Excerpt from National Day Rally 2019
Investing in People – Preschools
Let me start with how we are giving our young the best possible start in life. So that anyone who works hard will have a chance to succeed, regardless of starting point or family background. Because this is what meritocracy in Singapore is about.
We have made good on this promise by investing heavily in education. Our starting point used to be primary one. School brought everyone up to speed. Not just on academics, but also basic health and development. We introduced dental check-ups, as well as vaccinations. If you were underweight in primary school, you may remember the School Milk Scheme too. Generations of children have been through our schools. They received a sound education and good healthcare, and graduated better educated than their parents. Recently, Save The Children, an international NGO, ranked Singapore the best place in the world for a child to grow up in, and last year, the World Bank published a Human Capital Index. This measures the knowledge, skills, and health that a child born today can expect to attain by age 18. Among 157 countries, Singapore ranked first. So when they launched the Index in Bali at the IMF World Bank conference, they invited me to go and they interviewed me on our experience. A brief 15 minutes, not quite a National Day Rally. How we made this journey. But the journey is not over. But we are going further. We want to start earlier in a child’s life, because these years make a big difference to his development. Parents play an important role. But a good preschool education can make a crucial difference. That is why several years ago, we made a major shift to improve preschool education. Let me share what we have done so far, and what more we plan to do.
First, we have doubled full-day preschool capacity, to almost 180,000 places It is enough places for every child aged three and above. Young parents in newer estates, like Sengkang and Punggol, are much happier. Their MPs too, because the queues have shortened – queues at preschools, and also queues at Meet the People sessions!
Second, we have upgraded the preschools. The new HDB void deck centres are better designed and appointed. We have built some mega centres too with comprehensive facilities. Like this PCF Sparkletots centre at Punggol. It looks like a holiday resort, but the kids are expected to study quite hard there. The children have plenty of space to run around and enjoy a wider range of activities. When I visited, these kids were in their cooking studio, making pizza! They asked me to pretend to be the teacher – I said, I do not know how to make pizza, so please show me – which is what they are doing.
Third, we set up MOE Kindergartens. By operating kindergartens, MOE gains direct experience, improves curriculum design, and ultimately raises standards across the industry. MOE Kindergarten is also a new preschool model. Each MOE Kindergarten is located together with a primary school. Each kindergarten offers all three Mother Tongue Languages, and provides a bilingual environment, just like a primary school. Today, we have 24 MOE Kindergartens, and will more than double the number in the next few years.
Fourth, we are giving pre-school teachers better training and career progression. We have set up the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC) to upgrade training for preschool teachers and raise their standing. NIEC enrolled its first students this year. So these NIEC students are kindergarten teachers or will be kindergarten teachers. Some are fresh trainees. Others are experienced teachers like Palaniammal, also called Sheila. Sheila started out as a preschool teacher. Over time, she upgraded herself, with a Diploma in Teaching and an Advanced Diploma in Leadership. Now, she is a Vice Principal at a PCF preschool. Sheila really enjoys working with children, and is very good at her job. Last year, MOE recognised her as an Outstanding Preschool Mother Tongue Language Teacher. But Sheila aspires to do even better. Recently, she enrolled in NIEC, to specialise in Tamil Language Teaching. With dedicated teachers like Sheila, our children are in good hands. Well done, Sheila!
Fifth, we continue to make preschool more affordable. The Government funds the Anchor Operators and Partner Operators, to keep fees down. And all parents receive significant subsidies for childcare, with lower income parents receiving substantially more. Still, for middle income parents, preschool fees can take up a chunk of their household budget. Especially if two or more kids are in preschool at the same time.
Like the Low family, for example. They are middle-income. Both parents are working. They have two sons: Kaylen who is turning 5, and Kyler who is 2. Both boys attend a government-supported preschool.
To help families like the Lows, we will enhance preschool subsidies. The Lows currently do not qualify for additional means-tested subsidies, because their household income exceeds the current maximum income, which is $7,500. We will raise the income ceiling to $12,000 per month. This will extend the means-tested subsidies to 30,000 more households, including the Lows. On top of this, we will also increase the quantum of preschool subsidies, across the board.
Before the changes, Mr and Mrs Low pay about $560 per month for each child’s preschool. The enhanced subsidy will knock off a third of their preschool expenses, which will then go down to around $370 per child. Later on, when Kaylen and Kyler enter primary school, the family’s expenses will go down even further. Because primary school itself is almost free – you have to pay a few dollars miscellaneous fees. If the boys need student care after school in the afternoons, it will cost the Lows about $300 per child. So it is even lower than the $370 that they will be paying after the enhanced subsidies. In the medium term, we aim to bring down full-day preschool expenses to around that level – which means the cost of primary school plus afterschool student care is $370 coming down to around $300. We need a while to get there, but we are working towards this.
Recently several PAP women Members of Parliament (MPs), led by SPS Sun Xueling, surveyed young parents on preschool. Understandably, the parents were concerned about affordability. The MPs made an important point: that preschool should be like housing and healthcare, where we have a good and affordable government-funded option for all Singaporeans. There is a private option if you want, but for many Singaporeans, in fact, the majority, the government-funded option is high quality and more than satisfactory.
I agree with them. For housing we have HDB. For healthcare, we have restructured hospitals. Similarly, for preschool, we should have good quality, government-supported choices available to all Singaporeans. This is in fact our policy. Today, just over half of all pre-school places are government-supported. Over time, we will bring this up to 80%, just like HDB and we are putting a lot of resources towards this. Already, the Government spends about $1 billion a year on early childhood education, and this will more than double over the next few years. Hopefully with all these improvements, parents will no longer think of preschools as an expensive phase of bringing up their children.
The younger ministers have a few more ideas to support couples to have more kids, and to keep HDB flats affordable. I will leave them to make the announcements later. Meanwhile I will be counting the number of babies born, and hoping for the number to go up!
I want to update you on one more programme, and that is KidSTART. We piloted KidSTART three years ago, to give extra help to 1,000 children from less privileged families. The KidSTART team advises and supports the parents, often a single parent – on nutrition, child development, and parent-child interaction. We are very happy with the results, and so are the parents. Let’s take a look at the video.
KidSTART is a good programme. I am confident we are on the right track. We still need to follow up for a few more years, to assess more exactly its benefits. But for each new cohort of babies, there is no time to lose. So we will expand KidSTART to reach another 5,000 children over the next three years. Then we will take stock again how to expand KidSTART further.