What ails the pre-school sector

Pre-school teachers have been in the news this month for the wrong reasons.

A part-time teacher from the NTUC My First Skool centre in Toa Payoh was caught on closed-circuit television cameras rough-handling a three-year-old boy. She was arrested and dismissed from the centre, which also had its licence tenure cut following investigations by the authorities.

In another disturbing case, a former kindergarten teacher physically abused a five-year-old girl and made her strip naked in front of her classmates. The former teacher was recently put on probation, as it transpired she had been the victim of prolonged sexual abuse as a child.

Presumably, employers have no way of checking for a family history of abuse, although someone with that background should not be in a frontline job moulding and disciplining young children. But why were there no checks and balances such that no other teacher intervened, and the girl's parents found out about the punishment only from her classmates' parents?

As a working mother with two children in a childcare centre, I wonder if teachers, including part-timers, are given adequate training to handle difficult children.

The large number of part-timers in childcare was highlighted by Dr Phyllis Chew, an associate professor at the National Institute of Education, in a letter to The Straits Times' Forum Page earlier this month. "Most of them are poorly trained," she wrote.

These two cases should be seen as signs of strain in a pre-school system bursting at the seams, especially for childcare. My First Skool is a chain of more than 90 childcare centres based mainly in HDB estates, run by NTUC First Campus - one of two anchor operators in the pre-school sector along with the PAP Community Foundation.

With the burgeoning demand for affordable childcare by working parents, sweetened by government fee subsidies, My First Skool plans to open 15 to 20 new centres a year for the next two years. This was revealed by its general manager, Mrs Adeline Tan, in a recent interview with EduNation, a bi-monthly education magazine.

In the rush to expand, where is the sector going to find enough trained teachers? The pay is low compared to teachers in primary and secondary schools, and the work days are long - four hours daily for kindergarten teachers and up to 12 hours a day for childcare teachers. The latter work a 51/2-day week.

Childcare professionals I spoke to say part-timers are employed because of the acute shortage of pre-school teachers. Part-timers with no certificate or diploma in early childhood education cannot teach, but only assist teachers.

"However, employment of these part-timers must be monitored and regulated," says Mr Philip Koh, consultant and co-founder of Preschool Teachers Network - Singapore, which hopes to raise the profile of pre-school teachers.

In theory, new teachers should be assigned mentors. But he says this is not always possible, or effective, "as centres are usually shorthanded and mentors do find it a challenge to provide consistent and regular feedback that new teachers need".

My own experiences with pre-school teachers have so far been pleasant, with my two young ones spending most of their weekday hours in a mid-market, privately run childcare centre.

My friendly 10-month-old had no problems adjusting to infantcare.

His moodier 21/2-year-old sister throws the occasional tantrum when roused from bed to go to school, but the weekly strides she has made in social and language skills have impressed me.

Their teachers update me on their development at regular parent- teacher sessions or when I drop the kids off at school. So far there is no indication that we are anything other than partners in wanting the best for the children.

Two of them, in particular, made an impression on me. One was a petite, articulate, tudung-clad infant care teacher who always radiated calm and good cheer. Most importantly, my sometimes-aloof daughter loved her. Unfortunately she left the centre over a year ago.

Another is my daughter's current nursery teacher, a 30-something with corkscrew curls who struck me as being both kind and authoritative. She called me a few months ago when my daughter went on a food strike - the girl refused to eat lunch at the centre for a week, for no apparent reason - and gave me an extensive account of how they were dealing with it.

Since then, whenever I see her in school, she often updates me about my daughter's personality quirks, giving me a good insight into her behaviour in school.

Clearly, there are serious, hardworking childcare professionals out there. But job turnover is high and there are many issues for pre-school operators, the Government and parents to ponder.

Of the 11,000 professionals in the sector, more than 76 per cent of teachers have a diploma or are being trained in early childhood development, compared to 55 per cent five years ago.

Beyond raising qualifications of new entrants, insiders say continual professional development is lacking, such as regular refresher or enrichment courses. While the rules forbid corporal punishment, including hitting or shoving a child, centres need to take that a step further and have standard operating procedures on handling everything from biting to tantrums in the most constructive ways.

Once shunted between the ministries of Education and Social and Family Development, the sector is now directed by a newly formed statutory board, the Early Childhood Development Agency. But it does not have control over teachers' pay, as a majority of childcare centres and kindergartens are privately run.

Childcare teachers are generally paid between $1,950 and $2,350 a month, with part-time teachers earning as little as $1,000 a month.

Mandating a national pay scale, as some have argued for, would raise costs for childcare operators and end up raising fees too.

The move to let large private operators with a good track record enter the anchor operator scheme - which gives them preferential allocation of choice HDB sites at subsidised rentals - may influence salary rises throughout the sector. This is because anchor operators get grants to offset teachers' salaries in return for capping fees.

But as anchor operators are obliged to ramp up capacity to meet mass-market demand, they will also be hard-pressed to find and train more teachers. Perhaps what is needed is a national campaign to recruit pre-school teachers and improve their image.

Finally, parents need to rethink the prevailing image of childcare centres as places where they park their children while they work.

They should be concerned about the holistic development of the child, and if there are disciplinary issues, to address them at home as well.

When one pre-school teacher snaps, it may well be an isolated case. With two, it is time to put the entire system under a microscope.

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