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Here’s How Singaporean Parents Should Decide How Much to Pay for Childcare

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Joanne Poh

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I’m pretty sure the average Singaporean parent spends more on their kids than I as an adult spend on myself. I only need food and an internet connection to survive, but kids are much trickier—tuition, toys, their own kick scooter/iPad and, if both their parents work, childcare.

Childcare in Singapore recently made the news due to the big price gap in different childcare services across the country. While the median monthly fee for childcare was $856, the average was $1,004—and this is a gap that widened sharply in 2015-2016.

That means there are now some very expensive childcare services out there pulling up the average, with some charging over $2,000 a month—that’s more than many Singaporeans earn!

But why are some parents willing to spend as much on childcare as on university education? I quizzed some of my friends who are parents and they offeredthe following factors:

Curriculum: Even if the only kids you’ll go near are the ones that bleat, you’ve probably heard of Montessori. Like Montessori’s childcare centres, many of the expensive childcare brands purportedly use special pedagogy. For instance, Pat’s Schoolhouse has a core curriculum designed to offer bilingual immersion, while the Montessori system was developed in Italy, use of which might require the schools to pay a fee to the Montessori Association.

Location: Everyone already knows rents are high in Singapore. Childcare centres in central and city-fringe areas usually charge more for this reason.

Teacher-to-student ratio: Expensive childcare centres often promise that there’ll be fewer teachers to students so each child can receive more attention.

Hygiene practices: More staff means more cleaning, and understaffed centres may expect teachers to double up as cleaners.

Type of food: A childcare centre may claim that the food served to kids is healthier or more nutritious.

Branding: It’s the difference between a tshirt from Uniqlo and one from Prada. More expensive centres usually have nicer looking premises, more polished looking decorations and so on.

Primary school readiness: Singaporean parents tend to be very concerned about how ready their kid are to take on the primary school curriculum, which is why they’re more willing to pay for schools that purport to use special pedagogy or employ more qualified teachers.

Prestige: Sounds crazy, but some parents do actually care about how atas a childcare centre is. To quote one young woman I spoke with: “If I had the dough I’d send my kids to an expensive one purely for social connections.”

Now, it’s important to note that these are the reasons provided by childcare centres in order to justify higher prices.

But interesting enough, many of the mothers I spoke with were sceptical about whether expensive childcare centres were necessarily better. Here are some words of warning

 

Don’t take price as an indication of quality

Carine (not her real name), a lawyer with two young sons, was forced to pull her elder son out of an expensive childcare centre from a famous chain in Singapore with branches all over the island.

“The centre I sent my son to was new, poorly managed and not to mention understaffed. I observed that first hand, and even saw one of the teachers mopping the floors during the children’s nap time. I have since pulled my son out. He now goes to My First School under NTUC, and it is better, although I must concede that the teacher-to-student ratio is their negative point.”

The scariest thing is that this purportedly premium childcare centre had serious problems with infections.

“During the period my son was enrolled, there was a hand foot mouth disease outbreak twice a month. It seemed like almost every other week there would be an outbreak,” she says.

“That was when I decided to just take him out and let him stay home until I found a placement for him at the childcare centre just next to my home.”

 

Even if a centre claims to use a certain methodology, in reality it might not be that different from the rest

Cheryl Ng, an MOE teacher and mother of a young son, hasn’t just done research on childcare—she wrote a report on it as part of her masters degree.

And she warns that parents shouldn’t be too quick to believe that an expensive childcare centre’s methodology is much better or different from that of cheaper ones.

“A lot of preschools claim that they employ a special methodology when in fact they are hardly using the pedagogy with the kids. The main reason is because one key factor in Singapore for childcare or preschool is primary school readiness.”

“This is not aligned to the approach of many methods like Montessori for instance. In many parts of the world where such methods are used, such as Switzerland, there’s no big need to be primary school ready, and so the methodology can be used fully.”

Here’s the kicker. “Based on the research I did on childcare during my masters, many of the childcare teachers teaching at centres claiming to use the method of an internationally-renowned pedagogy are actually not trained officially in that methodology and only have a basic childcare cert, which all childcare teachers are supposed to have.”

The bottom line is that, even if you’re paying lots of money to send your child to some special centre that promises sensory play or an explorative learning experience, in actual fact what you get might be no different than sessions at a centre that costs a fraction of the price.

 

First-hand observation is key

Based on the views of the mothers I’ve spoken with, it seems like most are rather dubious about the benefits expensive childcare centres claim to offer.

It’s clear that some pay for more expensive childcare simply because they can, or for the connections or prestige.

But for those who are concerned about the actual quality of the centres their kids spend most of their waking hours in, it’s important to sit in and observe with your own eyes what goes on throughout the day. Just because one centre costs more than another doesn’t mean it’s good; similarly, if a centre under a certain brand has received positive reviews, that doesn’t mean you can assume all the branches are just as good.

Have you had any experiences with childcare in Singapore? Share your stories in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.