More parents with young children will pay less for pre-school from next year, with more centres joining a government-funded scheme that will help lower fees for families.

A total of 324 childcare centres, run by 29 operators or consortia, have been appointed to the new partner operator term that starts in January 2021.

Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli announced on Wednesday (Nov 25) that the number of centres in this second round is 30 per cent more than those in the current term.

More than 27,000 Singaporean children are expected to benefit from the scheme next year, compared with 20,000 in the current term.

The expansion of the partner operator scheme comes after the Government said last year that it would be increasing the proportion of government-supported pre-school places to 80 per cent by 2025, up from 50 per cent in 2019.

Twenty-three partner operators running 250 centres were appointed under the first term, which began in 2016 and will come to an end this December.

Pre-schools are also allowed to apply as a consortium – for instance, operators of different pre-schools under the same franchise can come together to apply for the scheme.

Keeping fees affordable for pre-school education

Partner operators get government funding to keep fees low, and have to adhere to the fee cap. Current operators include Busy Bees, Star Learners and Carpe Diem.

For centres under the second term, the maximum fee that partner operators can charge for full-day childcare services will be set at $760 monthly, $40 lower than the current fee cap of $800.

For full-day infant care services, the amount is set at $1,330 monthly, $70 cheaper than the current $1,400 per month. Both fees are not inclusive of GST.

In a release on Wednesday, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) said the operators comprise a mix of commercial and not-for-profit types, with centres in locations all across Singapore, providing choice for parents.

Seven of the pre-school operators, like Greenland Childcare and Kinderland, are also new to the scheme. Both have seven and 14 centres that will be part of the new term.

Others that are also new this term include faith-based operators like Catholic Pre-school Education (Singapore) with three centres and Little Seeds with 11 pre-school centres.  

Both of these groups were formed in recent years to consolidate the resources of faith-based pre-schools.

Little Seeds Preschool is the childcare arm of St James’ Preschool Services (Anglican). Its centres, most of which charge $790 or more for full-day childcare, will become more affordable with the fee caps. 

Mr Andrew Tay, chief executive of St James’ Preschool Services, said: “Over the next few years, we will continue to invest in our staff, focusing on training and developing career roadmaps for them. We believe that this enhanced professional development of staff will have a positive impact on our children’s learning.” 

Ms Rabiatul Adawiyah, chief development officer of Busy Bees, an existing partner operator that has also been renewed for the second term, said that two more centres are now part of the scheme, bringing the total to 18. 

This means that by mid-next year, about 2,600 children will benefit from the lower fees at these centres, up from the current 2,100. 

She added that the support from Government will go towards investing in the professional development of teachers, for instance, in earning a relevant degree qualification. The funding will also help in improving curricula resources and offering more programmes for children with developmental needs. 

ECDA had evaluated the applications of 52 pre-school operators to be part of the scheme.

Appointed centres will be supported with funding to improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of childcare and infant care services, said the agency.

Funding will be used to raise the standards of centres through attaining certification under the Singapore Pre-school Accreditation Framework and improving organisational capabilities.

It will also help centres to attract and retain talent by investing in professional development for centre leaders and pre-school educators.

During a visit to Busy Bees’ Learning Vision @ Interlocal preschool in Pasir Panjang, MrMasagos said the factors in choosing partner operators were quality, followed by accessibility and affordability.

“The existing operators also have to show that they have been delivering on quality, and that includes training teachers, uplifting their qualifications,” he said.

Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Social and Family Development, and Education, also joined in the visit.

More subsidies available for Singaporean families

From January this year, the household income ceiling for families with Singaporean children to receive additional subsidies for childcare and infant care was raised from $7,500 a month to $12,000. Subsidy amounts were also increased across all eligible income tiers.

ECDA said that fee caps at government-supported pre-schools will also be lowered as the Government’s share of the pre-school sector expands over time.

The agency said in the medium term, full-day pre-school expenses should be brought down to around $300 a month, which is about the same as the cost of primary school plus after-school student care before means-tested subsidies.

Overall, the Government’s annual spending on the early childhood sector is expected to more than double over the next few years, from around $1 billion in 2018.

Text: Amelia Teng/The Straits Times