Members of the education sector recently signed a petition at The Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd) demanding the government abolish its “problematic” voucher fund scheme and fully subsidise early childhood education. The joint statement, which won the support of major political parties, was signed on February 21 in front of 400 academics and kindergarten principals at the15-year Free Education Forum: Implementation and Way Forward of Quality Early Childhood Educationorganised by HKIEd’s Centre for Childhood Research and Innovation (CCRI).
Initiated by the CCRI, the Council of Non-profit Making Organizations for Pre-primary Education, and the Pacific Early Childhood Education Research Association, the joint statement was also signed by 25 other early childhood education organisations at the start of the forum. The groups said every child was entitled to quality early childhood education, which would best be provided through 15 years of free education. “We request the abolition of the current Pre-primary Education Voucher Scheme and the government’s commitment to fully subsidise early childhood education,” a spokesman for the groups read in a joint statement. They also demanded that the government address the issue of full-day early education; lower child-teacher ratios; establishing a quality assurance mechanism; as well as setting up a consultative platform, and a mechanism to form policy and strategy for the development of early childhood education.
Speaking at the forum’s opening ceremony, HKIEd’s President, Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, highlighted the importance of early childhood education. He said that Scandinavian countries had excelled in early childhood education because of their investment in it, adding that Macau also launched a policy of 15-years free education in 2010. “The 21st century is an era driven by knowledge and creativity. Nations around the world have invested heavily in nurturing high quality and creative talents. Nurturing talents should start from early childhood education,” he said.
Forum speakers demanded that the government begin a policy of 15-years free education and abolish its voucher system, launched in 2007, which offers a school fee subsidy to kindergarten parents. Educators at the forum said the voucher scheme, aimed at boosting competition between kindergartens to improve the quality of education, had, in fact, worsened the quality of Hong Kong’s early childhood education. Kindergartens only offered what parents wanted, they said, which did not necessarily translate into good quality education.
Early childhood education expert Dr Gail Yuen Wai-kwan, Assistant Professor of the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at HKIEd, said kindergartens were under pressure to get enough children to enrol, which meant they attempted to put far too much material into the courses to attract parents, and in turn put young children under pressure. Teachers also struggled with heavy workloads and high pressure, she said. The voucher subsidy is only enough to cover half-day school fees, meaning working parents with children studying in full-day classes have to pay the rest.
Speaking at the forum, legislators from major political parties and chief executive election candidate Albert Ho Chun-yan all demanded the next administration fully subsidise early childhood education. However, two other candidates Henry Tang Ying-yen and Leung Chun-ying were ambivalent in their stance on the implementation of 15-years free education. The forum moderator said Tang had stated in his platform that he would enhance the voucher system. Education lawmaker Cheung Man-kwong asked the forum’s attendees not to give up their years-long fight for 15-years free education. “Hope will remain with those who fight,” he said.