The government cannot force kindergartens to give children living in their local districts priority for places, education chief Eddie Ng Hak-kim said yesterday.
His remarks infuriated parents, coming less than a week after Ng said encouraging kindergartens to take local pupils first would be one of six "emergency measures" to quell an influx of children, born in Hong Kong to mainland parents, into Tai Po and North District classrooms.
"Kindergartens are privately run institutions," Ng said at a meeting of the Legislative Council education panel. "The government can only encourage them."
Ng was responding to lawmakers' questions on how the Education Bureau would handle the influx of children living across the border. Hundreds of mainland parents have queued outside kindergartens to grab application forms, leaving some local parents fearing their children will miss out on a place or have to study far from home.
"[Ng] has been using 'privately run' as an excuse for doing nothing since the beginning," said Zoe Fung Hoi-yan, spokeswoman for concern group Sheung Shui/Fanling Mama Club. "It is he who came up with the policy [of giving priority to local children] in the first place, but now he says he's not prepared to enforce it."
Fung said her group, which organised a protest march in Fanling early this month, would consider doing so again.
The other measures in the bureau's plan include having schools distribute unlimited application forms and offering them online, limiting parents to registering at one kindergarten rather than several, adding school places and aiding parents.
Lawmakers expressed concern that the rush for kindergarten places would spread to other parts of the New Territories.
Ng said he had spoken to principals in Yuen Long about the possibility of adopting the six measures, and would also speak to principals from elsewhere.
He also pledged to open a new round of applications from operators to set up more international schools amid concern from business groups that a shortage of 4,000 primary places in the next five years would deter overseas talent from moving to the city.
He pointed to Harrow International School, which said yesterday it would add extra classrooms in an expansion to be completed next summer.