Leading from the Ground: Challenges and Possibilities in the Early Childhood Sector


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Singapore’s early childhood (EC) sector has gained national attention over the last few years, with increased funding for sectoral improvements. The drive towards improving accessibility, affordability, and quality of education and care has been accompanied by stronger regulatory control, which has demanded swift adaptation by preschool providers and practitioners.

On 20 February 2019, a panel discussion with Ms Shaireen Selamat, Ph.D. Candidate at University of Warwick, Dr Jacqueline Chung, Senior Principal and Academic Director at St James’ Preschool Services and Ms Loy Wee Mee, Executive Director at Pre-school By-the-Park, explored the challenges and possibilities of managing such changes from the ground.

Ms Selamat began by giving an overview on the rapid pace of change observed in the early childhood education sector in Singapore over the past couple of decades, and the challenges they presented to teachers and leaders. This has been beneficial though, as it affected the sector’s general structure and defined its focus areas, namely: accessibility, affordability and quality. Quality has been the most elusive of these, but can be accomplished faster through a ground-up approach.

It is also important for practitioners to consider global trends as these shape policies. This will help professionals in the sector anticipate the changes that will trickle down to the ground. Having greater awareness of global trends will help prepare teachers better. However, this becomes more challenging when change happens much more frequently. The community of EC practitioners can deal with this through more information and support, which may come in the form of informal professional conversations that go beyond operational meetings. Ms Selamat also shared a list of resources with ideas on how to implement such discussions.

From a practitioner’s perspective, Dr Jacqueline Chung shared some of her institutions’ practices and focussed specifically on organisational leadership. She emphasised the value of giving time for children and even educators to learn and grow, instead of rushing the process which can potentially cause more harm than good. Early childhood education is a combination of “head, heart and hands” and it is therefore important to deliberately dedicate time for conversations on how to be better educators and leaders. This will help solidify an institution’s principles to help guide it through changes. Good leaders should also allow room for mistakes and ambiguity and let this be part of their organisations’ culture.

Ms Loy spoke about her organisation’s practices, as an SME, to improve the quality of its people. As the sector faces challenges such as a high turnover rate, burn out and rapid industry growth, it is crucial for practitioners and organisations to discuss and find out what truly drives them, or their personal and tribal “whys”. This will guide organisations on how they support, affirm and connect with each other, and make decisions. This will result in effective actions, including empowering teachers to make decisions and removing their fear of failure. Leaders should strive to create an environment where practitioners are inspired and passionate about their calling, challenging them to find ways to be better. This approach should be expanded to the EC community which also needs to be clear of it’s “why” to better define it purpose and guide it through the changes in the industry.

The discussion closed with the panellists addressing questions from the audience, which included how to evaluate quality leadership, how organisations can adopt the practice of informal dialogue with its staff and how different the challenges are for the early childhood education sector in less developed countries in the Southeast Asia.

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Mr Ho Swee Huat

Mr Ho Swee Huat is the Founder and Managing Director of Abacus Assets Advisors Pte Ltd. Before starting the company, he had an established career in the banking industry, with 20 years of experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and New York.

He was an Independent Director and Chairman of the Audit Committee of CapitaCommercial Trust Management LTD from 2004 to 2013.

He is the current Chairman of Autism Association (Singapore) which he co-founded with a group of parents in 1992. He is also Vice-Chairman of Eden School, a special school for children with autism.

Mr Ho holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Liberal Arts degree in Economics from Hamilton College, USA.

He has been a member of the Board of the Foundation since its incorporation.