Ms Carrie Tan filed two Parliamentary Questions on 12 and 13 September 2022
Please see below for the response from Minister of State for Social and Family Development (Ms Sun Xueling) (for the Minister for Social and Family Development) and a supplementary question from Ms Carrie Tan.
Minister of State for Social and Family Development (Ms Sun Xueling) (for the Minister for Social and Family Development): Parents who registered interest on the Preschool Search Portal experienced waiting times ranging from a few weeks to a few months for infant care and childcare places. Any system for matching vacancies to children involves optimising three elements: vacancies, parents’ choice and the time taken to arrive at a match. For instance, giving every parent their preferred choice while also achieving short waiting times would necessitate maintaining a large number of vacancies at all times. Costs will rise for childcare operators, which will find their way into higher fees for parents. The current system aims to strike a balance – to have a reasonable number of vacancies available while trying to meet parents’ preference. The waiting time is then an outcome of trying to optimise these two variables.
We understand the Member’s and parents’ concerns. Preschool capacity remains tight in certain areas, especially for the younger infant and playgroup ages. The Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) is working closely with anchor operators to ramp up operations and recruit manpower so that they can enroll more infants and children in newly-opened centres in the coming months. Where possible, ECDA also supports operators to increase capacity by building extension blocks to existing centres, though this is contingent on space availability in the immediate vicinity of the preschool, as well as finding adequate manpower to staff the new capacity.
The Member asked for an update on plans to ramp up preschool places. Between January and July 2022, 4,900 of the 10,000 full-day preschool places in ECDA’s plans have materialised. ECDA is on track to develop another 5,100 additional places by 2023. Separately, commercial operators have also responded to market signals and collectively opened another 2,200 places.
Let me now address the Member’s questions on the planning system. ECDA analyses the demographics, enrolment trends and existing supply in each planning area and plans for preschool places to meet projected demand. ECDA works closely with agencies, such as HDB and URA, to inject preschools together with new housing developments where families with young children are concentrated. Specifically, for HDB developments, preschools are developed in tandem with new public housing flats so that residents can access preschool services soon after they move in. If additional capacity is necessary, ECDA works with preschools and HDB to activate available void deck and communal spaces for centre extensions. Maternity appointments could be useful as a leading indicator of upcoming demand. However, for preschool infrastructure planning purposes, it does not provide sufficient lead time.
The Member is correct that home transactions increase upon the end of the Minimum Occupation Period, which results in new families moving in. The new families moving in may or may not have young children who require preschool services. However, what we observe is that once the childcare and preschool infrastructure is built to support the new precinct, they generally will be able to support the demand from the new owners when these flats are sold.
Ms Carrie Tan (Nee Soon): Thank you. I appreciate the Minister of State’s responses and clarifications. Pertaining to the point about increased costs in order to maintain a pool of vacancies in order that we can optimise matching parents choices, what I see in my Meet-the-People sessions where a lot of residents are coming to me are challenges like the very real challenges, where distance actually matters greatly. The 15 minutes or 20 minutes of travelling time that they can save every morning goes a great way to alleviate their stress and mental health and mental well-being. So, when they are juggling between looking after old people, and then kids, and then multiple kids for some families, bring them to different locations to preschools and infant care and so on, it really simply does not make sense.
Hence, my follow-up question on whether ECDA or MSF will be open to looking into calculating what are the costs and trade-offs of maintaining a vacancy post so that we can allow families to have that peace of mind and reduce their stress in fearing that they might have to give up their jobs in order to maintain or upkeep this fetching and bringing of children to school and back, which actually could impede on the family’s one source of income if someone has to lose their job in order to to manage all that caregiving within the family.
Ms Sun Xueling: I thank the Member for her supplementary question. I agree that distance matters for many young families who have to juggle between work necessities as well as taking care of young children. That said, in my earlier reply, I had talked about a buffer, but actually this buffer is not a very large buffer.
Often times, in the hot spots, where there is a high demand for infant care, for playgroups, actually the centres are already operating very closely to their maximum capacity already. And that is why in my main reply, I had talked about where possible, the operators work with HDB, URA, to see whether or not it is possible to build centre extensions. Sometimes they may also ask for waivers to see whether or not they are able to increase capacity limits.
That is all being done at the local planning areas, but I hear what the Member is saying, and I would like to assure her that ECDA keeps a close watch on the numbers and works very actively with preschools on the ground to see how they can increase places as much as possible to serve the needs of young families.