A Cinderella, Waiting for Prince Charming

A Cinderella, Waiting for Prince Charming

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Media Type
TODAY, Pg 10

Compared to its well-endowed step-sisters, primary and secondary education, which are fully supported by the state, preschool education is a Cinderella, left to fend for itself as a 100-per-cent private system.

Its plight was brought sharply into focus with the publication of the Starting Well Index three weeks ago. Commissioned by the Lien Foundation and conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the ranking of 45 countries in terms of the inclusiveness and quality of their preschool environments had Singapore coming in a dismal 29th.

If I were to distill the Index to just one factor of concern, it would be the quality of preschool teachers. For as the saying goes: The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.

Ask parents for their idea of a dream preschool, and I believe they would say that it should have highly-trained and experienced teachers who are able to give each child personal attention (that is, a low student-to-teacher ratio), and who will enchant them by saturating classes with playing, talking and reading.

This boils down to "4Cs" teachers: Committed, competent, caring and confident. While I have no doubt that such preschool teachers exist today - and I take this opportunity to salute them - a look at the structure of the sector gives little confidence that the overall quality of teachers is adequate.


One important element for systemic quality is effective training. But the reality is that preschool teacher training is currently in the hands of 13 accredited agencies. The stepsisters, however, have their teachers trained at a single national institution, the National Institute of Education.

Of course, it would help if, prior to training, capable and motivated candidates are recruited. Yet, the entry qualifications of preschool teachers is merely five O-Levels. Despite this low threshold, the sector is having trouble filling up the advertised positions for teachers.

By comparison, the stepsisters are moving toward an all-graduate teacher recruitment by 2015.

Already, the employer of primary and secondary school teachers, the Ministry of Education (MOE), recruits from the top 30 per cent of each cohort and selects so stringently that only 14 per cent of some 18,000 applicants are successful every year.

The vicious cycle is entrenched when preschool teachers receive low pay and have limited career prospects. This feeds into the sector's difficulty in attracting high quality candidates, which then reinforces the image of a lowly-esteemed profession.

The option of recruiting foreign teachers is not ideal because, in the long term, this may depress the wages of local teachers. The 2011 Ministry of Manpower Report on Wages puts their median monthly pay at S$1,840, lower than what a receptionist or hairdresser can command. Those at the 75th percentile earn a mere S$200 more than the median.


Low pay is a major reason why we have a leaky preschool labour pool plagued by chronic shortages.

A study by Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Humanities & Social Sciences found that 25 per cent of close to 400 teachers surveyed had intentions to quit the sector in the near term. The main reasons given were low salaries and heavy workloads.

The same study cited 2009 government data that shows childcare teachers' resignation rate is about three times that of MOE teachers'.

This problem of persistent and frequent turnover is exacerbated by the rapid proliferation of preschool centres in recent years, leading to stiff competition for qualified staff.

A major non-profit preschool operator reported turnover of as high as 40 per cent at one point, presumably because salaries were lower than that at other private preschools. In the last four years, 200 childcare centres were set up and 200 more are in the pipeline for the next five years to help more women return to the workforce.


High turnover and attrition is a corollary of a weak profession, leading to the overall poor quality of early childhood education.

The primary impact is on the child. Studies have shown that high teacher turnover is harmful for young children and the outcomes of their education as they need a secure and stable relationship with caring adults.

Teachers also suffer as they have no choice but to pick up the slack while waiting for replacements. The dearth of experienced teachers limits the profession's capacity to respond incisively to challenges and lead the way to better quality education.

For the sake of our children, and for the future of Singapore, these systemic blemishes should be addressed, and addressed soon.

Professor Sharon Kagan of Columbia University 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 programs save society significant amounts of money over time.

"Early childhood contributes to creating the kinds of work forces that are going to be needed in the 21st century."

It is time for Prince Charming and the fairy godmother to appear. Do we have the political will to make it happen?

Lee Poh Wah is the chief executive officer of the Lien Foundation. He previously worked in the civil service where he established the Social Enterprise Fund.

Source: TODAY, Pg 10, mediacorp