Preschools for the People: An Examination of Singapore’s Early Childhood Education Landscape (Part I)

Roosevelt@Yale-NUS delves into Singapore’s Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) landscape, examining the current state of quality and access in the sector in a two-part series.

In Part I, we zoom into the varied definitions of quality in ECCE and evaluate recent government measures to uplift quality and improve teacher training and retention.

By Afiya Dikshit (’23), Dineshram Sukumar (’24), Lim Tian Jiao (’23), Shanna Kaur (’23), and Zen Alexander Goh (’23).

Singapore’s 2020 Census revealed that the country’s birth rate is at its lowest recorded. Considering the high costs and stresses [1] of raising a child here, this is perhaps unsurprising. This is apparent even in the search for preschool — the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) sector can be difficult to navigate, with a wide array of choices on one hand and limited spaces on the other.

In response to these challenges, the Singapore government has stepped up its commitment to childcare provision in recent years. New initiatives are regulating the sector, providing new opportunities to preschool teachers, and expanding access to and affordability of childcare. How have these initiatives affected quality and access in the ECCE sector?

Roosevelt@Yale-NUS speaks to industry stakeholders to find out more.

A Snapshot of the Landscape

With the exception of 36 Ministry of Education (MOE)-run Kindergartens [2], Singapore’s ECCE scene remains a privatised industry with about 1,900 preschools in operation [3]. Though pre-primary education is not compulsory, ECCE remains critical for two key reasons: it supports mothers [4] in returning to the workforce and prepares children [5] for the rigours of formal education.

The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) landscape has become more competitive in recent years, in part because of a mismatch between demand and supply. In 2017, a shortage of childcare spaces meant that some parents in Punggol and Sengkang had to wait up to 12 months for a spot for their children.

Furthermore, as a loosely regulated sector with a wide range of providers, Singapore’s ECCE landscape has also been noted to be of “uneven quality” [6], with stark fee differences contributing to unequal levels of access to preschool education.

The Singapore government is increasingly intervening in the sector to ensure that baseline standards of quality and affordability are met. In 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore’s S$1 billion annual spending on early childhood education will “more than double” over the coming years. This target persists even amidst economic headwinds from the Covid-19 pandemic [7].

Quality in ECCE

Understanding Quality in ECCE

Among the various government expenditures on ECCE, a significant portion is allocated to enhancing quality. The Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) has stated that quality education is necessary to ensure “developmentally appropriate learning experiences for young children to develop holistically and nurture positive attitudes towards learning” [8].

Nevertheless, the issue of quality in early childhood education remains a challenge for the ECCE sector, since there is no fixed definition of the term. Quality in the ECCE sector encompasses a variety of elements, including teacher-student ratio, teacher qualifications, classroom experiences and interactions, and curriculum [9]. Any combination of these factors affects the overall quality of the ECCE services provided. While recent measures are comforting, the overall quality of the ECCE sector is not fully clear.

We categorise efforts to uplift quality into two main components: (1) creating baseline standards that the ECCE industry has to adhere to; and (2) enhancing ECCE pedagogy and delivery with features such as experiential learning and “warm and supportive” teacher-student relationships, which result in “intellectual curiosity and keen inquiry” among students [9]. As the former plays a larger role in ensuring more children receive an acceptable baseline quality of ECCE, it is no surprise most government ECCE initiatives aim to regulate and uplift ECCE baseline standards.

Setting standards on teacher training

Most prominently, the government has long recognised the importance of introducing a top-down notion of educator training. Since 2008, the MOE has endorsed training accreditation schemes to enhance the consistency of teacher training across the board [10]. However, a 2012 Lien Foundation report [11] posited that teachers are inclined to attend the “quickest and easiest” programs, suggesting that approved courses vary in rigour and content. This could hamper the effectiveness of training should teachers shy away from more effort-intensive but important programmes. The sheer variety of private training providers further exacerbates the quality discrepancies between various training programs.

To remedy this, the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC) was set up in 2019 to raise “standards of preschool teacher training” [12]. NIEC works with ECDA to develop quality preparatory and professional development for ECCE educators with a degree of national standardisation that was previously absent. In doing so, it aims to better prepare and upskill ECCE educators, enabling them to deliver higher standards of ECCE services. NIEC is also working towards standardising training curriculum for ECCE educators across itself and private training agencies.

However, given NIEC’s recent inception, it is too early to definitively see the effectiveness of such measures. Dr. Sandra Wu Pinhui, Lecturer (Policy, Curriculum and Leadership) at Singapore’s National Institute of Education, believes that for effectiveness to be seen, standardisation efforts would require time, rounds of revision, refinement and implementation to meet quality training standards.

More transparent benchmarks welcome

Additionally in 2019, ECDA moved towards better regulation of quality by refining SPARK, its ECCE quality assurance framework. SPARK assesses and accredits Early Childhood Development Centres via a quality rating scale, which was revised to integrate quality indicators for programmes that cater to children from birth to six years and include additional indicators.

Take-up has been relatively strong in the ECCE sector — although accreditation is not compulsory, close to 50% of preschools have been SPARK-certified as of 2020 [13]. This points to an increased recognition of the importance of this baseline direction.

SPARK certification serves as an indicator of quality for preschools to meet and for parents to expect. However, the certification is awarded based on evaluation across 8 criteria and these scores are not made publicly available. This means it is easy to be unsure of what areas of quality a SPARK-certified preschool excels in.

To prevent this, it would be helpful to highlight the criteria that a preschool excels in. SPARK certification ought to be viewed as a minimum accreditation for preschools, rather than as a sign of excellence. Instead, more emphasis should be placed on educating parents on what it means for a pre-school to be SPARK-certified, suggests Professor of Early Childhood Lynn Ang, who has co-authored two extensive research studies into Singapore’s early childhood education scene. These would give greater clarity of the criteria for SPARK certification and enable parents to make more informed decisions about the preschool for their children.

Respect and recognition remain core issues

Besides challenges in forming frameworks to evaluate ECCE services, undervaluation of jobs in the ECCE sector remains a significant obstacle when it comes to retaining quality educarers [14].

The government has made efforts to attract more individuals to enter the ECCE sector through traineeship postings and work attachments. Over 1900 job postings have been made available through the skills framework developed by SkillsFuture Singapore, EDCA, and Workforce Singapore (WSG), in partnership with early childhood stakeholders [15]. Despite these efforts in anticipation of the increased demand for ECCE services, below-average salaries continue to be a hurdle.

In 2020, the median gross monthly income from work [16] (including CPF contributions) for full-time employed residents was S$4,534. However, many ECCE teachers make significantly less than this figure (see Table 1). Only educators under the leadership track, who take on centre or teacher leadership roles, can expect to earn the median or higher, between the range of S$3,100 and S$7,600.

Median Gross (nationwide) Educarers (work with children 2 months to 4 years old) Educators on teacher track (work with children between 4 and 6 years) Educators on leader track (centre or teacher leadership focus)
Monthly Income (in SGD) 4,534 1,800 to 3,150 2,200 to 3,550 3,100 to 7,600

Table 1: Monthly income ranges for educators in the ECCE sector. [15]

To further address the undervaluation of ECCE practitioners, ECDA began giving out yearly awards from 2019 to recognise exemplary individuals in the ECCE field, so as to increase its professional appeal [17]. However, this does little to correct the societal undervaluation of ECCE jobs in practice. Practitioners have often cited a lack of support in their early career as well as overbearing pressure from parents as some of the challenges they face [18]. These mounting pressures can lead to burnout.

As Prof. Ang and Dr. Wu noted, challenges such as parental pressures point to a large societal issue: a lack of understanding and appreciation of the vital role that ECCE practitioners play. Rather than relying solely on practitioners and regulators within the ECCE sector to alleviate overbearing pressures from parents, the government and parents alike should recognise the part they have to play in supporting ECCE practitioners.

Lastly, it must be noted that there is no one catch-all definition of a good ECCE institution: quality depends very much on a child’s individual needs. A child could be enrolled in a preschool that meets all the ‘model’ pedagogical frameworks, but the final benchmark of quality education lies in whether or not the child enjoys and is receptive to learning at their preschool. Singapore’s highly competitive and academic-driven society could encourage parents to choose academically rigorous preschools that may not be best-suited to their child instead of centering on their child’s developmental needs, Prof. Ang noted. As such, more can be done to inform parents on the role of the ECCE sector in their child’s development as well as to develop a deeper appreciation of the practitioners they interact with.

Without a paradigm shift that prioritises child development over precocity, there is unlikely to be a sustainable reduction in pressures faced by ECCE practitioners, as practitioners will have to juggle child development and parental expectations of academic success, detracting from their ability to prioritise child development. As a consequence, retaining quality ECCE practitioners will remain an uphill battle.

In the next piece of this two-part series, we discuss government measures and barriers to access in the ECCE industry.

Roosevelt@Yale-NUS thanks our expert interviewees for their valuable contributions to our series.

Dr. Wu Pinhui, Sandra (吴品慧), EdD, is currently teaching pre-service teachers and Masters students at the National Institute of Education, an institute of Nanyang Technological University,  Singapore. She is the programme leader for the Master of Arts (Educational Management) programme. Prior to joining academia, she had worked in government ministries serving early childhood education and was adjunct lecturer with National Institute of Education International and Singapore University of Social Sciences. She has conducted research in the local pre-school and primary school contexts, and early childhood arts education in Melbourne.

Prof. Lynn Ang is Professor of Early Childhood and Vice-Dean for Research at UCL, Institute of Education in London, United Kingdom. Her research interests include early childhood education across cultures particularly in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. Prof. Ang is interested in the social, cultural, and policy influences on children’s development and early learning in a range of formal and informal contexts. Her research centers on the early years curriculum, international early years policy, and issues of diversity and inequality. Prof. Ang is particularly interested in constructions of early childhood care and education from an international perspective, the impact of research, and the ways in which socially relevant research and advocacy for children and families are translated into policy and practice.

Ms. Chong Ning Qian is a former Senior Executive of Research at the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). Her research at AWARE delved into women and children’s rights with regards to early childhood education, culminating in news articles and AWARE reports. She has written numerous policy papers and also made policy suggestions to the government. Ms. Chong has also published in newspapers to provide a feminist analysis on numerous issues including burdens women face in the workforce. Her work also extends to single parents, for whom Ms. Chong has heavily advocated for greater accessibility to housing.


  1. Tan, Poh Lin. “Lessons from Singapore on Raising Fertility Rates .” Lessons from Singapore on Raising Fertility Rates . Accessed August 2, 2021.
  2. “Ministry of Education.” Overview of MOE Kindergarten. Ministry of Education, July 26, 2021.
  3. Annual Factsheet on ECDC Services . Early Childhood Development Agency , 2021.
  4. Klerman, Jacob Alex, and Arleen Leibowitz. ‘Child Care and Women’s Return to Work After Childbirth’. The American Economic Review 80, no. 2 (1990): 284–88.
  5. Kaveri, G. “Commentary: Getting Kids Ready for Primary School Has to Start Even before They Attend Pre-School.” Channel NewsAsia, April 16, 2021.
  6. Vital Voices for Vital Years 2: Perspectives on Early Childhood Development in Singapore. Singapore: Lien Foundation, 2019.
  7. Karuppiah, N. “Want your kids to have a high quality preschool education? Here’s what it means.” TODAYonline, March 4, 2020.
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  9. Lim, Sirene. “Commentary: Long-Neglected but Now in the SPOTLIGHT, Singapore’s PRE-SCHOOL Sector.” Channel NewsAsia, September 15, 2019.
  10. ‘PQAC Accreditation Standards’. Ministry of Education, 2008. Accessed 19 July 2021.
  11. Ang, Lynn. Vital Voices for Vital Years: A Study of Leaders’ Perspectives on Improving the Early Childhood Sector in Singapore. Singapore: Lien Foundation, 2012.
  12. About Us | Early Childhood Education Singapore | NIEC’, National Institute of Early Childhood Development, 2021. Accessed 19 July 2021.
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  14. Vital Voices for Vital Years 2: Perspectives on Early Childhood Development in Singapore. Singapore: Lien Foundation, 2019.
  15. Yang, Calvin. “More than 1,900 Jobs Available in Early Childhood Sector; 8 in 10 for PMETs.” The Straits Times, November 2, 2020.
  16. ‘Summary Table: Income’. Ministry of Manpower, 2021. Accessed 19 July 2021.
  17. ‘ECDA Awards’. Early Childhood Development Agency, 2021. Accessed 19 July 2021.
  18. Vital Voices for Vital Years 2: Perspectives on Early Childhood Development in Singapore. Singapore: Lien Foundation, 2019.

Image Credit: The New Paper

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