SINGAPORE — In the wake of the alleged abuse of children by a former Kinderland teacher, preschool operators have been warned not to hinder teachers from reporting wrongdoing through their management policy on the use of personal mobile devices.
The warning came from Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Social and Family Development, during exchanges on the issue in Parliament on Monday (Sept 18). Various Members of Parliament (MPs) had filed questions and then asked supplementary questions of Ms Sun.
She said that any policy on the use of personal mobile devices that hindered the reporting of wrongdoing observed by teachers was not acceptable.
“This is a clear breach of the operator’s duty to implement an effective reporting mechanism and the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) will take action against the operator.”
She also said that the agency will not impose mandatory psychological screenings for preschool teachers so that such individuals will “not be excluded”, despite some calls for it from several MPs, who said that this could better protect children.
In a session that took around an hour, Ms Sun addressed 19 parliamentary questions filed by MPs on child abuse at preschools, in light of the recent alleged Kinderland case.
A preschool teacher from the school was allegedly caught rough handling and hitting children in a series of viral video clips. She was later arrested and charged on Aug 30 with abusing a 23-month-old girl at its Woodlands Mart centre.
In her response, Ms Sun said that the recent spate of child mismanagement incidents are not “reflective of the wider preschool sector”.
“Many preschool educators have expressed shock and dismay, they have been dedicating their time and energies in caring and nurturing for our children,” she said.
Addressing questions from Ms Mariam Jaafar of Sembawang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and Nominated MP Razwana Begum Abdul Rahim about the frequency of child mismanagement cases, Ms Sun said that there are about 10 substantiated cases per 100,000 enrolled children each year.
“And this figure has remained low and stable over recent years. But of course every case is one too many,” Ms Sun added.
WHAT ECDA IS DOING
To prevent such incidents from happening, Ms Sun said that ECDA will work closely with the preschool sector to strengthen its system of “multi-layered” safeguards that it has built up over the years.
“There are explicit provisions in the Early Childhood Development Centres Act that make clear what actions educators cannot subject children to.”
This includes force feeding, corporal punishment — for example, striking a child or any other form of aggressive contact— neglecting the child and causing psychological trauma.
Ms Sun added that the agency has issued a code of practice to further detail what preschools have to do to meet these requirements by stipulating that educators’ interactions with children must be “respectful, responsive and reciprocal to support children’s learning and development”.
However, she said that ECDA cannot work alone to safeguard children’s safety in preschools and this multi-layered system requires operators, centres and educators to do their part as well.
For instance, all operators have to put in place appropriate policies to maintain a safe environment for children, as well as ensure that staff members are aware of these rules.
Educators who have been assessed to “pose a risk to children’s safety” such as those with previous criminal offences will not be allowed to be deployed, Ms Sun said.
She added that those with a history of mental illness must declare this and obtain a certification that he or she is suitable to work with young children.
On this point, Ms Carrie Tan of Nee Soon GRC asked if ECDA would consider making mental screening mandatory for future or existing operators and principals to ensure that they can maintain a culture of respect for children.
However, Ms Sun cautioned against doing so because there are those who may be struggling with mental health conditions but their conditions can be well-managed with proper advice and medications from doctors.
Ms Sun added that there is already a declaration form that potential educators must complete regarding any existing mental health conditions and a need for a psychiatrist’s certification that he or she can work with children.
“So I think that is the balance that we have to put in place to ensure child safety while ensuring that we do not stigmatise mental health conditions in our society.”
‘NOT FOR A LACK OF POLICIES’
Ms Sun also reiterated the point that ECDA has mandated all preschools to install CCTV cameras by July 2024.
However, Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa questioned the “excessive” one-year schedule and asked if it was possible to introduce this within three to four months.
Ms Sun responded that operators will need time to procure their CCTV systems and identify where are the appropriate places to install them.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development announced in August that more than 60 per cent of preschools and 100 per cent of EI centres have already installed CCTV cameras on their premises.
MP Joan Pereira of Tanjong Pagar GRC also asked for the ministry’s view on the installation of audio recorders instead of CCTVs to cover blind spots in preschools such as bathrooms and changing rooms.
To this, Ms Sun said that some parents and teachers may feel that having audio recorders in the toilet is “an invasion of privacy”.
“I would rather that we spend time educating our teachers, be it pre-service or in service, rather than overly rely on digital means to monitor actions,” she added.
Mr Gerald Giam of Aljunied GRC also asked if ECDA can require all preschools to adopt a child protection policy.
Holding up a thick file of paper, Ms Sun said that these are three sets of documents consisting of 206 pages, which govern early childhood development as well as the various policies that are in place to protect children.
“All these are policies, which we constantly review, which we constantly engage industry and operators on. It is not for a lack of policies,” she said.
“We can have all the policies under the sun in the world but what is important is how well it is executed on the ground.”