By Elysa Chen
QUICK, who's paid less?
Pre-school teacher or lorry attendant?
If you guessed lorry attendant, you got it wrong.
Yes, your children's early education is in the hands of teachers who are paid less than lorry attendants and pest exterminators.
That's according to Ministry of Manpower figures released on 30Jun. Pre-school teachers are among the 10 lowest paid at about $1,100. (See table.)
Mrs Jessie Chang, 38, who teaches the nursery class in a kindergarten, said she earns barely that much, despite six years of experience. Her starting salary was only $800.
The New Paper on Sunday spoke to pre-school teachers and principals and learnt that on average those with a diploma in pre-school teaching earn between $1,500 and $2,600.
Unlike teachers with the Ministry of Education, a pre-school teacher's pay is determined by the school. The less business it has, the less it pays teachers.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a kindergarten principal with 10 years' experience said a pre-school teacher's pay depends on the teacher's educational qualifications and experience, with performance in school also being considered.
She added: 'Eventually, when we have teachers with degrees, fees will go up as parents will understand that they are paying for the quality of teachers.'
Mrs Chang, who holds a diploma in early childhood education, said: 'Our salary increment is really like a tortoise crawling. Even part-time salesgirls earn more than us.'
She was drawing a salary of $1,600 as a secretary in a computer firm, but quit when her husband was posted overseas.
She went into pre-school teaching as it let her have more time with her children. It turned out to be tougher than she thought.
'You have to teach them how to hold the pencil, clean the children up when they soil themselves, organise concerts, deal with their anxiety after they are separated from their parents, and gain their trust,' said MrsChang, who takes care of 24 children.
'We are the ones laying the foundation for their education in primary school, but we rarely get the recognition for our work. Sometimes, I feel like quitting.'
But she chooses to stay on because of the happiness she brings to her little wards.
Parents like Mr C H Ong are calling for higher pay, of at least $1,500 for pre-school teachers.
Mr Ong, 34, whose daughter is turning 3 years old, said he felt that a starting pay of $1,100 is 'crazy'.
He said: 'It's not right that the teachers are paid so little. They are like second mothers to the children. They should be rewarded, and their efforts should be recognised through their pay.'
Here's the nub, though. He's not prepared to pay more in school fees.
But some parents do pay a lot.
While a PAP Community Foundation kindergarten charges about $100 a month for a half-day programme, private kindergartens charge anywhere from $200 to more than $1,000 a month.
Housewife Belinda Poh, 45, a mother of three children, aged between 8 and 13, said she would pay more for better teachers.
She said: 'You'd be surprised at how important the work of pre-school teachers is. If they are not well-trained, they cannot detect symptoms of autism and sensory processing disorder in children, and will not be able to do early intervention.'
The problem of low pay for early childhood educators is a 'universal' problem, noted Mr John Cooley, 60, the executive principal of EtonHouse School Singapore.
He said that while many people now view pre-schools as providing only child-minding services, this is slowly changing.
'It is gaining recognition, and people are starting to realise the critical importance in giving their children a head start through a learning environment that stimulates their curiosity and sense of wonderment, and turns them into life-long learners. This requires very competent, well-educated and reflective teachers,' he said.
To attract teachers of such calibre, said MrCooley, schools have to be willing to pay a reasonable salary, perhaps even matching those who teach at primary and secondary levels.
While he declined to reveal how much his pre-school teachers earn, he said they are paid higher than the industry standard.
If the pay is no good, they leave. Parents, teachers and principals said pre-school teachers often quit after a short time on the job.
Mr Tan Hwee Yong, 35, a technical officer who sends his daughter to a pre-school, said: 'Passion for the job is important, but it only gets you so far. We should pay higher salaries to attract good teachers.'
Worst paid jobs
1. Office cleaner $600
2. Manufacturing labourer and related worker $760
3. Kitchen assistant $991
4. Plastic product machine operator $994
5. Hospital attendant $1,000
6. Travel agency and related clerk $1,016
7. Waiter $1,080
8. Pre-primary education teachers $1,100
9. Lorry attendant $1,102
10. Pest exterminator $1,106
(Based on median starting salary)
This article was first published in The New Paper.