be permitted to start running again. However, during the closures, many families will be left in difficulty, due to more dual-income families and grandparents staying in the workforce longer. Finding someone or somewhere to take care of their children will be a big challenge. I hope the Ministry will address this and share what contingency plans it has for such situations.
Finally, I hope the Ministry will provide more guidance and support to operators in caring for children with special needs within their centres. Embracing such children and helping them to integrate into the pre-school community should be the way forward, instead of segregating them.
If the parents feel confident enough to enrol them, it means that their conditions are usually manageable with some conditional help and empathy. While they will need extra care and concern, if the Ministry can facilitate operators’ partnership with referred specialists, the interests of these children will be safeguarded.
Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio): Mdm Speaker, the traditional light-touch approach that the Singapore Government has adopted in the early childhood industry has, in my opinion, worked well. This has led to the flourishing of the early childhood education landscape where parents can send their children to different schools with different pedagogies that cater to differing needs, wants and aspirations.
Over time, however, that has led to an adverse impact where children, depending on their social economic status, could possibly have different starting points in life depending on the pre-school, kindergarten or childcare centre that they attend.
While I think that aggressive interventions and heavy regulations in the early childhood sector are not necessary at this point in time and the element of choice for parents is important, it would undeniably be useful for the MOE and MSF to set a basic curriculum and establish a regulated baseline pedagogy and certain level of quality to ensure our children, regardless of social economic background, have the opportunity to enjoy a certain basic standard of quality early childhood education.
I see that the amendments proposed in the Bill as a positive step where the Government is sticking to its light-touch approach, yet at the same time, adjusting the system so that it continue to serve broad interests of the community by offering diversity and choice to parents. I would now like to touch on three amendments to the Bill that I think resonate with me the most.
Aside from having a well-developed curriculum that emphasises learning through exploration and play, the quality of educators is perhaps the next most important factor that determines whether children will have an enriching early childhood education.
I am glad that the Bill will strengthen what the Minister calls a robust regulatory framework on the operations of an Early Childhood Development Centre, or ECDC. This, in my opinion, will complement the on-going initiatives to elevate the service standards of the industry. Currently, it is mandatory for all teachers and allied educators to undergo supervised training so that they have the proper qualifications to teach in a pre-school. It would thus be appropriate to impose a similar regulatory framework to curb the proliferation of schools that are not run by licensed operators.
In the same spirit of creating a stronger safeguard, I would urge the Government to consider defining and clarifying what constitutes an ECDC. Would home-based classes that focus on delivering structured curriculum be considered an ECDC under the Bill? Or would enrichment centres that conduct speech and drama classes or creative thinking for pre-schoolers be considered as ECDCs? How would specialised set-ups such as those providing occupational therapy or unique training for special needs children be classified? I think it is important for us to be granular in our approach and define in unambiguous terms what an ECDC is.
At the current moment, there are several avenues and channels for aspiring early childhood educators to get trained in the field. The amendment to clause 23, where approval must explicitly be sought for persons who perform duties at ECDCs, will further enhance the quality of early childhood education by ensuring that all teachers and allied educators have the relevant qualifications and skills to teach our pre-schoolers.
Presently, aspiring early childhood educators can get trained at early childhood diploma programmes in the Polytechnics and via training provided at the SEED Institute. In line with the SkillsFuture initiative and the Committee on the Future Economy’s recommendation to acquire and utilise deep skills, I hope that there will be more avenues for our aspiring early childhood educators to be trained.
In particular, I would like to suggest that incentives be given to mid-career switchers to attend mid-career conversion courses that induct them quickly into the sector. In my opinion, mid-career switchers can be a valuable source of manpower to a sector that is currently experiencing a labour crunch. In fact, many mid-career executives are parents themselves, and they can bring with them important parenting skills that can help improve the overall standards of care and classroom delivery.
Aside from creating training platforms for early childhood educators to attain the much needed foundational skills, I hope that the Government can put in place some form of continuous education programme so that our educators can continue to upgrade their skill set over time and be in sync with the latest teaching methods and pedagogies.
This is especially important for those who wish to deepen their career in the field and eventually take on a leadership role in their respective schools and it is also in line with our SkillsFuture initiative and the Committee on the Future Economy’s strategic thrust mentioned earlier.
Specialised continuous education will create multiple pathways of career progression by giving early childhood educators the platform to hone and deepen their skills in specific areas of interest, such as pedagogy development, developmental psychology, or even early childhood assessment and intervention. The deepening of skill sets will naturally allow these educators to have meaningful career progression and be paid a higher wage when they become specialists in their field.
The amendments to clause 29 that stipulates the regulatory requirements imposed on ECDCs when they deploy third-party education service providers is a step in the right directions towards raising safety and quality standards.
ECDCs, in their course of operations, will inevitably work with third-party education service providers to offer enrichment or physical education programmes. In instances such as these, it is important that third party education service providers be thoroughly assessed for their suitability and whether they have the right level of competency to offer such services.
It would disastrous if classes such as gymnastics are being conducted by untrained third-party providers who do not have the right level of competency or awareness about safety. Children are exposed to higher risk of getting hurt when they attend classes conducted by these unqualified trainers and it is important that we assess all such trainers thoroughly to minimise such risk.
As an addendum to the Bill, I hope that the Government can clarify whether clause 29 will be applied to vendors who provide non-educational service to the ECDCs, for example, Food & Beverage vendors who supply food to the centres.
Going further, would the Government consider mandating vendors that supply food to children in pre-schools and Primary schools to provide a well-balanced diet that is suitable for young children? It might thus be fruitful for the Health Promotion Board and MOE to jointly work on a regulatory and certification framework, together with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), to assess vendors that provide F&B to pre-schools, childcare centres and kindergartens, so that our children can enjoy nutritious and well-balanced meals in schools.
Mdm Speaker, in conclusion, the various amendments tabled in the Bill are meant to help tighten the current licensing framework. I believe these amendments will align the sector towards achieving a common standard, while the sector moves towards attaining a higher quality of service.
Clearly, it is without a doubt that many of us recognise the importance of early childhood development, not just because we are parents but a lot of studies have shown the impact that good development work can have on children. The Member of Parliament, Mr Louis Ng, reminded all of us that it is not just from the early childhood development centres, but really, at home as well. This is something important for us to remember.
A fair number of points raised here that do not pertain to the Bill, but they are important points with regard to the importance of the early childhood effort. I will address some of these subsequently in a few days' time during the Committee of Supply debates; others, I will address them on other occasions. But I will take the opportunity to make some general points to address some of the perspectives highlighted by some Members.
What is clear is this – the early childhood component for our children is vital, which is why we set up the Early Childhood Development Agency. It is an independent agency but jointly overseen between the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF). Both Ministries are very intimately involved. As I will illustrate later, MOE plays a very significant role in developing the curriculum and learning pedagogies and the rest of the industry take reference from it.
It is also important to note that this whole set-up is not just driven from the top. There is a lot of effort in engaging the various stakeholders. We cannot do it without that, because it is a very varied space and there are many different schools of thought. Some of the examples that Mr Leon Perera highlighted, for example from Lien Foundation and the many different trials that are on-going, these are strongly supported by ECDA. We do want to explore the different ways of education. You may not want a single approach, because there are many different schools of thought. They are effective in different ways, and they are effective for different children. We want to see how these different curricula can play out how we can implement it, and how we can scale it, not necessarily across the board. In some instances, we want to scale it across the board; in some instances, in very boutique areas where it addresses the needs of specific children.
We work with different stakeholders. For the special needs sector, one of the concerns highlighted was whether, as a result of these moves, it would impact some of the smaller players. From a purely intellectual and theoretical basis, I would agree that it would sound sensible to allow a thousand flowers to bloom and to have many different players. But having a very practical perspective on this, from dealing with the industry with many different players, I will say that the reality is not quite the same. There are very good small players. I visited a number of them - very interesting programmes but unfortunately, probably not able to scale up because a lot of its success is centred around the person who is driving the programme. It is very manpower intensive, which may be difficult to scale. We want to be able to encourage some of these centres to continue. But there are also child care centres which leave much room for improvement and really do need to level up.
So, I would agree that we want to encourage experimentation, but we also want to ensure that our children receive a good standard of education and care, which is the main objective of this effort. It is an important sector, which is why we are doing what we are doing. It is important to engage all the different players. It is also important for us to explore but, at the same time, have a certain structure and approach, and that is the way we have taken it.
I am very heartened and encouraged by the strong recognition by all of you on the importance of this Bill. Notwithstanding the various comments, Members clearly recognise that there is that need to ensure higher and more consistent quality standards across the early childhood sector. This can be done without necessarily squeezing out some of the smaller players.
I am sure that many of our early childhood professionals and operators are similarly encouraged. The process has taken over two years, because it is a very involved process. We did not want to drive it down from the top; many different stakeholders have been consulted. Where there were areas of concern, we have gone back and forth for a slightly longer period of time to take on board their feedback. What I am encouraged by is, like many Members, many of the stakeholders are strongly supportive of us taking this step.
I believe that this Bill is a step in the right direction, because we do need to give every child a good start and to make Singapore a good place to raise families. On a point raised by Assoc Prof Daniel Goh with regard to lower income children, I would completely agree with that early childhood is important for all children, but for children who come from particularly challenged backgrounds, it becomes even more critical. That is also why we set up ECDA. We realise that in those early years, for those of us who are able to provide our children with exposure and development, our children are able to grow and develop well before they reach Primary school. But we realise that there is a gap.
For some of the children who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds, they enter Primary 1 with a fairly significant gap from the rest of their peers. Some are able to bridge that and carry on and run, but others struggle and might not be able to bridge that gap. Hence, it is important to impose, to some degree, a level of standard in terms of affordability, accessibility and quality of pre-schools, to make sure that as many children are levelled up as much as possible.
The way we have structured subsidies which also seeks to ensure that lower-income families will not end up not sending their children to pre-school because they cannot afford it. Even down to a couple of dollars, children will be able to attend some of these establishments. Importantly, KidSTART is aimed at working with children from this segment. It is in a pilot stage with 1,000 families but we intend to see it through and expand it; this is where it is not just in terms of the early childhood development centre itself, but actually an all-encompassing approach to see how we hand-hold and work with the families along the journey.
Mr Christopher de Souza remarked that the Bill is much needed and timely. It is definitely so. A sound and robust regulatory framework guides centres and safeguards the sector against errant practices and behaviours. This sets a strong foundation for the sector to further innovate teaching and learning practices and to develop higher quality programmes. Many of the smaller centres appreciate the fact that some of these guidelines and some of these parameters are set, as these allow them to bring themselves up to a higher standard, because they do not have the scale or the resources necessarily to level themselves up on their own.
I thank the Members very much for all the various suggestions. Let me address some of those in the manpower sphere. For instance, Miss Cheryl Chan suggested considering alternatives to paper qualifications when determining staff suitability. Assoc Prof Daniel Goh suggested increasing the participation of professional bodies in the registering of professionals and accreditation of programmes. He also suggested that it is important for us to consider those who have qualifications from overseas. Mr Yee Chia Hsing suggested a new training institute to ensure sufficient teachers in the sector.
Indeed, we share our Members' concerns on the manpower constraints and this is one area we are paying very close attention to. In recent years, ECDA has rolled out a range of initiatives to attract, retain and develop good early childhood professionals. Many of these initiatives have been co-created with partners, such as SkillsFuture Singapore, pre-school operators, industry and professional associations and the union.
We note Assoc Prof Daniel Goh's suggestion for greater participation of professionals in the process of accrediting training courses and qualifications. This is already done in the development of teacher registration and course accreditation standards where our early childhood professional representatives and subject matter experts are invited to provide their expertise.
With regard to recognising those who have qualifications from overseas, we do encourage the respective childcare centres and kindergartens to put forward the names of these individuals so that we can evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.
Through the ramping up of subsidised training places, including the work-and-study arrangements for mid-career entrants and ECDA’s Training Awards for aspiring teachers, we are seeing a very encouraging response, such as higher enrolment numbers in the early childhood Polytechnic courses and more mid-career entrants joining the sector. To echo Mr Darryl David's emphasis, in fact, many are mid-career entrants. No matter what we do in this sector, frankly, without people, this is not going to work. Some of these steps have been taken. The response has been encouraging, but we are not letting up on that front. We need to keep up at making sure that we not only bring in numbers but ensure the quality of the people who are coming in as well. Many of them are very passionate, the mid-career ones especially, because they have reached a stage of their lives where they are looking at doing something different. Some of them are parents themselves who recognise the importance of early childhood development, and we really welcome them on board the sector.
For the teaching staff, including infant educarers, ECDA has, in recent years, moved to open alternate entry pathways for them to upgrade professionally. When in-service educators apply for training courses, ECDA recognises their prior learning and working experiences beyond their paper qualifications. That is something that Miss Cheryl Chan raised, and we will continue to move in this direction.
On curriculum requirements, some Members, such as Mr Desmond Choo, noted that our pre-school sector provides a diverse range of programmes for parents to choose from, so as to best cater to their preferences and the different needs of their young children.
Under the Bill, we will continue requiring centres to have programmes that are age-appropriate and holistic. Assoc Prof Daniel Goh would be glad to know that within the regulatory framework, centres will continue to have the flexibility to innovate and customise their specific curriculum to suit the needs of the children. In fact, this is to be encouraged. For good practices we will be more than happy to take them onboard and see how best to introduce them to more establishments.
In the examples cited, ECDA has certainly supported many of these ideas, and we will continue to do so. As a reference, centres can refer to MOE's Nurturing Early Learners Curriculum Framework when designing and implementing their kindergarten curriculum. Learning through play is a key component for the framework. For those who are concerned that we are over-schoolifying the whole process – no, we are very mindful that play is a very important part of early childhood development.
In fact, MOE is a very important player in this whole effort. They are driving the curriculum framework development; again, not only on their own, but also leveraging on the experiences of other subject matter experts on this. And certainly play is a very key component of their emphasis as well, which is why MOE has stepped in to look at MOE Kindergarten as well. And I will address the issue later with regard to their exemption.
With regard to nutritional and outdoor physical time requirements highlighted by some Members, I agree with Mr Desmond Choo that increasing access to healthier food options for pre-school children will help them develop good dietary habits for life. We should do that at home, and not just depend on the pre-school. We do what we can at pre-school, but home is where it all starts. It is very important to remember that I do not need a Bill for good parenting to take place, and, frankly, the best influences come at home. So, let us not forget that.
I also second Mr Louis Ng's point that we should provide more opportunities for children to play. As mentioned earlier, play is a very central focus in the curriculum, especially playing outdoors. Studies have shown clearly that having outdoor activities makes a lot of difference in terms of preventing myopia, and in developing a more resilient and hardier population; this is something that we welcome.
As announced by the NurtureSG Taskforce last week, ECDA will specify more detailed nutritional requirements to ensure that children receive nutritious, balanced and varied meals. We urge families to also look out for these guidelines to follow them at home. This includes not allowing centres to serve sugary drinks and deep-fried food, and catering for the regular provision of fruits and calcium-rich food. The physical activity time for full-day programmes will also be increased to an hour daily, up from half an hour today, and half an hour at least to be conducted outdoors and more, if you can.
As I have earlier explained, this Bill will also provide for subsidiary legislation to be gazetted. Members have highlighted: "how do we do this, that or the other?" A lot of these will come in the form of subsidiary legislation that will be gazetted. Certainly, the suggestions that have been put forward today will be taken on board as we finalise some of these detailed requirements.
Of course, there are concerns that many Members have raised, and I am fully aware that there will be challenges. It is not straightforward. When you put in place new measures, it is not an effortless process. But it is an important one and stakeholders recognise it; centres recognise that it is necessary, and they have also flagged out their concerns to us. This was expressed by many Members, including Ms Thanaletchimi, Miss Cheryl Chan, Ms Joan Pereira, Mr Darryl David, Mr Desmond Choo, Mr Yee Chia Hsing, Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Mr Ang Hin Kee, Mr Louis Ng and Mr Leon Perera.
One, which Mr Leon Perera specifically highlighted, was whether the higher cost will impact on the continued operations, and whether this is compelling a consolidation of centres, and forcing some of the smaller players to close, especially those catering to children with special needs.
With regard to the closure aspect, we expect most kindergartens would smoothly transit to the new Act. We have reached out to many different players, including the smaller ones. They recognise the importance and some of the challenges. Since 2015, many kindergartens, with the support of ECDA, have already started making preparations to meet the new licensing requirements. We have been in constant dialogue. Our whole effort is not about penalising and weeding out the smaller players. It is actually about helping those in the industry who are passionate about educating our children. How do we help them to level up? It is very much, as I have mentioned earlier, a developmental approach that we are taking.
In addition, kindergartens will be given up to a year after the gazetting of regulations under the new Act, which is expected to be about late 2017 or early 2018, for them to obtain their licences. That said, there will be closures because, every year, we do have a number of kindergartens and child care centres that will close or have a change in licensees for various business reasons. Some kindergartens also convert to child care centres to better serve the needs of parents.
Just a very quick note ‒ we work very closely also with the special needs sector. So, we are very mindful. We are working very closely with many of the special needs centres, and many of them do not have a huge concern in transiting to this new regime. In fact, many of the very progressive and interesting child care centres and kindergartens are trying out different types of approaches. In fact, many of them are fairly well-run, which is why, in many ways, they are doing what they are doing. These establishments do not have a problem transiting to the new regime under this Bill.
These are all very important concerns. ECDA is also undertaking many other initiatives to support the sector in this whole transition process. To continue, as we have mentioned, affordability remains a key cornerstone of our whole approach. So, ensuring quality and affordable early childhood development services for parents remains paramount.
Some Members have raised the issue of potential fee increases arising from the higher requirements, and their impact on families. Indeed, common wisdom would highlight that there is a trade-off between being cheap, good and fast. In fact, some Members have also asked, "Why are we doing inspections once a year? Let's do it twice a year?" So, there is a balance needed. We recognise a need to ensure standards and to level up the sector. At the same time, how do you balance that against onerous requirements? As can be seen from Members' inputs, there will be tensions, and trade-offs will invariably be done.
Firstly, let us look at how we can make the regulations that are important, flexible and streamlined at the same time. How do we do it? As we have highlighted in the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), it is about the doing. How do we actively do this? We have been practising that in terms of ECDA's engagement with the sector, and we have been able to put this into practice as far as we can and, at the same time, not compromising on quality.
ECDA has field-tested the requirements on a variety of centres, both large and small, to see how it can be operationalised. I would like to assure this House that the requirements in the Bill and the regulatory framework are calibrated with that in mind, to meet some of these higher order requirements but, at the same time, try not to increase costs unnecessarily by making requirements flexible, so that it is not onerous. We are quite assured that it should pretty much unfold in that direction. For those who do have challenges, we will work closely with them.
For example, we have a new longer three-year licence tenure which is intended to reduce the administrative costs of centres with consistently good regulatory track records. Mr Louis Ng highlighted that centres will need to undergo regular assessments before their licence renewals to demonstrate that they have maintained their standards. We encourage centres to meet the standards, and if they do, they can have a three-year licence. In addition, ECDA will continue to conduct unannounced audits. Mr Gan Thiam Poh suggested we should do more audits. For those who have challenges, we will pay closer attention, and we will visit them more often to help them level up their standards. But we do need to strike a balance and I think Members appreciate that.
As I have mentioned earlier, many of the new requirements have already been implemented as part of the sector's best practices. Hence, it is not as if with the introduction of this Bill, a whole new slew of initiatives is coming in. Actually, many of these have been unfolding in various forms in the past couple of years.
For example, ECDA's advisory recommends centres to have air purifiers during haze periods. ECDA is looking into making this requirement in subsidiary legislation. In fact, as a result of the effort in the past one to two years, many centres are already well-prepared for this, especially as ECDA has earlier provided funding support to centres to procure air purifiers during severe haze episodes.
We also do not plan to increase regulatory requirements around staffing numbers and space allocation, which are the main cost factors for centres. We believe that the prevailing requirements are adequate in our current context.
Some flexibility has also been catered for these requirements, as new requirements are added. For example, Miss Cheryl Chan suggested allowing non-teaching staff to support teachers more. I mentioned earlier that there is no reason why the operational staff cannot help trained teachers supervise outdoor play time. Centres can also use neighbourhood playgrounds to fulfil their outdoor space requirements. In fact, ECDA has even gone down to help centres look at how to manage their costs. For example, for the requirement on first-aid kits, ECDA has looked into the items and the quantity of each item. While the first-aid kit items are not going to drive costs up in a significant way, ECDA has gone into details to work with various centres, especially the smaller ones who are reaching out because they do not have the resources and the set-up to look at some of the good practices in detail. ECDA's advantage is that, because of their oversight over the rest of the sector, ECDA can bring into play many good practices which can be imparted to other players.
In addition to these, given that affordability is a concern to many parents, ECDA has also ramped up the supply of more quality and affordable places. This is something I have been talking about regularly, and this includes more places offered by Anchor and Partner Operators. We have also made subsidy enhancements in recent years, and we note Assoc Prof Daniel Goh’s suggestion to expand the support given, especially for lower-income families. That is something that we completely agree is important. A lot of it will come under the KidSTART effort, which is something that I have mentioned before. We intend to make sure that it succeeds and takes off on a more extensive basis.
Mr Gan Thiam Poh and Mr Desmond Choo asked for the Government to have some degree of control over fees to ensure that fees are affordable to parents. Today, there are quality targets and fee caps on the Anchor Operator and Partner Operator centres, which serve nearly half of the sector. For the remaining operators, we see the need for operators to determine their own fees, as their programmes may have different cost structures, and they may need to adjust their fees from time to time to ensure business sustainability.
While the Bill will not determine the fees of different pre-schools – this will be addressed separately – we will continue to require centres to provide sufficient early notification of any plans to increase fees and explain the fee increase to parents. This will help to ensure that fee increases are done in a transparent and fair manner. With regard to the affordability of fees, that will be dealt with separately and I will talk about that in the Committee of Supply debates.
Following feedback from parents, ECDA is also looking into requiring centres to publish incidental charges – these are the finer regulatory details – such as field trips, supplementary enrichment activities and to make enrichment activities optional, which means centres must continue to provide classes for children who do not opt for these programmes. This approach creates greater flexibility and fee transparency for parents, allowing parents to make informed choices and manage their costs better.
Administrative workload is something that many of us are concerned with. It is a valid concern and that is something that we are very mindful of as we embark on this journey with this Bill. We certainly want teachers to spend more quality time on our children than on administration. When you speak to teachers, what they want to do is to teach, not to spend time doing administration. But we also realise that to run a system in a systematic way, where you not just teach well but are also able to replicate that on a sustainable basis, you need structures and processes. Hence, it is important for us to not run away from that, but to make sure that it is not onerous.
ECDA has taken a focused effort to streamline administration and make it flexible as I mentioned earlier. For example, over the past year, we have been working with the sector to streamline the new regulatory standards checklist for operators' own preparatory self-assessments, so that they know what to look out for.
To Mr Gan Thiam Poh's query, we do not require operators to employ designated administrative or compliance staff. Most operators should be able to manage the new framework with their existing resources. We have spoken to many of them, in terms of how they envisage themselves adapting to address the needs of this Bill. Besides streamlining the regulatory standards checklist, ECDA has also released a series of very useful templates that centres can use to guide and track their day-to-day operations. ECDA will also be enhancing its IT systems to allow centres to interface with ECDA more seamlessly on regulatory matters. Technology can go some ways to make this more efficient and easier for centres.
We agree with Mr Ang Hin Kee's suggestion on the value of tapping on technology to keep costs down and free up teachers’ time for our children. Beyond streamlining requirements, ECDA has collaborated with the Association for Early Childhood and Training Services and the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore to identify smart solutions to help teachers with their daily administrative duties, such as temperature and attendance taking. As we embark on the journey towards Smart Nation, it should encompass all manners of activities that we are undertaking. These solutions were showcased at the Early Childhood Conference in September last year, and many operators have signed up since.
With regard to the exclusion of MOE kindergartens, Ms Thanaletchimi, Assoc Prof Daniel Goh, Er Lee Bee Wah and Mr Louis Ng raised the question about why MOE is excluded. I can understand the concerns raised. Let me make a couple of points. ECDA is an agency that is overseen by MOE and MSF. Both Ministries take a very active interest and role in shaping this space. This is the reason why ECDA was set up. We are very clear that the formative years are vital. Education is a long journey. We have in place our Primary, Secondary, Tertiary education, and so on. That continues to be improved. What we have prior to ECDA was a space which was left to the market. We thought it was important for us to step in. This is why it is not just an MOE effort, but both MOE and MSF are stepping into that space.
MOE continues to drive the curriculum in very significant ways; MOE is not just focused on Primary school education. There is a need to look at the pedagogy that is involved leading up to that stage. As a result of being involved in MOE kindergartens, MOE is also looking at how that whole continuum extends into the early Primary school years, including how to harmonise this whole effort and how that streamlines into longer-term development effort for education.
MOE is not a fringe player coming in, or one of those small establishments that has no background. They have been intimately involved in the process from day one. MOE kindergartens will fulfil ECDA's requirements along with the rest of the industry.
The ECDC Act is intended to regulate the standards of private kindergartens and childcare providers. The MOE kindergartens are run directly by the Government, and they have an Act that governs it, similar to the way MOE runs Primary schools, Secondary schools and Junior Colleges. This is not to say that MOE runs their kindergartens the same way that Primary schools are run. They should be run differently – the approach is different.
The MOE Kindergartens will continue to be regulated under the Education Act along with other national schools. This is an approach similar to how we approach the other parts of the education space. MOE maintains strict oversight of the MOE Kindergartens and will be directly accountable, as they are accountable to this House, with regard to broader education. On the one hand, Members feel that by bringing them on board under the Early Childhood Development Centres Bill would be sensible – and I can understand that – on the other hand, there is another Act that is already governing them. MOE is also intimately involved, and they will meet the requirements that are demanded of the rest of the other centres as well.
With regard to Miss Cheryl Chan and Mr Louis Ng’s questions on closure arrangements, ECDA is studying the advance notification period for centres who intend to cease their operations, which will happen from time to time for various reasons. We agree that sufficient time is needed for parents to look for alternatives. In determining the notification period, ECDA must strike a balance with the feasibility of the time period for centres - because there are real practical concerns from their perspective as well, and centres would not wish to prematurely alarm parents - and at the same time balance with the need for early warning. We will see how we can work that out.
To Ms Thanaletchimi's question, we will maintain prevailing professional qualification requirements and this information is available on ECDA's website for all to refer to. As I mentioned earlier, for those who have other qualifications that do not quite fit, if the centre feels that they want to put the person forward, the centre can do so and we can look at it on a case-by-case basis.
To clarify on Mr Darryl David's point on third-party enrichment vendor staff suitability, we will start by making simple assessments of these individuals' track record. We do not intend to specify any professional qualifications required of these individuals, since these enrichment classes are optional and encompass a very wide range of niche activities from sports, drama to cooking to whatever it may be. It will not be addressed within this Bill, but it is something that we will look at and work with the sector to see to what degree we want to define the requirements for some of these individuals concerned.
To Ms Thanaletchimi's question on directions for emergencies, ECDA intends to issue directions under clause 17 only for emergency cases, such as hazardous haze episodes, where children’s safety are at stake and centres need to act swiftly to safeguard their well-being. As such, it is a criminal offence for any non-compliance, liable up to a fine of $10,000 and imprisonment of 12 months as determined by the Courts.
I note Mr Gan Thiam Poh's concern on the impact of temporary closures arising from disease outbreaks on parents. I would like to assure Members that it will only be invoked as a last resort, or only during emergency circumstances. To support working parents, the Government has also enhanced child and infant care leave provisions over the years.
With regard to the security deposit, this is something that Mr Louis Ng raised, I have also touched on the application of the security deposit as well as the proposed amount. We are applying the security deposit on a small number of centres with poor regulatory track records as a form of assurance from them on their commitment to improve, while recognising that the majority of our sector by and large is performing well. Should there be a need in the future, this approach can be reviewed and we are open to it. The security bond may be forfeited as a form of regulatory sanction against breaches as provided for under clause 16.
I note some of the other issues in the early childhood sector that were raised by Members. As I mentioned, some of these are beyond the scope of the Bill. Regarding more support for centres and early childhood teachers caring for children with special needs, as raised by some Members, ECDA and my Ministry will continue to work with training institutes and educational providers to equip pre-school teachers with the necessary skills to support children with developmental needs, such as rolling out professional development courses for in-service pre-school teachers who want to enhance their skills in this area.
We are quite assured that for centres that are operating in this space, transiting to the new arrangement should not be a problem. On the concerns whether putting in place some of these requirements will force some of these special needs centres to go out of business – that is very unlikely to happen.
On the co-location of centres with Primary schools, as raised by Mr Yee Chia Hsing, many of the MOE kindergartens are already located within Primary schools, bringing convenience to parents who have children in both MOE kindergartens and the Primary schools that they are located in. That is the approach that MOE is looking at with regard to the MOE kindergartens.
On employment terms and disputes between centres and their teachers, as raised by Mr Ang Hin Kee, we thank Mr Ang and the Education Services Union for the good work in supporting our early childhood teachers who found themselves caught in unfortunate circumstances. Early childhood professionals could also approach the Ministry of Manpower to file a complaint against violations of the Employment Act.
These concerns are important as they support the overall functioning of the sector as well as some of the points that I mentioned earlier. But the Bill focuses on ensuring children’s safety, well-being and welfare in centres. I will also be talking about some of these concerns during the Committee of Supply debate, and we will have other debates on some of those topics in this House in the future.
In conclusion, Mdm Speaker, the early childhood sector has made very important and good progress in recent years. This Bill is a very important milestone in our journey in raising the quality of early childhood care and education in Singapore, for our children, our families and, from a national perspective, for our future.
This Bill will complement the many initiatives that the Government has introduced to enhance the quality, accessibility and affordability of early childhood development services. This will ensure that every child, regardless of his or her background, can have a good start in life. It is important for us to ensure that every child has that good start. It will also further strengthen our commitment to make Singapore a good place to raise families.
Again, just to reiterate, we do not need a Bill to make sure that we raise strong families. This is something that all of us can do. It takes a whole nation to play a part. I think if we are able to put our hearts and soul into this, both at home and in the sector, we have every reason to be optimistic for our future. Because once you lay a strong foundation, there is a high probability and a good chance that our young children can grow up to be responsible citizens and contribute back significantly to our nation.
Mr Leon Perera: Thank you, Madam. Just two brief clarification questions to the Minister. The first is just to be a bit more specific on the requirements for licensing of personnel within the early childhood sector. For those individuals who have strong qualifications either from abroad or locally, would the Ministry actually consider an abridged or accelerated version of the PQAC-accredited advance diploma to allow them to serve?
The second clarification is really in regard to the point raised I raised about absenteeism. If such a system is not already in place, will the Ministry consider requiring early childhood centres to flag out to the Ministry, children who are persistently absent as potential candidates for KidSTART when that programme is expanded in the future?
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Mdm Speaker, I would like to thank the Member for his two supplementary questions. With regard to the first, indeed, we will look at the individuals' qualifications that may not fit our criteria today, especially qualifications from overseas. We will look at whether in their case, is a more truncated programme or a more accelerated programme possible. There is a balance that needs to be struck. But it is something that we are open to look at.
With regard to the second question, it is a very important one. It is important for us to realise that part of the challenge is that while we may make some of these schemes and subsidies available, the challenge is with the children’s attendance. Because you will find that for some families, and for a range of reasons - there is not one reason particularly - intermittent attendance is actually worrying. The opportunities for the development and exposure is there for the children, but for whatever reasons, the children do not attend. We do know some of the factors that are involved. In fact, this is something that I am quite particular about personally. As part of our effort with KidSTART, working with the families, it is not just about the children, it is about the family too. So, addressing absenteeism, ensuring the children have regular attendance in pre-schools will be a very important component of this effort. Once we are able to do that, it will hold a very long way. It is not just about working on the children part. We need to work with the family. So, I completely agree with that.
Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong (Non-Constituency Member): Thank you, Madam. Just a quick clarification for the Minister. Will the new regulations lead to increased compliance cost which may in turn lead to increased fees payable by parents? I am asking this because, currently, I think the existing fees are already a burden to many parents and I would like to know how the Ministry will manage this.
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Mdm Speaker, I have attempted to address this at length during my speech but it is worth repeating. From a perspective, one could naturally imagine how this could lead to higher compliance cost, and so on.
We do not anticipate there to be significant cost increases as a result of this Act. Why do we say this? In the process of coming up with this Act, we have been working very closely with the industry on how to unfold this, how these various measures would kick-in in very practical terms. Child care centres today, for example, already operate under a licensing regime. We are not starting from ground-zero. We have already embarked on that journey, and many of these players are already quite far in that journey. We are now, in some sense, formalising it. ECDA is also streamlining its regulatory requirements. We are very mindful as we implement this new Act. Even as we implement this, the requirements are not cast in stone now. Along the way, there may be push-back from the industry as certain unknown processes may turn out to be more cumbersome than they need to be and they add to costs, for this, we will look at it and see how to best calibrate it.
For kindergartens, for example, ECDA will provide more time for them to transit, and as I mentioned, they will be given an additional one year from the time that the Act kicks in formally. We do not expect the compliance cost to be onerous, and therefore, we are not expecting the Act to translate to higher fees.
It is important and I would say this, because I also do not want centres to then say, "Oh, there is a new Bill; so no choice we have to increase fees." Just a message to everyone, the new Bill should not lead to fee increases.
Generally, the main cost drivers for pre-schools are rental and teachers' salaries. And we have no plans to change our space and teacher per child requirement as they are currently satisfactory. It is very important to take note of that. This, hopefully, is also for centres to take note that the main cost drivers are not changed under these requirements.
ECDA is also studying other ways to lower cost of operations, for example, providing more flexibility in manpower deployment, something that we will be looking at to support the sector, by allowing operational staff to assist trained teachers, and so on. This space continues to evolve and we intend to strengthen it in many different ways not addressed under the Bill. These approaches that we are taking would also help centres carry out their responsibilities effectively without unnecessarily incurring costs in a very significant way.