How can we protect our young ones more effectively? 

It was a case that shocked the nation when video clips of maltreated preschool children surfaced on social media. The teacher, oblivious about being filmed, continued her high-handed manner of interacting with her charges. The children, some too young to even articulate what was happening to them, remained powerless in the face of abuse in the hands of an adult whom they trust.  

The gravity of the incident had galvanised many of our MPs to file questions on how we can protect our children from mistreatment. As emotions ran high, there were calls for increased surveillance through CCTVs and more stringent checks, including mandatory psychological screenings on potential childcare professionals.  

But beyond the reactionary, it is equally, if not more important, to learn from the incident and examine how current policies can be strengthened and executed better on the ground. Only then can we ensure that all children grow and develop in a safe, positive and nurturing environment, said Minister of State (MOS) for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling as she laid out the government’s multi-layered approach to prevent child mismanagement during Parliament on Monday (Sep 18). 

Finding solutions, not faults 

In theory, childcare operators must notify the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) of any incident affecting the health and safety of a child within 24 hours. That is in addition to the multiple channels allowing educators to contact ECDA directly and any internal reporting mechanism within each preschool. Sadly, despite these systems in place to prevent child mismanagement, a mixture of apathy and ignorance led the events at Kinderland to unfold longer than they should have. 

To that, ECDA has apologised for the lapses in not removing the educator from the classroom earlier. Furthermore, it has vowed to step up efforts to promote reporting obligations, strengthen investigation protocols and ensure better oversight of cases. 

One of which is its stance on personal mobile devices. While preschools might be inclined to ban or limit their use at work, MOS Sun emphasised that such policies should not hinder staff from reporting wrongdoings.  

After all, the alleged abuse at Kinderland would not have seen the light of day if not for the bravery of a staff member who filmed evidence of wrongdoing. Therefore, operators who ban mobile devices for this purpose would be breaching their duty to implement an effective reporting mechanism, noted MOS Sun. 

Another area of concern is the seemingly lenient penalties meted out to Kinderland, something MP Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson SMC) had pointed out. Given a reduced licence tenure of 6 months and a $5,000 fine (the maximum amount permitted by law), the punishment felt disproportionate to the circumstances, amounting to a slap on the wrist unlikely to make operators sit up and take child safety seriously. 

In response, MOS Sun shared that ECDA will review the current regulatory framework, which includes raising financial penalties and revoking the license of operators who fail to meet the requirements set out in the ECDA Code of Practice. As for cases involving individual misconduct, ECDA can issue a warning, require the teacher to undergo re-training or bar the teacher from working in the preschool sector altogether. 

Moving from ‘hardware’ to ‘heartware’ 

Today, the shock and betrayal from the Kinderland case remains raw. In an industry often underappreciated, the incident has thrusted early childhood educators into the spotlight, albeit one drenched in judgment and scrutiny. 

However, as MP Mr Melvin Yong (Radin Mas SMC) observed, most of our early childhood educators are exemplary, and the negative attention has affected morale. Echoing his point, MOS Sun reiterated that the incidents at Kinderland are not representative of our preschool educators.  

“There are many passionate, wonderful teachers in our midst, and we should not let the errant acts of a few tarnish the good work of the whole.” 

That is why, while strengthening regulations and enhancing penalties will go a long way in preventing children from being mistreated, teachers remain the ‘heartware’ who make all the difference to ensure that our children are well-cared for.   

For that reason, ECDA has taken steps to improve the working conditions and career prospects of teachers in the preschool sector. It will also work closely with the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC) to expand professional development programmes such as skills in positive child management.  

“The incidents at Kinderland should not have happened,” shared MOS Sun in a sincere acknowledgement. Pointing fingers now would not be constructive, but with the right blend of top-down policies and bottom-up approaches, we can create multi-layered safeguards to protect our children from harm, providing them with a safe space to learn and play.  

Picture Source: MCI/Sun Xueling via Facebook/Gov.sg