SINGAPORE - Just Kids Learning Place has opened one new centre every year since 2004 - until recently.
The childcare chain, which has seven centres, has not been able to find a suitable site in the past two years due to the keen competition among operators for space to expand.
This has in turn pushed up rental rates to as much as $40,000 from $20,000 five years ago.
"While there is strong demand for childcare places, we find it hard to expand because of the lack of suitable sites and trained teachers," said Ms Lurvin Lee, director of the pre-school chain.
Meanwhile, demand for childcare services has almost doubled in the past eight years, as more working parents enrol their children in pre-schools.
Last year, 75,530 children were enrolled in these centres, up from 44,224 in 2005 - even though the number of children aged seven and below has remained stable at about 280,000 in the past decade.
Queueing up for a childcare place
The result: a worsening childcare crunch, with some parents having to wait as long as two years for a place at the more popular centres.
As at August, all estates across Singapore have enrolment rates exceeding 73 per cent.
In "hot" areas like Punggol and Sengkang, which tend to attract more young couples, the figure can go up to close to 90 per cent.
To meet the growing demand, the Early Childhood Development Agency, which oversees the sector, has recently rolled out a slew of measures to encourage operators to set up more centres.
These include offering rental subsidies to eligible private operators who agree to keep fees affordable.
The aim is to add 20,000 more places by 2017 - enough for one in two children, up from one in three now.
But the impact of the measures will go beyond adding places. They will allow the Government to better regulate the industry in terms of fees and quality, short of nationalising the sector as some have suggested, say observers.
Greater control over fees
THE rising cost of childcare has been a bugbear for parents.
According to latest figures, the median fee for a full-day childcare programme has surged to $788 a month as at the end of August, up from $620 in 2008.
Some parents have also complained about regular fee hikes by some of the pre-schools.
This has led to concerns about quality childcare getting out of reach for the average Singaporean family.
Currently, the two anchor operators - NTUC's My First Skool and the PAP Community Foundation - get government help, such as rental subsidies and priority in securing HDB premises for new centres.
In exchange, they have to keep fees below the industry median.
But commercial operators, who account for close to 70 per cent of the centres here, do not have to follow fee guidelines.
However, this would change under a new scheme which allows commercial entities to be anchor operators. They will be required to keep fees below $720 a month for full-day childcare.
The Straits Times understands that at least 10 of the bigger operators have applied for the scheme. Several other new schemes also require operators to keep their fees low.
Said Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong, who provides educational resources to schools: "When the Government gives all these goodies, there are fee conditions and this gives them a hold over the fees of a larger pool of childcare centres."
Bigger say over quality
The quality of pre-school programmes is another concern.
Most of the new schemes announced this year have one thing in common: the quality of programme is a prerequisite.
Early childhood expert Khoo Kim Choo said this shows that the Government is being "more stringent" in ensuring quality standards, and at the end of the day, parents stand to benefit.
"By introducing more players in the anchor operator scheme, the good-quality programmes are more accessible to the masses," said Dr Khoo, who runs the Preschool for Multiple Intelligences.
"There would also be more competition among the big players, and this means greater diversity and more choices for parents."
Parent Felix Tan, who has a one-year-old son in childcare and plans to send his daughter, who will be born in December, to infant-care, welcomed the measures.
Said the 29-year-old IT consultant: "There are now just two options for the mass market.
"Having more anchor operators would lead to more competition and hopefully they would improve the quality of their programmes."
But one key concern stands in the way of the Government's efforts to grow the childcare sector: a shortage of teachers.
The low pay and the lack of opportunities for career progression has long been a bugbear in attracting and retaining talent in the industry, said Mr Ang Teck Hua, director of the Centre for Child Study at Temasek Polytechnic.
The rate of teachers dropping out of the industry is high partly because the admission process into early childhood courses is too lax, he pointed out.
"While we need to increase the number of teachers, we also have to attract the right people," he said.
He suggested tweaking the polytechnic admissions process and having a mandatory mentoring scheme for new teachers.
The Early Childhood Development Agency is expected to announce new manpower initiatives for the sector next month.
Said Ms Lee of Just Kids Learning Place: "Training teachers, especially good ones, will take much longer than building centres."
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