Pre-Schools Feel The Squeeze In HDB Void Decks

Long considered the “default” option for situating affordable, accessible childcare centres in Singapore’s heartlands, public housing void decks that are big enough or have the right layout to accommodate them are becoming increasingly challenging to secure.

Although the demand for childcare continues to grow, adequate space is running out in older estates, while childcare operators said void decks in newer estates are smaller. A spokesperson for PAP Community Foundation (PCF), which runs 360 kindergartens and childcare centres here, said it has noticed a crunch in void-deck spaces since 2013, with spaces in new estates harder to secure.

NTUC First Campus, which runs more than 110 My First Skool pre-school centres and plans to open another 10 this year, said it has had to combine four to six bays under the same or nearby blocks of flats for seven of its 22 new centres over the past two years to get around the space crunch.

Late last month, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing, responding to a question in Parliament, acknowledged the shortfall in the number of childcare places in built precincts that lack void-deck spaces. His ministry has worked with the Ministry of National Development to ensure space is provided for in the new towns. More details will be given on other ways to address the lack of childcare places in estates without enough void-deck space for centres, he said. At a separate event, he also suggested that centres could be designed upfront onto the second floors of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats or car parks.

PCF said the crunch in void-deck space has been more evident in areas such as Punggol and Jurong West. “(Void-deck spaces here) are either too small for development or reserved for community use,” added its spokesperson. In areas where demand is high, it will look into expanding existing centres. “PCF is exploring alternative spaces such as community centres … and malls with integrated development,” the spokesperson said.

Agape Little Uni’s director Chris Lim felt the problem lies with how allocated void-deck spaces are not “purpose built”. “I would like to see (a) more holistic and focused approach towards it. Not so much finding different corners to park a childcare centre, whether it’s (a) void deck (or) any other part that is a usable space,” he said.

Architect Ong Ker-Shing of Lekker Architects, which was commissioned by Lien Foundation to look into innovative design for pre-schools, said void decks often have structural walls that cut the space into pieces, which is not ideal. Indeed, in building some of its centres across several HDB blocks, NTUC First Campus had to build more kitchens, pantries and toilets at these locations, and faces the challenge of ensuring principals are within easy reach. It has also built centres on less conventional sites such as the former Serangoon bus interchange.

Lien Foundation CEO Lee Poh Wah said a pre-school in a void deck can typically take about 80 to 100 children, which may not be the most economically efficient. In comparison, St James’ Church Kindergarten has an enrolment of 1,200, enabling it to be more efficient, he said, adding that there are about 1,500 pre-schools. In comparison, there are 182 primary schools.

Asked about the void-deck crunch and plans to set aside second floors of HDB blocks for childcare centres, the Early Childhood Development Agency said it monitors local demand and works closely with the HDB to facilitate expansion of such capacity. “In new estates with more young families, childcare centres are pre-built into new Build-To-Order developments to cater to demand ahead of time,” said its spokesperson. Alternative premises such as workplaces are being explored.

The agency also said it is on track to meet the target of creating 20,000 new childcare places by end-2017.

Currently, Little Footprints Preschool at Punggol Field sits on the second floor of an HDB block, which is also connected to the landing deck. While this is one way of addressing the shortfall in spaces, Mr Ong said the feasibility of doing so depends on the size of the centre and configuration of each HDB building. Also, potential challenges include congestion at drop-off and pick-up times, as well as noise. “The planning of childcare centres works best when more open, flexible areas are available to allow for the complexities of managing the flow of classrooms, activity spaces and toilets,” he added.

Mr Lee said: “There is a need to rethink the space and economics of preschools in order to build quality and affordability for the long term.”



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