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New BTOs built with childcare in mind

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Upcoming HDB blocks set to be designed to facilitate bigger pre-school centres

While mega childcare centres in standalone buildings are being set up to meet growing pre-school demand, the Government has been pre-planning over the past year for larger centres in upcoming Housing Board blocks.

This includes centres offering 200 places - double the number offered by most centres in HDB blocks now. The actual capacity will vary and could be fewer than 200, depending on the project scale and other space and design considerations.

"Nevertheless, they will be, on average, larger than recently completed centres," said Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) chief executive Eugene Leong, 41, in his first interview since taking on the role in 2015.

The former senior director for strategic planning at the Ministry of National Development told The Straits Times: "In the past, it used to be more opportunistic. If there's an empty void deck space, then we use it. Now we're pre-designing it."

This involves ECDA and HDB understanding each other's design needs and factoring them into HDB plans for new Build-to-Order projects.

His remarks came weeks after it was announced that four more mega childcare centres run by Government-appointed anchor operators will open by the middle of 2018, bringing the total number of such centres to nine.

Anchor operators get Government grants and priority in securing HDB sites but have to meet fee caps and quality criteria.

Mr Leong assured parents that large centres still have to adhere to staff-child and space-child ratio requirements.

"A large-capacity centre does not imply a larger class but more classes at the same level, to cater to more young families."

In the past, it used to be more opportunistic... Now we’re predesigning it. Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) chief executive Eugene Leong

Parents will also still be able to choose among pre-schools of different capacities, and the mega centres will not be the norm, he said.

"Even if a centre has the best teachers, it may not necessarily be suitable. It might be too big a school. Maybe the child is more comfortable with a smaller setting," he said.

"Even today, with our large centres, parents have choices. There's still going to be a range. The large centres are not the main source of supply for childcare. It's going to be the usual smaller centres."

The authorities have expanded existing void deck centres where there is demand and space available.

A My First Skool in Yishun had close to 200 more places after building extension bays twice and now spans four blocks near one another.

Executive principal Zethy Dzarifah said operations have "largely remained the same".

Mr Leong said about half of the over 1,300 childcare centres here are in HDB void decks, and they help to meet parents' need for convenient locations.

Medical social worker Nicholas Lo, 38, who has a daughter enrolled in a childcare centre in a void deck, said such centres "offer more convenience".

"I think more childcare and eldercare centres in void decks should be set up, rather than mega childcare centres. Then we can send our elderly parents who need day care and young children to the same area."