Due care

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 December, 2011, 12:00am


The Mong Kok fire that killed nine people and left 34 injured sends a strong message to improve safety standards. And while much has been said about improving fire safety within residential buildings that have partitioned flats, it's worth noting that children are often not at home.

Instead, when they are not in school, they are at tutorial centres, ballet classes, arts and crafts lessons, or indoor soccer programmes. Of all these places, only tutorial centres need to be licensed by the Education Bureau and must comply with stringent safety and fire regulations. The others can be located in any building, on any floor. In fact, you will often find entire office buildings packed with children's activities and businesses, right up to the 30th floor. What would happen to them in the event of a fire?

Currently, the Education Bureau only has jurisdiction over educational businesses and organisations. Its rules state that if any organisation teaches children anything academic, it must register as a school. In order to obtain a school licence, the organisation has to seek approval from the buildings, fire services, health and lands departments. Because my learning centre teaches English and maths, we are a licensed school. But, because my neighbours on the 22nd floor teach painting, they are not.

This would all be fine if the licensing requirements had to do with academics or curriculum. In fact, they do not and for good reason. Most of the rules pertain directly and exclusively to children's safety. Are the school furniture, walls and doors fire-resistant? Are there illegal structures in the building? Is the internet and computer cabling safe? Has a background check been performed on the administrators and teachers? Most importantly, in the event of a fire, will the children be able to evacuate? This is the reason children's programmes need to be located on the sixth floor or below - because children simply cannot be expected to run down 20 flights of stairs in the event of an emergency. Any learning centre that operates above the sixth floor is probably illegal.

If children's safety is paramount, then the rules should apply to all children's programmes, academic or not. Furthermore, some centres mask themselves as an arts and crafts centre or a playgroup to get out of being defined as a school, but then secretly teach English, maths and science. Other centres obtain a school licence and then neglect to obtain a new licence when they expand. These loopholes need to be plugged.

It is understandable why so many centres don't want to be defined as a school: obtaining the licence is a huge logistical, financial and operational nightmare. It can take more than six months and hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovation fees. In Hong Kong's brutal commercial property market, renting a space for six months without operating can mean life and death for small businesses.

Yet, the fact remains that children's safety should always come first. The bureau should require every organisation that caters to children to obtain a school licence and be subject to the same stringent fire and safety regulations as academic learning centres.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.com