Buck-passing by officials on school operating illegally
Government action over a Montessori school that is operating illegally descended into farce yesterday after the Education Bureau passed the case to the Social Welfare Department - which promptly referred it back again.
The Montessori School of Hong Kong was still open for business at a site in Pokfulam Road yesterday nearly three weeks after officials first warned the school that it was not allowed to operate at the new premises because it was not correctly registered.
The school, which offers a 'learning creche' and kindergarten, has been operating illegally at the site for four weeks after informing the bureau that it had ceased operating at its former premises in Caine Road.
Under the Education Ordinance (Cap 279) a school can only operate at the premises specified in its registration certificate.
Parents complained to the bureau after they found uncompleted building work, dust and dirty, malfunctioning toilets at the new premises.
Officers from the bureau's Joint Office for Pre-primary Services inspected the school on Monday, and two inspections were made in the week of October 18.
Prior to these inspections, a caution and a written warning were issued.
A bureau spokeswoman said the inspection on Monday failed to uncover enough evidence to prove that an unregistered school was in operation, according to the definition of a school under the Education Ordinance. This specified that a school was an institution providing an educational course of some kind for at least 20 people in any one day or at least eight people at any one time.
'However, we found children aged below three receiving care and supervision on the spot,' she said. 'Since we suspected an unregistered child-care centre was in operation, we cautioned the person in charge and promptly informed the Social Welfare Department for follow-up action.'
But a department spokesman said yesterday: 'The Social Welfare Department has looked into this case and come to the conclusion that the EDB should deal with it because it is a kindergarten cum child-care centre.'
The understanding between the agencies was that the department dealt with child-care centres, while the bureau dealt with kindergartens and centres that offered both kindergarten education and child care, he said.
Jonathan Shankman of Mid-Levels, whose two-year-old daughter attends the school, said: 'I am amazed that the Education Bureau has been investigating for three weeks and continues to allow this school to operate with impunity.
'For the bureau to now be passing the buck to the Social Welfare Department and for it to be passed back again is simply farcical. Here is a group that is openly flouting the law.
'The Education Bureau's focus should be on stopping the illegal activity. Once they have done that, they can debate the semantics of whether it is a child-care centre or a school.'
Mr Shankman said there had been more than eight children at the school when the officers made the inspections in the week of October 18.
A mother with a daughter at the school, who asked not to be named, said she was looking for another school.
'Whichever government department is in charge, it is important that they should investigate the matter carefully and thoroughly,' she said.
The South China Morning Post telephoned the school three times on Monday.
On the first occasion, the person who answered listened to a request for comment and said: 'I think you have the wrong number,' and put the phone down.
On subsequent calls, the phone rang several times and then the line went dead.
For an institution to count as a school under the Education Ordinance, the number of children attending at any one time must be at least: 8