Early Childhood Development Centres Bill – Speech by Daniel Goh

(Delivered in Parliament on 28 February 2017)


Regulate for Innovation, Professionalism, Affordability

Madam Speaker, I am a father of two young boys, the oldest in Kindergarten One and the youngest likely to enter Nursery One 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.

First, the proposed legislation would formalize many of the existing good regulatory practices that are already in place and tweaks some to maintain a good balance.

Second, and more importantly today, the proposed legislation opens up the possibilities of developing the preschool sector. In this regard, I will speak of the three potentials of enhancing innovation, professionalism and affordability in the preschool sector.


There is No Good Reason for Exempting MOE Kindergartens

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 specific feedback back in November 2015. The explanation given by ECDA to the exemption of Ministry of Education 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 preschool sector be organized in the similar way as the education sector? The two sectors are very different in purpose and pedagogies. The preschool sector entails the application of childcare skills as well as holistic education approaches that recognize 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 play 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 preschool sector. The preschool sector is a lot more diverse and decentralized. Even as the Council, the CPE was no equivalent to the ECDA, which regulated almost the entire preschool 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 preschool sector. Symmetry may be beautiful, but it is wrong in this application.

What we need to ask, instead, is the role and function of MOE Kindergartens in the preschool sector, and whether the role and function therefore justify the exemption. If MOE Kindergartens caters 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.


Regulating for Innovation

Let me turn now to the three potentials.

The first is the potential of enhancing innovation. It is good that the ECDA will be empowered to regulate the curriculum of childcare centers 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 to protect the diversity as much as possible.

The preschool sector is poised to be a field of innovation. There are some interesting innovations on this front spearheaded by the Lien Foundation. There is the inclusive preschool 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 preschools for the heartlands and for training teachers and conducting research on early childhood education.

The Lien Foundation examples are well-publicized examples. They are not the only examples of innovation. Many smaller preschools are quietly innovating. The regulatory framework must remain broad-based and not primed for consolidating and centralizing the preschool sector, and ECDA must remain open-minded and consultative to continue to encourage the innovation.


Regulating for Professionalism

The second potential is the potential for enhancing the professionalism of early childhood educators. It is good that the ECDA will be overseeing the registering of early childhood professionals and the accreditation of early childhood training programmes, for now. I believe it is right that the 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 registering of professionals and accreditation of programmes, so as to develop the overall professionalism of the preschool 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 educational 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 preschool sector could also prepare for the future economy so as to prepare our children for the future economy.


Regulating for Affordability

The third potential is the potential for enhancing the affordability of early childhood education. Research has shown that preschool 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 preschool improves her chances of graduating from college. Affordable quality preschool education is therefore the great leveler, improving the odds of low-income families to break out of the poverty trap.

Now, 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 formalization 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 4 or more family members in the same household including at least 2 dependents, rather than on the existing 5 or more family members with more than 2 dependents. The 4 family members with 2 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 don’t 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.

Madam Speaker, I hope this Bill would set the stage for enhancing the innovation, professionalism and affordability of the preschool sector. Notwithstanding the unjustified oddity of exempting MOE Kindergartens from a good regulatory framework, I support the Bill.