Ms Anupama Rao Singh, Regional Director for East Asia and Pacific, UNICEF,
Mr Chan Tee Seng, Director of SEED Institute,
Ms Belinda Tay, Deputy Director for Technical Cooperation Directorate, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to Singapore and to the Second Asia-Pacific Regional Conference on Early Childhood Care and Development. I am indeed very privileged to open this conference, which is organised by the Asia Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood (ARNEC) and SEED Institute, and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS).
VISION AND GOALS
The theme of this Conference, Early Experiences matter: Policies and Ensuring the Holistic Development for the Very Young, is both relevant and timely. We all agree that early childhood education and development is important. Research has shown that children who have gone through such programmes do better than those who do not. They are socially and emotionally more competent, show a higher verbal and intellectual development and perform better in school. In short, well conceived programmes in early childhood education and development are important investments in our young and our future.
Investment in the early years is also important to increase social mobility. Our Prime Minister stressed on the importance of achieving inclusive growth in this year’s National Day Rally speech to the nation. It was further reinforced by our President when he opened the Singapore parliament, where he stressed that it was not just any growth that Singapore was pursuing whether in the past or currently, but inclusive growth where there are opportunities for everyone.
Hence, the priority that Singapore places on early childhood education and development is part of achieving our vision of inclusive growth, where we want to give every child the opportunity to achieve his or her fullest potential. We know that we cannot wait until the child starts school when they would already have missed a few years of development. We also know that children’s development may be less amenable to change after they enter school at the age of 7 years old here in Singapore.
To achieve this vision, our focus in Singapore has been in several areas.
First, we ensure that every child has access to quality and affordable child care and development programmes. We provide a universal subsidy of $300 to every child who is placed in our childcare centres. On top of that parents who earn a family income of up to S$3500 per month get a second tier of subsidies so that they can afford childcare services, and what is equally important is that mothers who are working can continue to work, and those who are not working can think about going back to work. In this way, we not only provide the child with a stimulating environment, we also help increase the family’s stability. And although pre-school education is not compulsory in Singapore, every effort is made to reach out to the very small number of parents who for a variety of reasons do not send their children to pre-school. The Ministry of Education would agree that we need to coordinate between the ministries – a point that Ms Anupama Rao also mentioned just now – Ministry of Education works closely with grassroots organisations to reach out to such parents and persuade them to send their children to the pre-school centres. Every year, as a member of parliament in my area, Jurong area - it really is a working class area with a lot of factories located there - I have MOE informing me of how many parents and where they are located, whose children should be in preschool but they are not. And it is my job, to go with my grassroots leaders, to knock on the doors to say, please, your child is not in preschool, why is that so? Please send the child to preschool. To this day I only have about 10 parents or so in a population of 60,000 - so, I think by and large most parents understand the importance of preschool in Singapore.
Second, we raise standards and enhance quality in various ways including by investing in our curriculum development and teacher training and development as well. One new initiative that will start next year will strengthen the teacher-student ratio in our childcare centres. By increasing the number of teachers in the early years, we enhance the quality of interaction between the child and teacher, thereby giving children a more personalised and closer attention in class. Over the years, through the efforts of the SEED Institute, Ngee Ann polytechnic and other institutions, we have enhanced the quality of teacher training and professionalism in the industry, enabling the teachers not only to earn better salaries and enjoy better career prospects, but injecting a greater sense of professionalism and satisfaction in what they do – and this is extremely important, because preschool teachers in Singapore do compare their sector with the teachers in primary schools, secondary schools, so on. They want to see themselves as professionals making a very important contribution to society and children’s education as well. Our teachers are dedicated and have a lot of passion. Our task is to ensure that we give them the support, encouragement and most importantly, the tools to do their job well.
Third, we provide a regulatory framework which defines standards for the benefit and protection of our children but which does not stifle innovation and creativity. The pre-school sector is too important for us to have a completely hands off approach. But, at the same time, we recognise that different providers can bring different resources, strengths and ideas which can add to the vibrancy and colour needed in the sector to benefit our children.
EYDF – EARLY YEARS DEVELOPMENT FRAMEWORK
The focus of this Conference on the very young is also timely as recently we have been doing a lot of work in this area. In September, my Ministry launched our Early Years Development Framework or EYDF for short. The Framework is our initiative to enhance the quality of centre-based child care through building a strong foundation for the holistic development of young children aged three years and below.
The EYDF sets the standards for quality care and learning practices that are specific to the developmental needs of infants, toddlers and nursery children. It defines outcomes for learning and development, and provides broad guidelines for educarers to plan and deliver culturally and developmentally appropriate experiences.
I understand that SEED Institute will be working closely with my Ministry to develop a training package that will support the implementation of the EYDF in child care centres. The training will help educarers to translate the key principles of the Framework effectively into practice, thereby improving the quality of centre based care for young children aged 3 years and below.
In line with the EYDF, my Ministry has also introduced a new training and teacher certification pathway for professionals working with children aged three and below. This new pathway will offer specialised professional training requirements differentiating them from existing requirements for pre-school teachers working with four to six year olds. We believe that these new initiatives will boost quality for the early years and give due recognition to the important role that educarers play.
GOOD OPPORTUNITY TO EXCHANGE EXPERIENCES
Today’s conference provides a platform to examine early childhood policies through sharing of experiences and good practices from various countries. In this way, there is no need for us to reinvent the wheel, and we play our part to improve the lives of our children, not just nationally, but also, regionally. Not everything may be relevant to everyone, I think that is a point we all agree. We will have to take into account our own context and needs. When I went to kindergarten many years ago, every kid was given milk to drink because Singapore was at the nascent stage of our development and we were poorer then and milk was expensive. Today, we have a different challenge. Rising obesity among children is the new reality and pre-school nutrition programmes will have to factor this. We now also need more holistic programmes that integrate movement and physical exercises as part of the curriculum.
Today, parents also have higher expectations. So, in addition to core programmes like reading, writing or arithmetic, we also have programmes like speech and drama, computer lessons and music. One of the things about having the vibrancy and many providers is that parents do compare. They say, that kindergarten provides this program why is that not provided in you kindergarten. So, that I think is good because it does provide parents with the possibility to benchmark not just the core services but also other services that they need and then to discuss with the kindergarten operators. Increasingly, in a rapidly changing world which is borderless and boundless, we also need to instill in our children the importance of values, the only constant that will help to develop our children into decent human beings, who can differentiate between right and wrong and who will have compassion for others.
This is the second time that ARNEC and SEED institute are organising the Asia-Pacific regional conference in Singapore. It is an opportunity for the community to network and build the resource pool for early childhood educators to benefit young children and families. Singapore has trained close to 400 government officials from the Asia-Pacific in early childhood education and development under the Singapore Cooperation Programme – which is the platform through which Singapore shares our development experience with others. We have also benefitted from the sharing of experiences and lessons from our regional partners on developments under their respective jurisdictions. It is never a one way process. We constantly learn from each other. And as Ms Rao also mentioned, when we talk about early childhood care and development, we also cannot divorce ourselves from the other equally important pillars, and that is making sure that children have access to effective, good quality healthcare programmes, and also ensuring children grow up in proper homes so that they grow up in a stable environment as well. These are equally important pillars which form also the basic social safety net in Singapore. Education, housing and health, are the three most important core pillars of the social safety net in Singapore.
In conclusion, let me say that these are exciting times for the early childhood care and development sector. I hope that this regional collaboration will provide more opportunities for sharing of knowledge and experiences, create new breakthroughs and strengthen networks. There are so many things that we can do together to create a better future for our children. As adults, I believe you agree with me that this is our shared responsibility.
I wish you an enriching exchange and experience at this conference.