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

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.

Previously in Part I, we discussed Singapore’s progress towards quality in the ECCE sector. In Part II of this series, we turn towards the accessibility of ECCE, then synthesise the issues of quality and access to deliver insights regarding the industry as a whole.

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

Access to Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE)

The push for more affordable childcare

Singapore’s preschool enrollment rate is very high — as of 2016, over 90% of Singaporean children aged five to six years are enrolled in preschool [1]. Even so, the government has taken further steps to widen the affordability and accessibility of childcare.

For instance, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) has expanded its childcare subsidy schemes to make raising children more affordable. These measures provide up to S$767 in monthly subsidies to households with a monthly income ceiling of S$12,000 [2].

Childcare centres also include those under the Anchor Operator Scheme (AOP) and the Partner Operator Scheme (POP). The former began in 2009 and supports preschool operators, while the latter started in 2016 and supports childcare centres, to provide good quality and affordable ECCE to children. ECDA has appointed 324 childcare centres under POP and 5 preschool operators under AOP as of now [3]. Both schemes provide additional subsidies for lower income families.

From 2018, anchor operators also opened “mega childcare centres” in high-demand estates, offering a total of 2,700 places [4]. These bring affordable childcare within the convenient reach of many families.

Some still fall through the cracks

While the government has taken commendable action to expand access, there is still room to reach out to specific demographics, such as children from low-income families. While preschool enrollment rates are high on paper, some low-income children fall through the cracks. Additionally, preschool teachers have flagged higher absenteeism from low-income children as a source of concern [5].

This is concerning because quality ECCE has lasting effects on children’s holistic growth and learning potential, even more so for children growing up in disadvantaged backgrounds [6]. Upon entering the formal school system in Primary 1, children are also expected to demonstrate a baseline of cognitive and social competencies, much of which can be learnt in preschool [7]. Should lower-income children be unable to tap on a strong ECCE foundation, academic and social inequality could snowball in their formal schooling years [8].

Ms. Chong Ning Qian, former Senior Executive at Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), was part of the research and advocacy team that produced a report [9] on low-income women’s experiences juggling work and care. Ms. Chong explained that despite prevailing subsidies, low-income households may find it difficult to access the highest level of subsidies due to high compliance costs. To unlock a significant Additional Subsidy from ECDA, worth up to S$1,160 monthly in infant care or S$617 in childcare subsidies, families have to be dual-income (see Table 2). That is, in addition to a working father, a mother has to work at least 56 hours a week [10].

  Working Applicant Non-working Applicant
Basic Subsidy (in SGD) Additional Subsidy (in SGD) Basic Subsidy (in SGD) Additional Subsidy (in SGD)
Infant Care (2-18 months) $600 Up to $710 $150 NA
Child Care (18 months-2 years) $300 Up to $467 $150 NA

Table 2: ECDA financial assistance schemes available for preschool education. [2]

In AWARE’s experience, many low-income mothers face issues meeting the work requirements. In cases of informal or home-based work, work hours could be irregular and difficult to document. Those on short-term contract jobs may also find it difficult to get the full range of subsidies if their contracts are not renewed.

Moreover, childcare centres are unable to accommodate low-income parents who work flexible hours or overtime. Ms. Chong iterated that as of August 2020, only about 4% of centres operated beyond 7 p.m. on weekdays, “catering to the needs of parents who work outside standard hours”. As a result, childcare centres become less attractive to parents working odd hours, who must look for alternatives.

Special Approvals are available for individuals that do not meet the requirements for specific reasons, including if mothers are pregnant or looking for employment. [11] However, applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis, often require substantive supporting documentation, and lead to a limited period of assistance. As such, applicants often require assistance from a social worker, who guides applicants through the process. In some cases, a social worker’s “letter of recommendation” becomes key to accessing subsidised childcare [12]. However, not every applicant is assigned a social worker and they may thus be excluded from accessing the full range of subsidies.

Furthermore, while childcare operators are compensated by the government for the additional subsidies themselves, processing subsidies incur high administrative costs which are not fully captured by the existing subsidy system. Maintaining records of subsidy appeals and grants as well as mothers’ employment statuses requires extensive paperwork and continuous communication between the operators, parents, and ECDA. This places immense pressure on the operators, which then creates a “disincentive for operators to enrol low-income children” [13].

The need for greater, more targeted support

To widen access, further government support is crucial. The government is making encouraging moves in this direction, announcing that by “around 2025”, 8 in 10 — or about 200,000 — children will have a place in a Government-supported preschool [14].

On the other hand, ECDA can go one step further to overcome the high costs of accessing subsidies by making childcare automatically free for all low-income families, Ms. Chong suggested. This would allow more children to enter childcare centres without financial worry and alleviate childcare operators from continuous monitoring and paperwork.

For select groups of children, such as those from lower-income families or those with special needs, more targeted interventions would be helpful in addition to the more general schemes available. Tackling the root causes of why some lower-income children have lower attendance rates, or supporting kindergartens in their capacity to take in children with special needs, for example, could prove fruitful.

To this end, existing government programmes such as KidSTART, a holistic programme that supports low-income children and parents up till the age of six with programmes such as home visitation, community-based playgroups, and enhanced preschool support, are promising. KidSTART has currently served 1,000 children since it was established in 2016, and plans to serve 5,000 more by 2025 [15].

Quality and Access: Putting it All Together

In an ideal world, quality and accessibility in early childhood education would come hand in hand. However, these goals are not always easily attainable in tandem.

Amidst the downward cost pressures of capping kindergarten fees, tension exists between ensuring preschool affordability and delivering highest-quality education. “My view is that we have to try and disentangle quality and cost, because it is very hard to put a value on quality; good quality education and preschool education is priceless,” Prof. Ang noted. Ideally, ECCE centres would start from the premise of quality education, then build out a feasible level of provision from this baseline.

However, this is easier said than done.

“Good quality education cannot be provided on the cheap — that is the bottom line,” Prof. Ang commented. In order to make ECCE affordable enough to be widely accessible, the government will need to work with preschool providers to prioritise setting quality standards for the ECCE industry, so as to ensure these standards are applied equitably across all preschools over other ‘good-to-have’ markers such as rigorous certification regimes and academically-intensive pedagogy.

Indeed, in a mixed ECCE system like Singapore’s, where public and private, and for-profit and non-profit operators coexist, some level of economic inequality in childcare opportunities will exist.

In order to balance the diversity of parental choice while ensuring that all ECCE programmes provide children with equal opportunities when they go on to primary school, government support is instrumental. Be it supply-side subsidies, support for parents, or widening the number of spaces in schools, these interventions are the only way to make quality, affordable education viable for all.

Early childhood education is hugely important. Beyond being a vehicle for parents to re-enter the workforce, quality education has lasting impacts on children’s holistic growth and learning potential, and sets the stage for a child’s education in the years to come [16]. Yet, the issues facing the sector are complex.

More government intervention, not less, will be instrumental in the coming years. Government policy will set the tone for the value Singapore places on preschool education, as well as the direction of quality education. While recognising the government’s budget constraints, we hope that due attention will be focused on the ECCE sector as a critical bridge for equality and quality learning.

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. “Statistics On Singaporean Children Who Have Not Attended Pre-School.” Ministry of Social and Family Development, August 15, 2016.
  2. “Subsidies and Financial Assistance.” Early Childhood Development Assistance , November 2020.
  3. ‘Partner Operator Scheme’. Early Childhood Development Assistance, Apr 2021. Accessed 19 July 2021.
  4. Goy, Priscilla. “Quality Is Key for Childcare.” The Straits Times, January 21, 2017.
  5. “The Big Read: Educators Flag Absentee Rate of Children of Low-Income Families as a Concern.” TODAYonline, August 1, 2015.
  6. Lim, Sirene. “Commentary: Long-Neglected but Now in the Spotlight, Singapore’s Pre-School Sector.” CNA, February 3, 2021.
  7. “Primary 1 English: 8 Things Your Child Must Know before He Starts Primary School.” AsiaOne, May 21, 2019.
  8. Vital Voices for Vital Years 2: Perspectives on Early Childhood Development in Singapore. Singapore: Lien Foundation, 2019.
  9. ‘Why Are You Not Working’, Association of Women for Action and Research, 2019. Accessed 19 July 2021.
  10. Note: For single-parent families, the single parent has to work at least 56 hours a week.
  11. ‘Subsidies and Financial Assistance’. Early Childhood Development Agency, 2020. Accessed 19 July 2021.
  12. Why Are You Not Working’, Association of Women for Action and Research, 2019. Accessed 19 July 2021.
  13. Why Are You Not Working’, Association of Women for Action and Research, 2019. Accessed 19 July 2021.
  14. “How Is Preschool in Singapore Being Made More Affordable and Accessible?” Gov.SG, June 26, 2020.
  15. ‘KidSTART’. Early Childhood Development Agency, March 2021. Accessed 19 July 2021.
  16. Lim, Sirene. “Commentary: Long-Neglected but Now in the Spotlight, Singapore’s Pre-School Sector.” CNA, February 3, 2021.

Image Credit: The New Paper

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