SINGAPORE: The Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) will look into whether errant preschool operators should receive harsher penalties for child mismanagement, learning from alleged abuse cases at two Kinderland centres.
The agency will also strengthen its investigation protocols and work with the National Institute of Early Childhood Development to improve training in child management strategies, said Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State at the Ministry of Social and Family Development.
Ms Sun was on Monday (Sep 18) addressing more than 40 parliamentary questions about early childhood education, after videos of alleged child abuse were circulated on social media last month.
A 33-year-old former teacher at Kinderland Woodlands Mart, Lin Min, has been charged with ill-treating a 23-month-old child.
The operator of that preschool had its licence tenure reduced to six months and was fined S$5,000 (US$3,700), the maximum amount permitted under the law.
A preschool’s licence can be revoked “in the worst case”, said Ms Sun, noting that the current regulatory framework came into effect in 2019.
“With the experience gained in operationalising this regulatory framework, ECDA intends to strengthen the framework and review the provisions to see if penalties imposed on operators for child mismanagement should be enhanced, including whether financial penalties should be raised,” she told parliament.
Operators are required to put in place standard operating procedures and appropriate policies to maintain a safe environment for children. They must ensure that policies are implemented effectively and consistently.
Centres must carry out regular observations of staff-child interactions, intervening where necessary. For teachers who breach requirements, they may be issued warnings, barred from working in the sector or face criminal charges.
ECDA previously apologised for not removing former teacher Lin from classroom duties at Kinderland Woodlands Mart despite “the clear evidence and severity of the educator’s actions”.
“We will learn from this case,” Ms Sun said. “ECDA is reviewing its procedures to strengthen this protocol and ensure better oversight of cases under investigation.”
BACKGROUND CHECKS, TRAINING FOR STAFF
ECDA verifies the professional qualifications of staff and conducts background checks before teachers are deployed to preschools. Those seeking employment are required to declare if they have a history of mental illness, and if so, a psychiatrist must assess that they are suited to working with young children.
In terms of training, Ms Sun said that apart from expanding the scope of positive child management strategies, training materials will be more explicit about what constitutes inappropriate and prohibited methods.
“This will help our educators be better equipped to call out child mismanagement practices in their preschool,” she said.
The Early Childhood Development Centres Act and Regulations already state that force-feeding, corporal punishment and neglecting children are prohibited actions.
Teachers are taught about developmental milestones and how to interact positively with children to meet their needs and support their holistic development, Ms Sun noted.
Signs of abuse are also covered in training, and educators are required to report mismanagement, whether they suspect it is happening at home or in school. These can be reported within the centre or directly to ECDA.
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Ms Sun also said ECDA conducts unannounced visits to preschools once a year on average. Officers observe teachers’ classroom management practices and their interactions with children.
“More frequent unannounced visits and checks are conducted for preschools that require close monitoring, due to a higher incidence of feedback or incidents,” she added.
“Where non-compliance or breaches are identified, follow-on checks are conducted to ensure these are rectified.”
There are around 10 substantiated cases of child mismanagement per 100,000 enrolled children each year, and that figure has remained stable over recent years.
“Every case is one too many and when an incident of child mismanagement happens, ECDA takes it seriously and will take appropriate action,” Ms Sun said, adding that every report is followed up on, whether there are visible injuries or not.
PERSONAL MOBILE DEVICES, CCTV CAMERAS
In response to questions about the use of personal mobile devices, which Kinderland does not allow during teaching hours, Ms Sun said such policies should not stop staff from reporting wrongdoing.
“If so, this is a clear breach of the operator’s duty to implement an effective reporting mechanism and ECDA will take action against the operator,” she said.
Regarding the deadline for preschools to install closed-circuit television cameras, Ms Sun said she recognises that some parents may want it to be mandatory at an earlier date.
“However, it is also important for us to note that we have to give the preschools time needed to procure and install the CCTVs correctly so that CCTVs are installed in the appropriate venues and the necessary protocols are in place to ensure the privacy of children and staff,” she said.
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In response to a supplementary question from Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa (PSP) about whether preschools need close to a year to install CCTVs, Ms Sun said operators who can install CCTVs earlier are encouraged to do so, but the process goes beyond logistics.
Schools also need to have protocols in place so that parents know when it is appropriate to ask for CCTV footage and what to expect when they make such a request. ECDA previously said parents will be given access to footage to assist with investigations into “serious incidents”.
MP Hany Soh (PAP–Marsiling-Yew Tee), who has a toddler in preschool, said some parents are concerned that footage may be tampered with before it is reviewed by them.
Ms Sun said that would be an offence. “If any operator were to tamper with the footage because they want to obscure wrongdoing or to cover up wrongdoing, please rest assured that the authorities will take firm action against such operators,” she added.
The faces of children and staff will be masked if they are not involved in the investigation to protect their privacy. Operators will inform parents of this rule, Ms Sun said, when Associate Professor Jamus Lim (WP-Sengkang) asked how preschools would comply with the Personal Data Protection Act when using CCTV footage.
She also responded to a question from MP Joan Pereira (PAP-Tanjong Pagar), who asked for the ministry’s view on using audio recorders in places where CCTVs cannot be installed, such as the toilets.
Ms Sun said some parents and teachers may feel that would be an “invasion of privacy”, and it is more important for preschool operators, centre leaders and teachers to “live and breathe child safety”.
“I would rather that we spend time educating our teachers, be it pre-service or in-service, rather than overly rely on digital means to monitor actions,” she added.