Pre-schools stepping up work to boost attendance rates of lower-income children , Latest Singapore News - The New Paper

Pre-schools stepping up work to boost attendance rates of lower-income children

Being overwhelmed with other priorities like work, dealing with children’s poor behaviour and logistical challenges are hurdles that lower-income families face when trying to maintain their children’s attendance rates in pre-school.

From the second quarter of 2024, selected pre-schools run by anchor operators will get more funding from the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) to help children from these families improve their attendance and boost learning support.

The issue of pre-school attendance for children from lower-income families was identified as a work in progress by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) during its budget debate in March.

Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli had said in Parliament that children from lower-income families enrolled in anchor operator pre-schools have a monthly attendance rate of about 72 per cent, lower than the 79 per cent attendance rate of their middle-income peers.

The extra resources received by selected anchor operators can be used to support operating costs or additional manpower to monitor children’s attendance and help parents to address the challenges that they face in sending their children to pre-school regularly.

There are currently five anchor operators in Singapore – PCF Sparkletots Preschool, My First Skool, M.Y World Preschool, Skool4Kidz and E-Bridge Pre-school. Anchor operators are pre-school operators that receive funding from the Government to keep their fees at a certain cap to ensure affordability.

NTUC First Campus’ My First Skool, which serves 27,000 children in 158 centres, said the attendance rate of its pupils from lower-income families is similar to what Mr Masagos mentioned in Parliament on March 6.

At E-Bridge Pre-school, about 10 per cent of its children are from lower-income backgrounds. It serves more than 5,000 children in 24 centres.

In 2023, the majority of children from lower-income families had a 75 per cent attendance rate. A spokesman for E-Bridge said these children attend school regularly, except when they were sick or away.

Despite the high attendance rate, there were about twice as many children from the lower-income group that did not meet the 75 per cent attendance rate compared with children from other financial backgrounds.

The pre-school operator’s teachers monitor attendance, check in with parents during pick-up and drop-off, share parenting tips to improve their child’s attendance, and involve them through parent-child bonding experiences.

A spokesman for MSF previously told ST that the early years are important to a child’s development, and pre-school complements the key role that parents play.

He said that local data also indicates that children who attend pre-school from age three are less likely to require additional learning support in primary school.

NTUC First Campus chief child support officer Louisa Chng told ST that for some of the younger children from lower-income families, parents or caregivers feel that it is not as important to attend pre-school and tend to miss one to two days of school as they have other priorities.

NTUC First Campus has a team of more than 100 child support professionals, consisting of learning support educators, therapists, child enabling executives and classroom co-facilitators. The team’s work is to meet the needs of less privileged children and their families, as well as those with learning needs.

Child enabling executives, in particular, work with the pre-school teachers to track children’s attendance regularly and engage parents who fail to get their children to school. They also partner social workers on home visits to ensure the safety and well-being of the children.

Ms Chng said that one child at the pre-school had irregular attendance as she was reluctant to get out of bed in the morning and refused to shower or get dressed for school.

She said: “She would often throw tantrums, screaming and shouting on the way to school, which put considerable strain on her parents, who sometimes yielded to her demands and allowed her to skip school.”

The school’s child support staff worked closely with her teachers to monitor her behaviour and offered emotional support to her parents.

To encourage positive behaviour, they introduced a sticker chart reward system for the parents to implement whenever the child attended school as planned.

Her attendance has since improved, although she still occasionally refuses to go to school.

Skool4Kidz by Kinderland Educare Services told ST that the attendance rate of its lower-income children is similar with that of children from other income groups, at around 80 per cent. Thirty per cent of its pupils are from lower-income families. It serves more than 3,800 children in 27 centres.

Its staff contact parents if a child has been absent for two straight days without prior notice.

PCF Sparkletots Preschool declined to answer queries about attendance rates, but said that it is “committed to understanding and addressing the needs of all children” and works to level the playing field by equipping them with the support they need.

M.Y World Preschool, which is run by Metropolitan YMCA, did not reply to queries.

Logistical challenges

Ms Chng said one reason that parents in lower-income families gave for low attendance is their child’s poor health, which can be due to a lack of care and proper nutrients.

Distance to pre-school is also an issue – if the nearest centre has no vacancies, some parents are not motivated to take their child to one farther away from home.

E-Bridge said that some common problems that the pre-school observed are parents’ priorities, especially in focusing on financial matters, and challenges in getting their children to school.

Singapore Children’s Society is one of the agencies appointed by ECDA to run its Preschool Outreach Programme.

Through the programme, outreach workers help lower-income families search for an affordable pre-school and help in the enrolment process.

Ms Tan Bee Joo, senior director and group lead of family services at Children’s Society, said some lower-income families it helps are unaware of the value of pre-school education, and have to juggle work and childcare schedules.

Parents with several children of different ages also may have difficulty in getting them ready for school and instilling a regular bedtime for them, resulting in difficulty in waking up the next day.

Ms Tan said: “Caregivers are usually reluctant to send their children to pre-schools that would require longer travelling times, especially for those with multiple dependants and/or other responsibilities.”

One family of five faced problems getting their child to pre-school after moving out of their rental flat in Sengkang due to financial constraints.

They moved in with their grandparents in Clementi, and found it difficult to take their child to school due to the distance between the home and the pre-school in Sengkang.

Another family of four living in a two-room rental flat could not secure a place for their three-year-old at the pre-school in their block, and did not want to enrol the child in one that is farther away due to caregiving duties at home.

Ms Tan said that providing logistical support to ferry children, such as subsidised school bus services, can relieve caregivers and would be helpful in encouraging more regular attendance.

Attendance of older children, aged five and six, is generally better.

NTUC First Campus’ Ms Chng said attendance rates for pre-school children as they get older improve as they fall sick less often. Parents also become more aware of the importance of pre-school education and want to prepare their children for primary school.

Ms Tan said more parents are willing to get their children to pre-school regularly from ages five and six, based on the Children’s Society’s observation.

Attendance across the different age groups is also affected by whether siblings are placed in the same centre.

Ms Tan said attendance rates of pre-school siblings of different age groups do not differ much if the younger children are in the same pre-school as their older siblings.

However, if the children are allotted places in different pre-schools, parents would most likely prioritise enrolment and attendance for their older children, she added.