Sunday August 12, 2012
At the starting line
By SANDRA DAVIE
The quality of preschool education in Singapore today is tied to price. What does that mean for children rich and poor when starting well is crucial to their development?
SIX-YEAR-OLD Lim Qi uses her iPad to watch her favourite cartoon.
It is called WordGirl and she likes it as she can learn many words from the girl superhero who fights crime using her strength and colossal vocabulary.
Among the words she learnt recently is “oxymoron”, and to demonstrate that she knows its meaning, she says: “Cold sun and dark light are oxymorons.”
She says her parents, Mr and Mrs Roger Lim, who run a communications company, helped her to understand the word’s meaning.
Her mum Yvonne, 44, is a design graduate. She attributes Lim Qi’s advanced vocabulary partly to the preschool she attends, EtonHouse along Newton Road.
Mrs Lim forks out about S$1,500 (RM3,750) a month to put her daughter there for about six hours a day, but she says the quality is evident in the centre’s graduate teachers, low teacher to student ratio of 1:12, and the International Baccalaureate curriculum that emphasises inquiry-based learning.
Lim Qi also attends weekly art, violin and ballet lessons. The articulate child says she loves to dance and play the violin.
“Oh, I also love to draw,” she says, showing off her many colourful drawings.
The six-year-old daughter of T.L. Lim, 44, a lorry driver, also loves to draw but shies away from saying anything more.
The quiet child, who goes to a PAP Community Foundation (PCF) kindergarten in Bedok, lags behind her peers in both reading and writing. She is receiving extra help from her preschool teachers.
When asked basic questions like how many brothers and sisters she has and what her favourite colour is, she struggles to reply in full sentences.
Her father says her main problem is the lack of exposure to English at home.
“We all speak Mandarin,” he says, adding that he worries about whether his daughter, the youngest of three children, will be able to cope when she enters Primary One next year.
He admits that he buys only assessment books for his youngest, not story books. “No point, because she cannot read,” he says.
Still, he feels that she will eventually catch up with her peers in primary school.
“My older daughter was not good at first, but now she is okay. Her school teacher is very good,” he says.
Nora (not her real name) is also six years old. The soft-spoken girl struggles to find the right words when asked to describe her latest drawing.
“A girl ... house ... tree,” she volunteers after much coaxing.
Her divorcee mother is 38 years old and works as a cleaner.
She says she cannot afford story books on her meagre monthly salary of S$900 (RM2,250)
“I get my children to watch English shows on television,” she says, pointing to a television that was donated by a resident at the condominium where she works.
Besides, she says the child has many books to read at the childcare centre she attends, My First Skool in Kallang Bahru.
She is able to afford the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC)-run centre for her daughter because with all the subsidies she receives, she has to pay only S$5 (RM12.50) a month.
It charges S$588 (RM1,470) a month for full-day care, which includes the kindergarten programme.
The centre, which won the Singapore Preschool Accreditation Framework or Spark quality mark awarded by the Education Ministry, has many age-appropriate books.
Nora’s teachers, though, say she hardly picks up books to read on her own.
The centre is offering her extra help through a programme called Flair – Focused Language Assistance in Reading – where a specially-trained teacher gives extra attention to children who are lagging behind in their reading and writing.
The wide gap between the development of children from affluent middle-class families like Lim Qi and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds like Nora has in recent years caused concern that children are entering formal education on an unequal footing.
Why preschool matters
There are no published studies but anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the pupils who end up in the learning support programme in Primary One either had no preschool education or a patchy one.
The programme is for kids lagging behind in English and Mathematics.
The passionate belief among many child experts and educators is that quality preschool for all can help narrow the gap between children from different socio-economic backgrounds.
Dr Lynn Ang, a senior lecturer in early childhood education at the University of East London, has pointed to the overwhelming evidence that quality preschool is critical to child development.
She cited the findings of the Perry Preschool Project, a landmark study carried out in Michigan in the 1960s. The project involved providing high-quality preschool education to a group of three- and four-year-old children living in poverty and assessed to be at high risk of school failure.
The children were taught by certified public school teachers with at least a bachelor’s degree. The average child-teacher ratio was 6:1 and the curriculum emphasised active learning. The teachers also paid a home visit weekly to involve the mothers in the educational process.
These children were tracked for decades after completing preschool and not only did more of them go on to complete high school and enter college, they also had better jobs and earned higher salaries.
Prof Sharon Kagan of Columbia University, quoted in the Economist Intelligence Unit study on preschool education, explains why: “Three strands of research combine to support the importance of the early years. From neuro scientific research, we understand the criticality of early brain development; from social science research, we know that high-quality programmes improve children’s readiness for school and life; and from econometric research, we know that high-quality programmes save society significant amounts of money over time.”
The worry is that the current preschool landscape – marked by uneven quality – is not helping but hindering the desired levelling-up.
Bar set too low?
There are 500 kindergartens that come under the Ministry of Education (MOE) and some 900-plus childcare centres that fall under the purview of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS).
They are run by a wide variety of operators, from companies to religious groups and community-based bodies like the PAP Community Foundation (PCF) and NTUC. They charge fees ranging from as little as S$55 (RM135) to as much as S$1,800 (RM4,500) a month.
Their facilities differ widely, as do teacher qualifications, class size and curricula. All this results in uneven quality.
For years, educationists, politicians and parents have worried over the fallout of leaving the preschool sector to free-market forces, with insufficient regulatory supervision.
Some suspect that as a result, many preschool operators cut corners and compromise standards to keep fees affordable.
With few exceptions, those preschools that offer quality charge high fees, which means only children from well-to-do families have access to their services.
Three years ago, an expert study commissioned by government feedback unit Reach called for preschool education to be made compulsory and for the sector to be nationalised.
But the calls died down after the Government stood its ground, saying preschool was best left to private operators and charitable groups like the PCF as they offer choice to parents.
Some parents like Adrian Tan, 34, an accountant, prefer that the Government not take over as he wants to send his son to a church-run kindergarten.
He says: “To me, character and values education comes first. That’s why I am looking for a good church kindergarten for my son.”
Dr Ng Eng Hen, then Education Minister, told Parliament that the Government would instead focus on improving the quality, accessibility and affordability of preschool education.
MOE and MCYS have over the years raised the baseline qualifications that principals and teachers must meet. MOE is also strengthening programme quality by developing and disseminating curriculum resources to all preschools.
Last year, it introduced the quality accreditation framework called Spark to encourage preschool centres to improve. But to date, only 115 centres out of over 1,400 have received the award.
Despite these efforts, the general view is that the bar is still set too low.
Singapore lags behind
In June, debate erupted all over again after a global ranking of preschool education by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) placed Singapore 29th out of 45 countries surveyed.
Most know that it is hard to beat the Nordic countries, but Singapore also ranked behind others in the Asia-Pacific region, including New Zealand, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia.
At its core, the survey called Starting Well attempted to assess the extent to which governments provide good, inclusive early education to children between the ages of three and six.
It considered the relative availability, affordability and quality of preschool environments in each country.
And as EIU analyst Trisha Suresh points out, Singapore fared well only in one indicator – social context. This was a nod to its high literacy rates and standard of living.
But its score was “average” for “availability”, pulled down by lack of a legal right to preschool education. But some have questioned if this is a good indicator, as 99% of kindergarten-age children here are enrolled in preschool.
Singapore also did only average for affordability, which took into account the cost of a private preschool, government spending on the sector and subsidies to underprivileged families or centres that cater to them.
Suresh notes that the survey shows fees charged by centres here range from S$100 to S$1,800 (RM250 to RM4,500). “In the Singapore context, fees have become the indicator of quality,” she says.
Singapore fared worst in “quality”, ranking 30 out of 45. Reasons for this included a high teacher-student ratio of 1:20 and the relatively low average wages and low entry requirements for preschool teachers. The top 10 countries in the index have ratios ranging from one teacher to five to 11 children.
Qualifications-wise, preschool teachers in the top-10-ranked economies have degrees. Teachers here need to have only five O-level credits and a diploma in preschool education.
The Singapore Government has already raised the requirements for preschool teachers, but recruiting and training more teachers will take time.
Businessman R. Maniam, whose two sons attended PCF kindergartens, says: “The quality may not be that good but it is good enough and improving. I would rather the Government spends its money on the universities to create more places.”
Lee Poh Wah, chief executive officer of the Lien Foundation, which commissioned the EIU study as well as a second report on how to raise preschool standards here, worries that the sector as it is now only serves to widen the gap between children.
He says: “We need to look into providing good, high-quality education that will close the gap between children like Lim Qi and Nora.” - The Straits Times