Speech by Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development, Early Childhood Conference, 13 September 2019, 11.05am, Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre
Centre leaders and teachers,
Ladies and gentlemen,
1. Good morning! I’m glad to join you at this year’s Early Childhood Conference. This is an annual gathering where we celebrate our progress as a community and spur each other on our journey to create a good start for every child.
2. Today, I would like to speak about three issues: First, the recent moves that we have made, to keep pre-school affordable and accessible, second, enhancing the quality of pre-school with outdoor learning – the theme of this year’s conference- and third, expanding KidSTART.
3. The early years are some of the most important in a person’s life. Those who have good quality early childhood experiences acquire physical, cognitive and social skills that give them a solid foundation for life. Many educators have told me that the emotional and social skills that children learn in their first few years – making friends, handling conflict, learning how to communicate, and explore their surroundings – distinguish them when they grow older. On the other hand, those who do not pick up these skills can be set back, and are less able to seize the same opportunities.
Key Moves to Improve Affordability, Accessibility, EC Profession
4. This leads me to my first point, which is that we must ensure that good quality preschools are accessible and affordable for our children. Let me share some key moves we have made, to paint a broad picture for you. Some of these were announced as recently as a few weeks ago.
5. The government is investing significantly in our children. In 2018, we have spent $1 billion on preschool. This annual spending will more than double in the next few years.
6. Over the years, we have also significantly improved accessibility. Since 2012, the number of full-day preschool places has doubled from 90,000 to 180,000, allowing more parents to find a place near home, more easily. By around 2025, 8 in 10 children will be able to find places in preschools that are supported by the Government. To help achieve this, we will open our call for childcare centres to join as new Partner Operators from the end of this year. We will also be looking to add a few good quality kindergartens from the private and non-profit sectors as Partner Operators.
7. To make preschool more affordable, we have decided to increase means-tested subsidies at all childcare centres from next January. This includes raising the qualifying income ceiling to $12,000 per month and increasing subsidy amounts at all eligible income tiers.
8. For government-supported pre-schools, we also want to lower fee caps, so that full-day child care will cost around the same as primary school fees plus after-school student care fees. We will start by lowering the fee caps for Partner Operators from 2021, and the rest will follow later. But what makes the biggest difference in the lives of children are educators who have chosen this profession – many of you here today. We recognise and appreciate the meaningful work you do.
9. Last year, our national campaign for the early childhood sector featured pre-school teachers in the media, to raise the profile of the profession. A big thank you to those who agreed to step forward to share about your job with the rest of Singapore. Thank you also to all our supportive operators and employers who showed appreciation for our educators on Teachers’ Day by giving them a day-off and much needed rest. Today, the ECDA Awards for Excellence in Early Childhood Development also recognise educators and centres who have excelled in teaching and learning, as well as in their innovative practices.
10. I’m glad that more people have entered the profession. We grew from 15,000 educators in 2015, to 18,000 in 2018, or an increase of 20 per cent in the span of 3 years. Taking stock about midway through 2019 – we have over 19,000 educators in our sector. We are rapidly growing. With the NIEC welcoming its first batch of students this year, I am hopeful that even more will join us to nurture our children.
11. As our preschools expand and grow, we will also support you in various ways. I am glad to share that ECDA will be working with IMDA, the Infocomm Media Development Authority to develop an Industry Digital Plan for our sector. Using technology and IT to better enable you, our educators and our administrators, to run our centres better, to teach better, and to facilitate the nurturing the of our children in centres. More details will be provided when ready.
Outdoor Learning for Every Child: Everywhere and Everyday
12. The second area that I want to speak about today is the quality of our preschool programmes. Specifically, the tremendous potential of outdoor learning in preschools and how extending our ‘classrooms’ outdoors can benefit our children. You have just heard from Dr. Waters on the importance of outdoor learning, and its immense benefits for child development. Thank you Dr Waters for coming all the way to Singapore to share with us. We are a City in a Garden. Our outdoors offers many opportunities for children to learn, play and have fun. I daresay, that for many place in Singapore, some half an hour away, you will find a nature reserve, or nature area, different habitats and parks – something that will excite and energise our children to learn – as we saw in the video.
13. Various government agencies, preschool operators and EC professionals came together early last year to form an Outdoor Learning Committee. Some of them are here today, and I’d like to acknowledge their enthusiasm and contribution. They have been looking at how outdoor learning in preschool can become a reality for every child, everywhere, and every day. We are already starting to see some promising developments.
14. For example, in HDB estates, preschools are working with the community to help create rich outdoor learning experiences for our children. One preschool doing this is a PCF Sparkletots centre at Queenstown Block 46. This centre was awarded the “Community in Bloom” award, for the “Best New Community Garden” in the Schools Category. Centre principal Ms Tan, her colleagues and students developed this garden with parents and the community. Congratulations and well done! Experiences like these teach our children to take pride in our environment and community, and give them a sense of belonging.
15. The National Parks Board has also introduced nature Playgardens. I visited the first one at HortPark this year. These playgardens give children a sense of adventure and discovery as they play and explore in nature. NParks will be building more Playgardens in parks, especially near preschools. They will also be sharing evidence-based design guidelines so that you our educators, preschools and the community can create such playgardens too.
16. To make outdoor learning possible everywhere, the Committee will be launching two prototypes, to test different ways to transform HDB estates into outdoor learning spaces. The first prototype will push learning “beyond the walls” of the classroom, and I mean this literally. It will help children and teachers to move more freely from the indoors to outdoors. One way, for example, is to create an extension from the centre’s window that leads out into an open area for children to explore.
17. The second prototype will look at creating Outdoor Learning Trails in HDB estates with the use of simple objects. For example, creating “music walls” with old pots, pans and reused materials – I am sure many people will step forward and volunteer theirs – or with simple obstacle courses for gross motor development using recycled items. Community learning gardens with ‘fun fact boards’ for children can also be put in. These outdoor learning trails can benefit not just the preschoolers, but also the wider community. Our imagination is the limit. I would like to thank HDB, Town Councils, preschools, parents and residents for working together with us, to explore the possibilities for our children!
18. I spoke earlier about how educators are the heart of a child’s experiences in pre-school. We want to equip and nurture a vibrant fraternity of educators who are excited about outdoor learning and its opportunities. We will therefore be launching outdoor learning resources and professional development opportunities, in partnership with MOE, NIEC and early childhood professionals. It is one thing to talk about outdoor learning and adventure, and it is another to ensure that our professionals are well-equipped to maximise its potential. Let me describe what we will do for them.
19. First, an educators’ guide, that covers the guiding principles behind quality outdoor experiences, and practical tips on conducting outdoor learning, such as how to manage risks when bringing children outdoors. Second, an online repository of ideas on outdoor learning for children in different age groups. There are 50 ideas available online now. We will continue to grow this repository together with the EC fraternity. Third, new continuing professional development courses. Earlier this year, we invited outdoor learning expert Dr. Helen Little from Australia to visit us. She conducted a TOT programme, or Training-of-Trainers, programme to build our local capabilities in outdoor learning. An initial batch of 30 educators took part, from preschools and NIEC. The NIEC trainers in turn, having been trained by her, went on to develop three pilot outdoor learning workshops for educators – catered to different age groups of children. Let us see how the TOT and workshops went.
20. Using the experiences from the outdoor learning workshops, NIEC has developed professional development courses. The other Early Childhood Professionals who participated in the TOT will share OL best practices with the rest of the sector. So please keep a look out for these courses and peer sharing sessions, which will take place next year. Take the lead!
21. I encourage all of you to make full use of these resources to make the outdoors more conducive for learning and play, incorporate outdoor learning in your preschool’s curriculum, and share good practices freely with each other.
Supporting More Low Income Families, Together
22. With this, I have covered the second of the three topics. Let me move on to the third and final area I want to touch on, which is how we are scaling up efforts to help children and families who need more support. KidSTART has been a valuable pilot programme to help low-income families, even before their children are born. KidSTART helps parents with early childhood development, health and social support in their homes, in their preschools and in their communities. Since 2016, KidSTART has benefitted 1,000 children from low-income families.
23. ECDA could not have done this alone. Our partners have been central to KidSTART’s success. I would like to thank our healthcare partner KKH, which started the “Kids 0-3” programme with Temasek Foundation, and today partners ECDA in the KidSTART Home Visitation Programme – visiting parents and children in their homes. I would like to thank community agencies like AECES, Tasek Jurong and Life Community Services Society, who work with us to deliver the KidSTART community playgroups. I would like to thank preschool partners My First Skool and PCF, and social sector partner Ang Mo Kio FSC, who provide the KidSTART Enhanced Support to preschool. I would also like to thank many others including the Family Service Centres, Grassroots Organisations, Social Service Offices and community service groups who are on the ground supporting KidSTART families; as well as our donors, funders and volunteers like Prudential, EtonHouse Communtiy Fund, Temasek Foundation, Tote Board and many other agencies and individuals. Please join me in showing our appreciation for our partners and their contributions.
24. It has been a journey. I have visited and spoken to many of you, and seen lots of laughter and lots of tears. I have seen you bond with the families. I have seen parents and grandparents speak with a lot more confidence, and talking to me personally, about how KidSTART has enabled them to build an even stronger personal relationship with their children. I have seen the confidence in the young children who you have nurtured together with their families. We have come far together, and I believe that we can and must do even more.
25. At our National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee shared that the outcomes have been positive for KidSTART, and that we will expand KidSTART. We will scale up KidSTART to reach 5,000 more children in the next 3 years, and we will do so in the following ways. First, geographical coverage. We will expand to more locations in Singapore, prioritising Community Link (ComLink) centres, such as Kembangan-Chai Chee and Marsiling. What are ComLink Centres? ComLink centres are where Government agencies and community partners will work hand-in-hand to better understand and proactively meet the needs of families living in rental blocks. Together, ComLink and KidSTART will provide more coordinated and targeted social support to these families and their children, so that they can progress better in life. Second, income criteria. We will raise the monthly household income ceiling from $1,900 to $2,500 so that more children and families can benefit from KidSTART. Third, engaging more mothers earlier at the prenatal stage, with KKH and our latest partner, NUH. Fourth, working with even more community partners, including preschools and Social Service Agencies, such as Care Corner’s Circle of Care, to enhance our model, and SUSS and Temasek Foundation to develop training in early childhood, health and social work, to better serve, support and partner KidSTART families.
26. Last month, I met many of the families at the KidSTART Family Fun Day. It was very heart-warming to hear the positive experiences and stories of how they and their children have grown. Parents shared that their children are more expressive and active. More are now in preschool. Parents also report that they feel more supported and confident in their parenting skills. I would like to share their stories with you too.
“GROWING TOGETHER with KidSTART”
27. Even as the Government funds the expansion of KidSTART, we want to partner foundations, corporates and volunteers who want to provide greater support for the children from low income families. For example, the Etonhouse Community Fund has been contributing to KidSTART since the start of the pilot in 2016. They have sponsored educational resources for over 25 KidSTART Groups. Etonhouse Community Fund has also donated Boxes of Joy – containing educational toys and other items – for KidSTART children and families during the holiday season. In 2018, Prudential co-organised an outreach carnival for KidSTART families in the Jalan Bukit Merah neighbourhood. Since then, Prudential has supported these KidSTART families with a steady stream of volunteers. The volunteers brought families to the Prudential Marina Bay carnival for a day of rides and games earlier this year. While the parents were at KidSTART sessions, they also went beyond child minding for the older siblings of KidSTART children, and introduced them to their financial literacy programme.
28. When we speak to our partners and other organisations and people in the community, we increasingly receive feedback that they want to do more. Organisations, social service agencies and individuals have been contributing to good causes in order to drive good work on the ground. But increasingly, people have been telling us that they want to be able to actively participate, work together and invest their time, expertise and resources to journey with families, partner them and see the children grow up, to tackle inequality dramatically and personally. We are very encouraged by this, as it means that families can receive support over and above the core, targeted KidSTART programmes provided by the Government. We hope to do this by enabling foundations, corporates and volunteers to provide additional support for KidSTART children, through deeper relationships and more sustained forms of giving.
29. This is why we are launching the “GROWING TOGETHER with KidSTART” initiative. We invite corporates and individuals to partner us to help children in KidSTART communities, over a sustained period of time – to watch the children grow up and partner the families. Let me explain how this works. Let us say Company A wants to join our “GROWING TOGETHER with KidSTART” initiative. They are interested to support a community near their office, say five blocks in Boon Lay. Company A can commit a team of regular volunteers and contributions over a period of time, say 3 years, to support KidSTART families living in those blocks. Their volunteers can help to conduct outreach, or help families in practical and meaningful ways such as transport or child minding. Their donations can fund a range of practical necessities, such as milk powder, educational resources, and transport.
30. We hope that our children on KidSTART will grow together with well-wishers and volunteers, in their relationships and interactions. For the children – that they will grow up healthy, happy and confident to pursue their dreams. For donors, well-wishers and volunteers – that they will gain satisfaction in helping children grow up well, and journey with parents and children through life.
31. If this initiative strikes a chord with you, as an individual or as an organisation, do approach the Community Chest or ECDA from early next year, or even today. They will be happy to share how you can embark on this journey with us.
Conclusion: “Singapore Together”
32. I have spoken at length about the early childhood sector. I would like to close by putting our emphasis on preschool into a broader context for all of us to understand. Why are we investing so much in preschool? Why must we ensure it remains affordable and accessible? Why are we doing KidSTART? Why are we pushing outdoor and adventure learning? These moves that we have made are anchored by a much broader goal – to build a fair and inclusive society, with opportunities available for all – not just for some.
33. Since the early days of our nation-building, the government has invested heavily in education, in order to empower our people. Making improvements and adjusting our focus over the decades, in anticipation of needs and future challenges. Improvements are a continuous work in progress, and demand constant vigilance. The emphasis on good education was pervasive. As Singaporeans grew more affluent, they spared no effort in investing in their children, so that they too could do well and achieve upward mobility. This has also been a big part of how we have achieved good outcomes, with parents working actively and in tandem with educators. However, this has also resulted in a pulling apart of outcomes, across different income groups. Those who have more can naturally invest more substantially in their children’s education. If we do not address this, over time, it can create and entrench new fault lines in society. So we must ensure that our system remains open, fair, not over-emphasizing academic grades, but rather the joy of learning. Ultimately, we want our future generations to flourish to their fullest potential regardless of their background.
34. This is the foundation that the EC sector shares, with all other educators. Beyond even education, simply put, we want the best for our children and the best for our next generation. We want our young ones to find that they have the opportunities to succeed, and not be faced with barriers at an early stage. As a society, we want to not lose faith in our system – as we have seen happening in other places around the world.
35. This is why we have provided added support on multiple fronts, for those who may find accessing these opportunities more challenging. We want to especially look out for those from less privileged backgrounds, who face financial challenges, or difficult family circumstances. I earlier shared about ComLink, which provides targeted support to families in rental blocks. It brings the social sector, healthcare sector, education sector and the community together to actively partner these families in working through the difficulties that may beset them and unlock the avenues for their children to flourish. KidSTART and UPLIFT are equally intensive programmes that involve integrating and coordinating all our services and the community, actively collaborating families from disadvantaged backgrounds to allow them to progress.
36. KidSTART and UPLIFT helps children from low-income families in preschools and primary school. We provide generous subsidies for our students – all the way to tertiary level. PM Lee recently announced further enhancements to our university and polytechnic bursaries, among other assistance. Thus all the way from before birth, to preschool, to the national school system, to our post-secondary and tertiary levels, for young people and for families who may be beset with difficulties, we want to actively partner them and bring the services and support to them to unlock the difficulties and open up avenues for them to improve their circumstances.
37. The next frontier requires us to forge strong partnerships, in the intersection of government, civil society, and enterprise. Increasingly, we must involve partners who may be new to our sector – businesses, private individuals, volunteers and well-wishers. This approach is a key part of our vision for a caring society that creates opportunities for all. It has united us in the past, led us to build a better Singapore, and remains as important today, because we are collectively in the business of “the next generation”.
38. We may not always see the fruits of our labour – but we are inspired by the lives of every child we meet, and the potential and promise that lies in each and every one of these little seeds.
39. Thank you all for walking this journey together with us. I am inspired by the hard work, energy, sacrifice and dedication of all of you, our preschool educators. Thank you for journeying with us and I wish you a fruitful conference ahead!