Eleventh-hour rethink by unlicensed science workshop after Government probe over safety

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 June, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 June, 2001, 12:00am

A company which had planned to offer science classes has been forced to rethink following an Education Department inquiry.


The department was alerted to Science Workshop, on the 27th floor of the Universal Trade Centre in Arbuthnot Road, Central, by other tenants in the commercial building, who said it was unlicensed and breaking the Education Ordinance by being more than 24 metres above the ground.


The workshop had been due to hold an open day on June 10 and planned to offer summer science classes to children between the ages of three to 12 from June 18.


But yesterday afternoon it said it would be considering 'alternate plans' after the department ordered it to stop taking applications from parents.


The move came after a senior education officer with the department wrote this week to another tenant in the building. 'We have written to the operators advising them not to enrol students and to cease the recruitment advertising exercise until their proposed establishment satisfies our legal requirements,' wrote Wu Wong Kit-wai. 'We will closely monitor the operation of any unregistered school in the alleged premises and will take further action, including prosecution, if operation of an unregistered school is established,' she wrote. Operators without a licence risk a fine of HK$250,000 and two years in prison, Ms Wu told Education Post.


In a statement yesterday, a Science Workshop representative who declined to be named told Education Post that some summer courses were still possible.


'We are currently consulting with the Education Department and in the process of complying with the regulations,' she said. 'We have revised our programmes which do not require registration and we are awaiting confirmation from the Education Department. In due course we will offer other courses and get the necessary registration as appropriate.


'We are not going to do anything against the law.'


It was unclear whether the workshop would move its premises.


Science Workshop had been planning to operate all year round after its summer programme ended. Class sizes, its literature said, would be limited to 16. Classes would range from 'My Body' to 'Molecules', in which children would 'grow crystals, test cooled and heated materials, blow up a balloon with chemicals, [and] test the properties of carbon dioxide'.


Another tenant in the building, Christine Houston, said she believed the premises were unsuitable for such experiments.


The question hanging over Science Workshop is whether it qualifies as a school. If it is found to do so, it has to be licensed by the Education Department. According to Ms Wu, Science Workshop would be regarded as a school if it taught a subject that was part of the Hong Kong school curriculum. The Education Department stipulates that places offering activities outside the school curriculum, such as art and ballet, do not require licences. But places teaching subjects such as science, English or maths and having eight students or more in the premises at any time, or 20 throughout the day, would be defined as schools.


Restrictions also include that the premises not be more than 24 metres above ground level.


The department said it was monitoring activities elsewhere in the Universal Trade Centre.


Ms Houston is one of a group of tenants in the building who are concerned about the increasing number of activities for children being offered on high floors. English language, arts, ballet and gym are other activities which they say are taught in the building.


'This is a safety issue,' said Ms Houston. 'By not being schools these workshops need not be restricted to being less than 24 metres from ground level.


'But it does not matter what is being taught. In case of a fire, 45 children aged from three having to go downstairs in this building would be a recipe for disaster.'


The Education Department has demanded that a company offering science classes stop taking applications for its summer programme because it is unlicensed.


The department was alerted to Science Workshop, on the 27th floor of the Universal Trade Centre in Arbuthnot Road, Central, by other tenants in the commercial building, who said it was breaking regulations by being more than 24 metres above ground level.


The workshop is due to hold an open day on June 10 and plans to offer summer science classes to children between the ages of three to 12 from June 18.


'We have written to the operators advising them not to enrol students and to cease the recruitment advertising exercise until their proposed establishment satisfies our legal requirements,' said Wu Wong Kit-wai, a senior education officer with the department, in a letter to another tenant.


'We will closely monitor the operation of any unregistered school in the alleged premises and will take further action, including prosecution, if operation of an unregistered school is established,' she wrote.


Operators without a licence risk a fine of HK$250,000 and two years in prison, Ms Wu told Education Post.


Yesterday, Science Workshop was still telling parents that they could enrol their children. One representative, who gave her name as Ms Wong, told Education Post that the summer courses would run as planned.


'There are so many similar groups in this building, all on high floors,' she said. The workshop would be applying for a licence, she added. Another representative, Debbie Hung, said: 'We are not going to do anything against the law. We are working closely with the Education Department in a cordial manner.'


Science Workshop plans to operate all year round following its summer programme. Class sizes, its literature says, will be limited to 16.


Classes range from 'My Body' to 'Molecules'. In the latter, children will 'grow crystals, test cooled and heated materials, blow up a balloon with chemicals, [and] test the properties of carbon dioxide'.


But another tenant in the building, Christine Houston, said she believed the premises were unsuitable for such experiments.


At issue is whether the workshop qualifies as a school. If it is found to do so, it has to be licensed by the Education Department. According to Ms Wu, Science Workshop would be regarded as a school if it teaches a subject that is part of the Hong Kong school curriculum. The Education Department stipulates that places offering activities outside the school curriculum, such as art and ballet, do not require licences. But places teaching subjects such as science, English or maths and having eight students or more in the premises at any time, or 20 throughout the day, would be defined as schools and would have to meet stringent safety requirements in order to gain their licences.


Restrictions also include that the premises not be more than 24 metres above ground level. The restriction can only be relaxed in exceptional circumstances.


The department said it was monitoring activities elsewhere in the Universal Trade Centre.


When Ms Houston inquired about the workshop, she said, she was told by one of the operators that it would not need a licence because it was not a school.


Ms Houston is one of a group of tenants in the building who are concerned about the increasing number of activities for children being offered on high floors.


'This is a safety issue,' said Ms Houston. 'By not being schools these workshops need not be restricted to being less than 24 metres from ground level.


'But it does not matter what is being taught. In case of a fire, 45 children aged from three having to go downstairs in this building would be a recipe for disaster.'