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Why Singaporeans don’t take early childhood education seriously?

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EARLY childhood is the most critical phase of human development. Yet we appear to take it for granted.

It begins before birth, when a baby’s body and brain are being formed, continues through early infancy when key relationships are established and developmental milestones reached, and includes the preschool years and the transition into the early grades of schooling.

Yet in almost every country, including Singapore, not enough is done to make this profession more attractive and to get quality educators into the fold.

Without a doubt, numerous lines of research confirm every parent’s observation from Bukit Timah to Bedok, Woodlands to West Coast that this is a period of rapid physical and mental growth and change. Children learn to move, communicate, and interact with the world, and develop a sense of personal and cultural identity.

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Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a recent National Day rally speech emphasised that early childhood offers the greatest opportunities for positive human development, but is also the period when children are most at risk. Negative influences on a child’s development during early childhood can be irreversible.

Global studies, from the United Nations, show that young children growing up in especially difficult circumstances – severe poverty, malnutrition, wars, and disease – require particular attention. Discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, disability, HIV and AIDS status, class/caste, or political and religious beliefs all adversely affect early childhood.

CRITICAL COG IN NATION BUILDING

Retired educationist Margaret Lee says: “Discrimination can exclude children from full participation in society, reduce survival rates and quality of life, and undermine feelings of well-being and self-esteem. We must urgently emphasise that early childhood education is a critical cog in longer-term nation building.”

The reasons for not staying in the job for Singaporean childhood teachers may vary, according to a recent Channel News Asia survey, but the effect is the same: A pre-school teacher crunch. And now, the clock is ticking.

By 2020, owing to the demand from parents for places in pre-schools, 3,000 more teachers are needed to be in place. That is an 18 per cent increase in the current number of 17,000 teachers.

Despite recruitment drives for the sector, and steps to make the profession more attractive, it is still hard to recruit and retain pre-school teachers, say educators.

Some of the minus-points include teachers not only serving the food, but also knowing each child’s food preferences. And one of the main takeaways is that the job is not as easy as it may look. Some people may have had a “wrong perspective” before they joined the sector, said Eton House International Education Group senior teacher Shirlee Lim.

They may have thought “it’s really fun”, but there are stresses, and it can get “mentally tiring” to “keep thinking about what you want to say (and) making decisions every single moment”. She adds: “Like weighing what’s important, what (to) attend to first and being comfortable with myself. The most challenging part is knowing that I can always do more, but I only have these hours in a day, and then respecting that and being contented with it in a way, but knowing that I’m always trying to be the best I can be.”

PASSION IN KIDS’ EDUCATION

While early childhood education is her passion, she only made the switch mid-career “because of family expectations” at first. “My family would rather that I be an accountant,” she admits. “Mum would say a pre-school teacher isn’t a job that people would see as something that you’d want to do.”

Disappointing, but it is a sign of how people’s notions of the job can also be a challenge in terms of attracting talent.

My First Skool deputy centre lead Eunice Tay says: “People would just think that ‘oh, you’re just a nanny’ and you have to…take care of the children. Some people would like to work in the office and dress nicely. As pre-school teachers, we do get to dress nicely, but at times, we dirty ourselves.”

That may not seem “glamorous”, but Ms Tay hopes that people realise pre-school teachers are far from being nannies. She emphasises: “We’re professional teachers who know how to deal with children and…plan lessons based on the different needs of the children and their learning styles,” she said.

“We’re preparing them for future learning when they go to Primary One and also preparing them for learning for life.”

That means spending time not only planning the lessons, but also setting up the classroom environment. And that, to Ms Tay, is the hard part of the job because it may eat into family time.

The last time the industry’s attrition rate was reported was in 2013, when it was 15 to 20 per cent. Since then, the early childhood sector has evolved quickly. The manpower crunch remains, however, given that the number of full-day places in pre-schools has risen by almost 60,000 over the past seven years.

The National Institute of Early Childhood Development has also been set up to consolidate the fragmented early childhood training ecosystem and to enhance the quality of pre-school teachers. It will welcome its first trainees next year.

Hopefully, this will change mindsets and deservingly reward those who pick early childhood education as an amicable career.

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