Height restriction for school premises protects children's safety

Kelly Yang says there are better ways to help schools facing rising rents than by doing away with a height restriction needed for safety reasons

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 May, 2014, 7:34pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 2:13am

Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim said last week that the bureau is reconsidering a requirement that schools and kindergartens be located no higher than 24 metres above ground, in an effort to tackle the problem of soaring rents for schools.

The current limit means a school can be housed no higher than the sixth floor of a building. Lifting this ban may not seem like a big deal but it should be of colossal importance to every parent, child or teacher in Hong Kong.

The move comes at a time when kindergartens increasingly face eviction by rapacious landlords. Just last month, Topkids International Preschool was priced out of its premises in Tin Shui Wai.

As a school principal, I know first-hand the problem of soaring rent and the crippling effect it can have on schools. High rents affect any business, but since schools need to have their premises licensed by the Education Bureau, they have even less mobility, and thus less bargaining power in lease negotiations.

Currently, for schools and preschools, trying to secure commercial and retail office space at a reasonable price in Hong Kong that also happens to be on or below the sixth floor is like finding a needle in a haystack.

Yet taking away the 24-metre restriction will open another, much worse, can of worms. It will undermine children's safety, and that is a problem far more frightening than soaring rents.

Let's first consider how the height restriction came about. The Education Bureau and the Fire Services Department set the rule for good reason: there's a real concern that, in the event of a fire, children cannot reasonably be expected to safely evacuate a school if it is located on too high a floor. Young children simply cannot walk down that many stairs in one go.

If we lift this restriction, it would mean that schools would be allowed to operate on the 10th - or even the 20th - floor of an office building. That may sound perfectly fine now, but what will happen to the dozens, if not hundreds, of children studying in the school if a fire breaks out, as in 2011, in Mong Kok, where nine people died and dozens more were injured? There's no way all those kids would be able to safely make it out of the building.

Instead of looking at easing the 24-metre ban, the government can provide more support to schools like Topkids, particularly in helping them negotiate with landlords.

Landlords should also be encouraged to sign longer leases with schools. Right now, many private educational centres and kindergartens operate on standard two-year leases, which leaves them vulnerable to the landlord's whims and demands. If every school signed five-year leases, it would greatly improve stability in the education sector.

While I applaud the education secretary for trying to solve the problem of soaring educational costs and rent, lifting the 24-metre restriction is not a good solution. It would jeopardise the safety of all our children and that is simply too high a price to pay.

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.edu.hk