Parents call for more transparency after cases of alleged abuse in pre-school
Watching the recent videos of a few pre-schoolers being allegedly ill-treated brought back painful memories for Ms Talia Cai.
“My heart ached for the children because they can’t tell their parents what happened to them,” said the 35-year-old mother of a two-year-old girl.
“It made me think about what could have happened to my daughter,” said Ms Cai, who works in business development.
In 2022, her daughter came home with several injuries – bruises, a bump on her forehead and scratches – less than a month after attending a private pre-school.
“Every night, she woke up crying from her sleep like she was having nightmares,” said Ms Cai, who eventually withdrew her daughter from the school, which she said was defensive and unapologetic.
“In fact, the principal pushed the blame to my daughter, saying she scratched the teacher,” she said. “I felt something was not right. The teacher should inform us of any accident or incident, instead of us finding out.”
The pre-school said Ms Cai needed to pay a few thousand dollars to view closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage.
“Even with CCTVs, there’s no guarantee that parents will have access to know what really goes on,” she added.
By July 2024, all pre-schools and government-funded early intervention centres will need to install CCTV cameras, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) announced on Thursday.
The agency said the move is part of its regular review of security and safety measures in the early childhood sector, and is not related to the recent incidents.
Parents may request footage “within reasonable grounds”, said ECDA. “Parents’ access to CCTV footage will only be granted for the purposes of providing an objective reference point to clarify feedback or to assist the investigation of serious incidents within the pre-school premises.”
Some parents and observers told The Straits Times that the move would go some way towards reassuring parents and serving as a deterrent.
But beyond such a physical measure, pre-schools need to be open in their communication with parents in order to build trust and good relationships, they added.
Videos of two teachers from different Kinderland branches allegedly abusing children surfaced online recently. The recordings, taken surreptitiously by a former colleague, went viral and drew widespread outrage.
In one video, a teacher allegedly poured water into the mouth of a 23-month-old girl after forcing her to lie down. On Wednesday, Singaporean Lin Min, 33, who is no longer with the pre-school, was charged with ill-treating a child.
In a separate video, another teacher is seen allegedly hitting a young boy. The 48-year-old was arrested on Tuesday.
While the videos have been shocking to many, parents wonder if such incidents are the tip of the iceberg, in a sector with uneven practices in handling abuse or safety lapses, communication and ensuring accountability.
In response to queries, an ECDA spokesman said that from 2019 to 2022, there were an average of 10 substantiated child mismanagement cases each year, for every 100,000 enrolled children.
“Following our investigations, ECDA imposed regulatory actions against errant staff and operators, such as issuing warnings and imposing financial penalties, respectively,” she said.
An open culture is vital
A 41-year-old pre-school teacher of 20 years said the best way to build trust with parents is by being honest and transparent with them and giving them regular feedback about how their children are in school. “Open communication is paramount in building relationships. Compared with children in the past, children these days are more complex and challenging. Parents are more protective too.”
Programmes and client manager Sheela Ramlee, 39, who sends her four-year-old son to My First Skool in Serangoon North, said: “Teachers will usually give me timely feedback whenever there is an incident at school. It is satisfactory for me as they give detailed explanations.”
In contrast, the lack of transparency frustrated a group of parents at a Kinderland branch. They told ST that the school downplayed the severity of an outbreak of adenovirus on its premises back in 2021.
Within two days, nearly the whole class of 15 toddlers fell ill and five of them were hospitalised, said one of the parents, a 33-year-old housewife. “Parents were told that our children were isolated cases, but that wasn’t true. If they had relayed the information to the rest of the class, parents would have been alerted and kept their children at home, and it may not have escalated.”
She added: “When we try to bring up issues, the school would give PR replies and ask parents to just move on.”
Assistant Professor Cheung Hoi Shan from the National Institute of Education said: “The leadership in pre-school is fundamental in ensuring better accountability. An important first step is to conduct careful screening of teachers’ qualifications and track record at the point of hiring, regardless of their years of experience in the field.”
A school culture that advocates best practices in early childhood education is vital too, she added, and this can be done by engaging teachers in workshops or trainings, and setting up routine peer observations of classes.
Some pre-school operators, such as EtonHouse and Star Learners, said their principals conduct informal checks regularly across different classes to observe teacher-student interactions.
Need for safe spaces
Every pre-school must have a child safe policy, said the Singapore Children’s Society, in response to the recent incidents.
“This includes but is not limited to: a code of conduct; risk assessment and management tools; an incident reporting and whistle-blower policy; a complaint handling and investigation process, among others.”
It added that all staff must be both familiar and competent with these standards and tools, with mandatory training sessions conducted regularly.
“There is also a need to review whistle-blowing policies such that educators feel empowered to raise concerns about misdemeanours that they encounter at the centre level directly to ECDA’s safeguarding team,” said the society.
Ms Dawn Fung, an advocate for children’s rights through education reform, said pre-schools need to have a children’s protection policy (CPP) put up on their website and in their handbooks. Some international schools in Singapore currently have such a policy.
“A CPP ensures written, clear directions from the service provider on safeguarding children in their care, and what to do when safety is breached,” she said.
“Service providers need to ensure staff read the CPP before they are hired, agree to the guidelines, and are trained as they work in their professional capacity.”
The pressures of teaching
At the same time, educators said more support is needed in coping with the job’s demands, which include meeting parents’ expectations like ensuring their children take hour-long naps daily, and catering to more children with special needs.
Operators are mindful of these rising pressures, and some give teachers “timeouts” to cool down.
Ms Audrey Chen, head of people at Star Learners Child Care, said educators are encouraged to step out of their centres for a breather during lunch. Dedicated spaces within the centres have been carved out for them to take brief respite, and a buddy system allows teachers to step in for each other should one of them need a break.
To support teachers, ECDA previously announced plans to raise their salaries and improve working conditions, like moving to a five-day work week.
A 40-year-old pre-school principal reminds staff to walk away when they feel overwhelmed. “I always tell them the one or two minutes of anger they feel and which they act upon is not worth jeopardising their career,” she said.
“The morale among pre-school educators is very low at the moment... Many teachers go the extra mile, but because of isolated incidents, we all get a bad name.”