The following is an article which I had written for the Workers’ Party Hammer newsletter that was published several months ago. I am reproducing the article online after reading the article, “Demand rises for after-school care services” in the Straits Times today. The Straits Times’ article described the urgent problem facing young working parents vying for the very limited places in School-based Student Care Centres today and across the industry. It is an issue that I have been highlighting in parliament for several years already.
Student care centres (SCCs) provide before or after school care for primary school pupils. They are an essential service for young working parents who do not have alternative arrangements to look after their primary school- going children during school days.
In recent years, there has been a huge increase in demand for student care services. This has followed a similarly large increase in the demand for childcare services since the last decade. The same young working parents that use childcare services will usually need student care for their children, at least for the first few years of schooling.
For many years, this sector has been left very much to market forces to fulfil the demand. Commercial SCCs are unattractive to run given the high cost of rent and a general lack of government support, compared to childcare. As at June 2014, the Ministry of Social and Family’s (MSF) website listed 214 student care centres, of which a good number are tuition or childcare centres. These centres may take only very few student care students, if at all, as their other operations are generally more profitable.
Good student care services could eliminate the need for tuition. However, the current number of SCC places available are too few to meet parents’ needs. The best place to run SCCs is in the schools, where students need not move out of the school and the operators can best coordinate with the teachers to follow up on homework and learning. Schools’ facilities in single-session schools are not fully utilised after school hours. If facilities are offered at token rents to operators, MOE can negotiate for lower fees and higher quality programmes. It will also reduce the need for tuition, benefiting students from disadvantaged families.
The government made a late start on this, growing school-based SCCs (SSCs) at a faster pace only after 2010. There are now 80 SSCs, with another 40 coming on-stream over the next 2 years. Even though this is fast by historical standards, more than a third of schools will still not have SSCs come 2016. MOE did not provide figures for my parliamentary question on the waitlist in existing SSCs. So, I did a random check on 12 SSCs in March 2014. I found that all had no vacancies, with one having over 50 children on the waitlist! MOE would also not commit to when all primary schools can have SSCs.
I like to see MOE aim for 100% of all primary schools to have SSCs as soon as possible. Existing operators that run community-based centres will likely be interested to move their operations into schools to avoid high rents and can pass the cost savings on to parents or to invest in staff recruitment.
Another overlooked aspect of the student care operations is that of staff training. Unlike in childcare, there is currently no mandatory requirement on training and there are few training providers with programs specific to the industry. Hence, the level of staff training in this sector is very low compared to childcare. One reason is the lack of government funding support that has made it unattractive for operators to be in the student care business or to send their staff for training. A good source for staff recruitment could be from mothers wishing to return to the workforce, as they would have experience looking after their own children of similar ages to that of SSC users and student care work hours are less demanding than that of other full-time jobs.
A plan should be urgently established to make a bigger push to help attract staff into this sector, get them trained and to support operators to keep cost affordable while maintaining a quality framework. Some level of fee subsidy support for Singaporean parents similar to that of childcare could also be established to help drive more operators into the business and to raise overall quality of operations.