Kindergartens will remain at mercy of free market while they are privately run

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 3:57am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 4:49am

Few cities see their shops come and go as quickly as in Hong Kong. As rents spiral, hardly a week goes by without businesses changing hands or being priced out of the market. But when an established kindergarten suffers the same fate, it says volumes about the oddities of our education system.

The preschool inside Kingswood Villas in Tin Shui Wai is the latest victim of cut-throat competition. Despite offering to pay nearly double its current rent of about HK$260,000 a month, it was outbid by a rival kindergarten chain. Hundreds of parents are now scrambling around for preschool places in the run-up to the takeover in September. Although the new group offered to take the pupils for a modest fee increase, it came under fire for enrolling them before the new site was properly registered. The group denied jumping the gun, saying that staff believed parents were just signing up their children for another branch of the group in the same district.

That the controversy has aroused so much attention is to be expected. While only a relatively small group of children and parents have been affected, it resonates across the city in that the Tin Shui Wai kindergarten is not the only one struggling to survive. Without a permanent campus, many preschools and nurseries are at the mercy of the rental market. It would not be surprising to see more similar cases in future.

Soaring rent is just one of the many problems facing the preschool sector. Aggravated by an influx of Hong Kong-born children from the mainland, kindergarten admission is increasingly competitive, with families camping out for days to try enrol their children into preferred schools. But the government's hands are tied, as all kindergartens are privately run at present. Despite some basic requirements and subsidies through a voucher scheme, government control is minimal.

Unless kindergartens become fully funded and regulated, the problems will persist. A committee was appointed last year to take forward the chief executive's pledge of free kindergarten education. It is in the public interest to speed up the work.