Present pre-school anchors 'will have to up their game'

Pre-school children at EtonHouse in Mountbatten private estate doing outdoor painting with teacher Samantha Morier.

SINGAPORE - With big-name operators setting up more childcare centres in the heartland soon, the two existing anchor operators may have to raise their game, say industry experts.

Although demand for childcare services remains high, the experts hope the authorities will continue to support smaller operators, which will likely face stiffer competition from more established players.

On Monday, EtonHouse International's E-Bridge Pre-school, Kinderland Consortium's Skool4Kidz and Metropolitan YMCA's MY World Preschool were appointed anchor operators.

They join NTUC First Campus' My First Skool and the PAP Community Foundation (PCF) in a scheme that requires them to keep childcare fees affordable. This is in return for preferential allocation of HDB sites at subsidised rentals, and government grants.

They are also the first to qualify for the expanded anchor operator scheme, which was open to private players for the first time last year. When it was first introduced in 2009, it was open only to nonprofit organisations.

Pre-school experts welcome the entry of more operators in the heartland areas.

Of the three new anchor operators, E-Bridge Pre-school and Skool4Kidz are commercially run, while MY World Preschool is led by a non-profit organisation.

Said Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong, who provides educational resources to schools: "(My First Skool and PCF) enjoy all the advantages of the scheme and previously, the mass market was monopolised by these two players. Having more anchor operators puts pressure on the existing ones to up their game."

Dr Christine Chen, president of the Association for Early Childhood Educators (Singapore), agreed, saying the private operators will bring "Orchard Road quality" to the heartland.

"My First Skool and PCF may now have to provide a more diverse curriculum to meet the varying needs of the heartlanders."

NTUC First Campus chief executive Chan Tee Seng said the operator would continue to improve its curriculum. "I think there is more demand than supply... For most of our centres, there are waiting lists."

Last year, the Government pledged to provide 20,000 more childcare places by 2017. Of these, 16,000 are expected to be provided by the five anchor operators.

With big players making their presence felt in the heartland, Mr Yee said smaller players may have to rethink their strategy. He expects a consolidation in the industry.

Dr Khoo Kim Choo, founder of Preschool for Multiple Intelligences, said she hopes the authorities will continue to support the small players. "They are also providing a much-needed service to the community," she said.

Last September, the Government announced a scheme where small and medium operators can apply for rental subsidies when they set up centres in commercial premises in areas with high demand for childcare services.

Ms Loy Wee Mee, director of Pre-School By-the-Park, which has three centres here, said that while the operator did not apply for the rental subsidies, she hopes the authorities can help the industry cope with one major challenge - finding teachers.

"Any form of subsidy for manpower costs would be welcome."

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