Kindergartens pre school students trip to a park. (Image by Jasni / Shutterstock)

High costs of childcare and pre-schools an impediment to parenthood, according to position paper by PAP Women’s Wing MPs

A position paper by six MPS of the People’s Action Party (PAP) Women’s Wing revealed that 58% of respondents cited the cost of raising children as a main concern/factor when deciding to have another child.

About 22% cited work-related factors such as work-life balance and employment pressures while 18% said that the decision is dependent on whether they have access to adequately family support.

According to a poll by the MPs, families with a combined household income of S$12,000 spend between 6%-15% of their income on pre-school related out-of-pocket expenses such as school trips and graduation concerns. With multiple young children, the cost can adds up significantly.

These expenses contribute to the high cost of parenthood which is an important factor preventing many from having a child, said Senior Parliament Secretary for Home Affairs and National Development Ms Sun Xueling.

Speaking at a PAP Community Foundation (PCF) Sparkletots pre-school in Fenshan, Ms Sun was one of six MPs who conducted a study on parenthood in Singapore based on three survey of more than 2,000 respondents. Other PAP MPs who were part of the study are Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Intan Azura Mokhtar, Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui, Fengshan MP Cheryl Chan, Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam and Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Joan Pereira.

In their position paper, the PAP Women’s Wing MPs are proposing measures to reduce amount of household income spent on pre-school related cost to 5% per child. On top of that, they are also proposing an expansion of the current pre-school scheme so that at least 80% of households with pre-schoolers will have access to full-day childcare within 10 minutes from their homes.

Results of the study were published in a position paper titled Supporting Parenthood and Young Families in which the MPs presented five recommendations for the government. On top of reducing the cost of pre-schools, proposals include removing the age cap for in-vitro fertilisation, boosting inclusiveness for families with special needs children, and promoting flexible work arrangements.

High private pre-school fees and not enough public pre-schools

On the subject of pre-school fees, Ms Sun said that the survey revealed that 70.6% of respondents used their Baby Bonus cash gift on pre-school fees. Many also deplete their Child Development account funds.

Ms Sun also mentioned that there was an ‘outlier’ in the survey of respondents earning below S$2,000 who say that they spend more than 14.2% of their income on out-of-pocket pre-school expenses.

“Even with the subsidies that we see currently, many parents are still paying very high out-of-pocket expenses for pre-school,” said Ms Sun.

One respondent said that schools have too many extra-curricular activities such as excursions and concerts for which parents end up ‘spending too much money’, while another said that the cost of school trips and graduation photos were too high.

The thing is, right now only there are only enough spots on anchor operator pre-schools (AOP) and partner operator pre-schools (POP) to cater to about 50% of pre-schoolers in Singapore. The Prime Minister had said in his 2017 National Day Rally speech that the government intends on increasing that ratio to about two-thirds.

This, as noted in the position paper, is not enough. The MPs suggest that they target should be increased to 4 out of 5 or 80% instead as pre-school is a general necessity that should be made available to the majority of people in Singapore.

“We want to go beyond that, because we now see pre-school as a necessity. We should see it as how we see general medical services and public housing, which is also at about 80 per cent of the population,” Ms Sun said.

Ms Sun noted that right now, many pre-schools are run by private operators who charge a fee of $1,000 a month or more. As such, the government needs to look at ways to lower the fees, said Ms Sun. She added that AOPS and POPs will have to lead the way on this front.

The thing is, AOPs have the advantage of paying low rental rates for a premises on top of the generous set-up and furnishing grants for new centres as well as recurrent grants for development of manpower and learning programmes.

On the other hand, private operators – which are abundant – are subject to market-rates for rental and have to bear the high cost of set-up and maintenance of centres. The tenancy for private operators are also often subject to bidding. So the competition has caused rents to rise up to S$10,00 a month or even up to S$40,000.

Naturally, this raises the monthly fees a private centre has to charge as they need to cover their operational costs and have enough of a cushion to prepare for the possibility of losing their tenancy bid. So where AOPs and POPs are able to offer cheaper services thanks to government grants, private centres have difficulty matching those rates.

It’s not impossible though, as former NCMP Yee Jenn Yong pointed out to Parliament a few years ago. citing an example, Mr Yee noted that premium operator EtonHouse had collaborated with PCF Sparkletots in running the Hampton Preschool. While PCF secured the site at a low rent, EtonHouse took responsibility for the programme delivery, set-up and pedagogy which it managed to do with less than half of its usual fees.

This hints at the effectiveness of a more collaborative approach between AOPs and POPs with private centres.

A supportive work environment

Moving on, the survey also found that 22% of respondents cited work-related issues such as flexible work arrangements as a concern of entering parenthood. Many respondents cited workplace culture as a deterrent to the flexible work schemes, said MP Cheryl Chan.

Dr Intan said: “Sometimes, their perception is that when they take on flexible work arrangements, would it reduce their chance of a promotion, and would their co-workers think less of them? So, it is a personal hindrance that they put on themselves.”

As such, the Women’s Wing MPs urged the Ministry of Manpower to track the types of flexible work arrangements available today and to find out what types of arrangements are in demand.

The MPs say that employers, employees and unions can work together to create a more industry- and job-centric approach to promote flexible work arrangements in specific industries through the use of technology and training.

Ms Chan said: “What we want to build is an ecosystem, a supportive culture within the workplace… Flexible work arrangements do exist today, but not many workers go for it unless it is a case of an emergency.”

More support for children with special needs

The position paper also recommends a strengthening of measures to support children with special needs. Results of a focus group study and a survey of 294 respondents revealed that cost of treatments and educational opportunities are the top two concerns for families in raising children with special needs.

55% Parents of children with special needs said they were satisfied with the education their child receives in mainstream schools, however half of those parents also faced difficulties when enrolling their children in pre-school.

Across income levels and regardless of subsidies received, families also end up spending a hefty sum of between S$700-2,000 for treatments per child on top of the already heavy sums for pre-school and childcare.

“The cost burden may indeed put a large strain on the families and may impede efforts to develop and improve the child’s abilities,” said Dr Intan.