PRE-SCHOOL operators may be heartened by the government's commitment to increase the quality, affordability, and number of childcare centres here, but some players question whether there are even enough teachers to support such an ambitious expansion plan.
Last Thursday, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) announced its intent to include more pre-schools in its Anchor Operator Scheme. First launched in 2009, the scheme offers selected players preferential allocation of choice HDB sites at subsidised rentals, and grants to offset operating costs.
In return, they must cap their monthly fees at pre-determined rates below the industry median, and provide assistance initiatives to children from lower-income or disadvantaged backgrounds.
Anchor operators must also create at least 1,000 new places by 2018 - and therein lies the rub. Pre-schools BT spoke to say they are doubtful these numbers can be reached, given the existing acute shortage of teachers.
"Labour-wise, we are not ready for this. Adding 1,000 more places means finding another 200 teachers, and that is going to be a big challenge," said T Chandroo, chairman and chief executive officer of Modern Montessori International Group, one of the largest commercial operators here with 28 centres.
Numbers aside, the government also requires anchor operators to meet a slew of key performance indicators (KPIs) by 2018 - the majority of which pertain to higher teacher quality standards.
For example, all teachers working with children aged five to six must have attained an ECDA-recognised diploma in early childhood care and education. Of these, 20 per cent must have a recognised degree.
Centres are also expected to have at least an 85 per cent retention rate for programme staff - which KPI operators say is not currently possible because of high attrition rates, due to teacher poaching practices and salary wars.
The tighter criteria will intensify competition for the already small pool of qualified educators, said Phyllis Tan, executive director and chief executive officer of Metropolitan YMCA.
"Creating new centres and places is not the issue, especially since the government can support operators with grants and locations. The real question we have to look at is whether we can meet the recruitment requirements."
"The reality we're facing on the ground in various centres is that we've been advertising for qualified educators and principals for months, with a very poor response," explained Ms Tan.
Metropolitan YMCA and other pre-schools have looked into recruiting teachers from the Philippines and China, but foreign worker levies have made this option less attractive.
Both Dr Chandroo and Ms Tan agree that the only way the existing shortage can be rectified - and the only way the Anchor Operator Scheme will work - is if additional training programmes are put in place to attract more Singaporeans to become pre-school teachers.
At a press conference on Thursday, ECDA said that it is currently developing a suite of complementary schemes to benefit the entire industry. However, the details of these programmes - and whether manpower shortages will be tackled - remain to be seen.
"ECDA can come up with as many sums and KPIs as it wants, but the bottom line is this: if demand for teachers continues to far exceed supply, there's going to be a serious teaching staffing problem," said Dr Chandroo.