SINGAPORE — On an average week in school, five-year-old Jacob could be found on campus making donuts, learning the recorder, or honing his acting chops in drama class. Soon, he will even learn how to play the violin.
This exposure to myriad extra-curricular activities is one of the main reasons Mr Sebastian Goh, 34, enrolled his son in a private preschool in Farrer Park — even though it sets him back about S$1,800 every month after subsidies.
“It’s like an interest check,” said Mr Goh, who works in insurance as a corporate trainer.
“We are giving him the master checklist, so he can kind of see everything. If he likes something then he can pursue it, but if he doesn’t, then so be it. It’s like a starter course for everything, that’s how I see it.”
Safety measures in preschools have been on Singaporeans’ minds in recent weeks after two Kinderland outlets made headlines for cases of child mismanagement.
With Kinderland charging fees as high as S$1,794 for its childcare and kindergarten programmes, some parents are questioning just how different a child’s experience is at pricier, private preschools — as opposed to those that receive funding from the Government.
In Singapore, most children attend a two-year kindergarten programme in preparation for their admission into primary school, and subsidies by the Government keep fees generally affordable for parents.
For children who are Singapore citizens aged five to six, the preschool participation rate is 97 per cent in 2022, according to the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA).
However, while enrolling a child into a kindergarten programme in government-supported preschools costs around S$160 a month, monthly fees at schools run by private operators like the one Jacob attends can go up to S$3,000.
For children under five years old in pre-nursery or nursery programmes in government-supported preschools, the monthly school fees can be slightly higher at S$734 — although that figure is usually brought down to around S$300 after subsidies.
This stark difference in price begs several questions. Why do parents choose to enrol their children in significantly more expensive preschools, and what are the key differences between them?
HOW DIFFERENT ARE GOVT-SUPPORTED AND PRIVATE PRESCHOOLS?
While there is a belief that private preschools provide services that are comparatively more “premium”, experienced educators in the industry said that the definitive differences between both are not as straightforward in recent years due to an increase in government funding and regulatory standards.
Extra-curricular activities like cooking and instrument-playing, larger compounds, and a curriculum built upon a play-based philosophy may be par for the course for certain private operators, but these features can increasingly be found at government-supported schools too.
My First Skool (MFS), an anchor operator under the social enterprise NTUC First Campus, told TODAY that an integral part of its curriculum involves outdoor play and learning through “engaging and enriching” activities — using learning zones to recreate zoos, outdoor camp sites and bakeries within the centre.
With additional government funding, more up-and-coming anchor operators such as those situated in larger compounds have “inviting and stimulating” physical and outdoor environments for children, said Ms Melissa Goh-Karssen, an ECDA fellow and senior lecturer for the early childhood education programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).
Anchor operators may also offer optional extra-curricular activities on weekdays outside of curriculum hours.
For instance, a spokesperson from E-Bridge Preschool said that the school offers speech and drama, abacus and coding classes, to name a few.
For these reasons, several parents who chose anchor-operators for their children told TODAY that they do not feel as though they are “missing out”.
“The structure is there, our confidence is there,” said Mr Ang Ye Xiang, a 35-year-old operations manager who enrolled his five-year-old son into an MFS branch in Ang Mo Kio.
“We don’t feel our children receive less or are inferior if they were to attend a government-supported school.”
Nevertheless, there still exists a sentiment among some parents that the curricula offered by private operators are more comprehensive.
Ms Adeline Tan spends about S$1,900 a month on her six-year-old daughter’s school fees at Lorna Whiston, a private preschool.
The 42-year-old finance advisor said that the centre’s niche on speech and drama was enticing as it would equip her daughter with crucial presentation skills before entering primary school.
Ms Tan was particularly impressed by the centre’s tradition of having its kindergarten students give their graduation speech on stage in front of parents, teachers and fellow peers.
“If that is something we can train, then why not actually do it?” she said.
WHAT DO STUDENTS REALLY NEED TO KNOW WHEN THEY ENTER PRIMARY 1?
When TODAY asked the Ministry of Education (MOE) what specific knowledge or skills a child would be required to have prior to entering primary school, the ministry said that the academic expectations for children entering Primary 1 are “basic”.
Children should be able to express their needs and wants, follow simple instructions and recognise letters of the alphabet, for instance. Numeracy-wise, children should be able to recite numbers 1 to 10 in sequence and recognise them in numerals and words, among other simple tasks.
Aside from having such knowledge, MOE said that “it is more crucial for children to have good social and emotional skills and the joy of learning”.
“The reality of it is that the whole social-emotional part is of utmost importance,” said Ms Goh-Karssen of SUSS.
“When they’re in primary school, the biggest thing they need to deal with in their transition is change, because the preschool and primary school environments are very different.”
She emphasised the need for children to be self-sufficient in several “physical” aspects to ensure a smoother transition.
For example, students would need to be able to clean up after themselves in toilets, make decisions on what to eat during recess and carry trays of food afterward.
Bullying in school is another scenario children should be prepared for, she said, adding that social-emotional skills go hand-in-hand with being able to articulate themselves.
“Your child needs to be able to know how to feel confident and walk away from such situations, or know how to reach out and talk about it for help,” she said.
Ultimately, Ms Goh-Karssen said that the choice of preschool very much depends on whether a child is suited to the centre’s teaching approach.
“If your child is not a child that takes to that teaching approach, you can put your child in that setting, but it may not do your child justice,” she said.
“You could put two of your same kids in the best schools — one may make it, one may not. Because the other determining factor is your child itself. Children are all different.”