Government can, and must, do more to keep promise on free kindergartens
Given the importance attached to early childhood development by parents and schools, the chief executive has rightly committed himself to extending free education to pre-primary level. While free kindergarten education is a laudable goal, it is easier said than done. After years of study, a government advisory group has come up with a blueprint that does not live up to public expectations. Unlike half-day schools, which will receive full subvention under the proposal, whole-day ones will be subsidised to a lesser extent. Separately, rental allowance will be provided. But those in commercial sites may not get a full subsidy. It is estimated that parents of about 40 per cent of children in kindergartens will still be required to pay fees under the new policy.
Parents and schools are understandably upset by what critics describe as "fake free education". With two in five still expected to dip into their own pockets, it is hardly free. The advisory group says the recommendations will raise government spending on kindergarten education by 70 per cent to HK$7 billion a year. If a full rental subsidy is given, the cost will rise and commercial rents will spiral further, it argues.
Pursuing free education on the principle of financial prudence is not wrong. But with our fiscal reserves ballooning to hundreds of billions of dollars, the government can afford to do more. The advisory group shied away from giving higher subsidies for whole-day school, saying studies have shown that half-day education was best for child development. But ironically, it acknowledges that there is high demand for full-day schools and recommends a higher quota without a timetable. The half-hearted approach sits oddly with the government's goal of facilitating parents to work under the population policy.
Given that fewer than one-fifth of kindergarten children have their tuition fees fully covered by the existing voucher scheme - capped at an annual HK$22,510 - the proposals are still a step forward. But officials should consider doing more lest free kindergarten education becomes an empty promise.