On Friday, the 3rd of July 2015, the Early Childhood Development Agency (or ECDA) uploaded their proposed Early Childhood Development Centres Bill onto the Reach Singapore website, one day after a fairly noisy briefing session for early childhood providers in the Nexus auditorium at Cuppage Plaza.
There had been rumblings of the new legislation earlier. In March 2015, then Minister of Social and Family Development, Mr Chan Chun Sing, spoke of the need to “harmonise” regulations and “uphold higher standards” for the sector. Following this, providers were told in numerous forums and briefings that the specific statutes or clauses of the new Act were still in the process of being drawn up, and should not be released or discussed on public platforms. In the same spirit, “without prejudice”, the public consultation paper released on Friday (the link above) reinforced this by asserting that ECDA “shall not be liable for any damage or loss suffered as a result of the use of or reliance on the information given in this public consultation paper”.
To frame it in other words then, what this effectively amounted to was a seemingly innocent plea: Please do not accept this as truth (yet). Please tell us what you think… but really?
In Mr Chan’s speech at the MSF Committee of Supply 2015,
his statements (in point 17) are particularly instructive. He said,
“But on the other hand, while we desire to have greater variety in the sector, is having more than 600 different brands of operators a bit too many to create the efficiencies of scale for us to keep prices competitive and affordable and to give the best opportunities for our teachers to progress in their career?”
A strange conclusion from the Minister, if any, because one would or should expect prices to drop and professional options to exist when you have a wider range of settings to choose from.
Mr Chan’s line of reasoning in the Committee of Supply debate ended with the initiative to create the Partner Operator Scheme (or POP, their acronym) that would select providers on the basis of competitive bids (such as lower fees, track records and grants required from the government). In effect, POP schools would function thus as preferred providers alongside anchor operators (AOPs) and MOE kindergartens. To scale it further, and with the blessings of the respective Ministries, both AOPs and MOE kindergartens have since grown in intent, function and number. It appears that the next goal is to allow anchor operators to establish jumbo childcare centres, each providing 300 to 500 childcare places, in the newer high-density heartlands.
Move over, kiddo, the big boys have taken over the playground.
(Shh! I think economists call this an oligopoly).
And now this: the Proposed ECDC Act.
It begins innocently enough, stating that the Bill “when enacted, will raise the quality of the early childhood sector and benefit parents and their children, operators and EC professionals”. But a deeper reading reveals the most disturbing of rules and regulations:
- Never mind that it wants to establish (and control) a database of all staff working in an EC setting. There is a lot of wisdom in ensuring that you have not hired a mass murderer by mistake. No, the issue is the fact that you cannot be registered to teach in a preschool unless you meet ECDA’s highly restrictive and narrow set of criteria (what they call, “professional, academic and language requirements”).
From my own experience, this is interpreted to mean that an individual with a PhD in Education does not suffice, only someone with ECDA’s pre-determined Diploma(s). The penalty for hiring the said someone with a PhD in Education to teach in a K1 or K2 classroom? A fine of S$10,000 and 12 months’ imprisonment.
Add to this stricture the severe shortage of early childhood professionals in Singapore and it effectively means that the ECDC Act will now engage you in the play of something akin to torture. It will chop and tear off your hands, feet, arms and legs, one by one.
- There’s more. The ECDC Act will “enhance the powers of designated ECDA officers in enforcing the ECDC Act”.
It states that, “… in addition to the existing power to enter and inspect the premises, the officers will have new powers to interview persons and take photographs, videos and audio recordings for investigation and enforcement purposes”.
Annex F of the proposal explains further: ECDA officers will have the power to “enter and inspect”, “enter and search”, “inspect and make copies of”, “take any document or other thing at the centre”, “require any person… to answer any question”, “photograph or film, or make audio recordings or make sketches…” and so on.
Again, the penalty for obstructing, hindering or delaying an ECDA officer “in the exercise of any power under the ECDC Act” or neglecting or refusing to “furnish any information or attend before an ECDA officer enforcing the ECDC Act”? A fine of S$10,000 and 12 months’ imprisonment.
So, hooray, the ECDA Enforcement Officers have arrived. Would you like a drink, Sir, Ma’am?
- More! More! Apparently, in crafting the Act, the respective agencies felt it best to waive MOE Kindergartens and other ECDCs operated by the government from its requirements. It is true. Found on page A-1, it states, “The ECDC Act will not apply to the following types of centres: ECDCs operated by the government. They will be held to comparable standards as the rest of the EC sector through direct government oversight and accountability”.
But, but, but, this is like saying that certain people are above the law, right?
- More! Bravo!
Well, well, well. On page C-1, the Minister for Social and Family Development will be empowered to make regulations about
a) “… the discipline of persons for the purposes of the operation, management and supervision of the centres”
Is torture not sufficient?
b) “… the admission of children to the centres and the minimum or maximum age of children who may be admitted to any class or type of centres”
You mean, similar to the way you use the Compulsory Education Act, you may constrain locals to enter local preschools and expatriates to enter the `foreign’ ones? Or do you mean that children with special needs may be directed to specific kinds of schools only? Or, wait; there will be a 1 km priority for admissions? You know, Minister, there really is a lot to be said for giving people choices and some space to breathe. Just shoot me now.
c) “… the types and content of the curriculum and programme carried out in the centres”
Bye Bye, Waldorf! Bye-Bye, Montessori! Bye-Bye, Lai!
d) “… the returns, reports and other information to be submitted to ECDA”
Oh, I see, the reason why I cannot decide on curriculum matters is to relieve me of the time that I need to generate returns and reports for you. Sorry.
e) “… the fees and other charges to be paid in respect of the services provided in the centres or otherwise… and the restriction or prohibition of any further fees and charges..”
Please pay the rent and the teachers’ salaries, Minister, please pay for the children’s cereal too, please, pretty please? If you do, I promise you, I will be good.
The signs are clear. The current administration wants “under-performing” small and medium-sized private preschools to close and the ECDC Act will just make it easier for them to achieve this goal.
Why? Because it is the fastest and most efficient way to manage the sector, plus the cheaper route to take – in a way, the strategizing has been quite clever. After all, a bunch of big boys committed to keeping prices down, a more “qualified” but disempowered workforce and S$440 million over 10 years can give the appearance that the government is doing something to raise standards. Indeed, the strategy seems to be, “You cannot meet the standards, so YOU have failed, not the government”.
It is however, a long, long, way away from what the experts have recommended.
Seven in ten experts believe that preschool education should be funded by the state and thus, free. The anticipated cost for this, some estimate, will be S$583 million a year (if not more), a figure that the government is clearly not intending to pay. Instead, it is planning on using the long arm of the law to hold preschool operators to task, but in a tight and threatening grip. Perhaps I would be more forgiving if they had just come out and said, “Look, is this the right career choice for you?” or “Look, we are doing what we can” or better still, graciously, “We value you and want to respect your professional dignity – but please… pull up your socks.”
No, clever elites must generate clever plans. Worse, the lack of humility and appreciation for what private operators and EC teachers have done over the years is just mind-boggling. The way the Bill has been fashioned is revealing because it is clear that ECDA believes and positions all EC professionals and operators as evil or inadequate people who must be taken down by the law.
Will many EC individuals swallow their professional pride, hunker down and stay? Some will, I am sure. I have met quite a number of EC operators and teachers who have nothing but complete trust in the current administration. But I also anticipate that many will not, or will be forced by the sheer financial (or operational and administrative) logic to give up. Forsooth, surrendering and running away would be a far better option that being locked into an excruciating torture rack.
MOURN AND WEAR BLACK.
A Little History
Prior to the release of the Starting Well index in June 2012 (and the government’s subsequent reaction to lower preschool fees by implementing a slew of new policies, measures and initiatives), fees for preschool education in Singapore were escalating primarily because of high rents (limited land) and high salaries (limited manpower), further exacerbated now by severe cuts in foreign employee quotas.
Historically though, it was the government that had created the boo-boo in the first place (but I shall not embarrass them further by going into all of the minute details here).
Suffice to say that the “survival” ideology runs deep. Saving money, it seems, is important, even if the beneficiaries in question are the nation’s children (and we are not even referring to special needs’ children here). In 2000, Dr Aline Wong, then Senior Minister of State for Education, said,
“Simply pouring money into PSE [preschool education] will not raise quality automatically. We must carefully decide how to deploy resources so that most children can get the most value out of preschool education…. I want to emphasise that MOE will not take over PSE. The provision of PSE will remain firmly in the hands of the private and people sectors. There is merit in allowing different centres with different philosophies and schools of thought to offer different types of PSE. It will also encourage creative innovation as each centre strives to meet the needs of its unique pupil profile” (Ministry of Education, 2000).
Ten years later, in a January 2010 parliamentary reply to a Member of Parliament who had asked whether pre-primary education would be made compulsory for all, then Minister of Education, Dr Ng Eng Hen, stated, quite ironically,
“The main focus in preschool should primarily take into account the developmental needs of young children and provide age-appropriate programmes. Nationalising preschools to be part of the formal school system runs the risk of an over-emphasis on academic instruction and uniformity. It will increase pressure to accelerate preschool children’s numeracy and literacy skills at the expense of other developmental goals…. Indeed a nationalized preschool sector would tend towards conformity, which is not ideal. It would deprive parents the ability to choose from a variety of early childhood care and education models and operators that best fits the needs of their child” (Ministry of Education, 2010).
I say ironic because with the proposed ECDC Act, nationalization will happen anyway, but not on the government’s bill.
Returning to our chronology, the Starting Well index was an embarrassment, and it was an embarrassment probably because the established government prides itself on always being able to make Singapore number one (hear ye, the tuition nation).
I like to think, however, that there is an unconscious set of values in most of us that says that education is not, or should not be, a commodity. Indeed, when the results of the index were first announced and then subsequently “complained about” by Singaporeans, especially young parents struggling with the high costs of living and raising a family in this country, my stated position was clear. Preschool education must be funded by the state, regardless of the family that the child is born into, so that it can mitigate the effects of the socioeconomic disparities that already exist at birth. We have enough research to show us that this must, in fact, be one of the non-negotiable facets in all first-world agreements between the state and its people.
But no, our leaders have chosen not to walk this route. Not for them the sweeping reforms of a Lim Kim San re-settling kampung dwellers into HDB flats. Not that kind of courage but a clever manoeuvring and tweaking of economic and legislative forces to achieve their goals at the expense of the people.
ONCE AGAIN I SAY, MOURN AND WEAR BLACK.