Should Hong Kong learn from Singapore in subsidising private preschools?

Educators from new Tai Tam kindergarten say Hong Kong can learn from a scheme that reduces fees for children from poor families

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 March, 2014, 6:46pm

Singapore's model of government-subsidised private education operators may offer some lessons for Hong Kong in terms of making education more affordable for poorer families, said a Singapore-based education group. 

With its first Hong Kong kindergarten opening in Tai Tam last month, EtonHouse International Preschool's tuition fee ranges from a monthly average of HK$5,500 for playgroups to HK$9,700 for nursery and kindergarten classes - making it one of the city's most expensive half-day kindergartens.

EtonHouse, which is not related to the British boarding school Eton College, says its high fees are due to high rents and well-qualified teachers.

An Education Bureau report in January showed that local children accounted for a quarter of international primary schools' population in 2011-12, a 14 per cent increase from a decade ago.

Direct-subsidy schools - which, unlike government-funded schools, charge fees but have greater freedom in setting curriculums - are also becoming more popular among local parents.

But children from less wealthy families tend to have fewer opportunities to experience alternative school curriculums.

The Tai Tam school, which has about 180 nursery and kindergarten places, has recruited 30 pupils so far, most of them from expatriate families.

Citing research that shows children's personalities are already formed by the age of seven, EtonHouse founder Ng Gim Choo said: "We believe it is important to provide a strong foundation in children's early years."

She added that the Singapore government was "making significant investments in early childhood education". It introduced the scheme to subsidise eligible kindergarten and childcare operators, known as anchor operators, in 2009.

Anchor operators must keep their monthly fees for poorer families below S$160 (HK$981) for kindergartens, S$720 for full-day childcare programmes and S$1,275 for infant care. EtonHouse, as one of the anchor operators, will provide 5,000 subsidised places by 2019.

Allison Banbury, preschool director of EtonHouse and principal of the new kindergarten, says the Hong Kong team will organise conferences to share their philosophy. She hoped government officials would draw inspiration from them.

But Ng said the group was not in a position to comment on whether a similar scheme would be appropriate for Hong Kong.

The kindergarten adopts the Reggio Emilia approach, an educational philosophy developed in Italy and teaches children in English and Putonghua.

"We use playing as a medium through which children learn, and set up inquiries for children to investigate and work with," said Banbury. "We're not one of those schools that will say that it's maths time or literacy time or science time. Here, children learn maths and language and science within various types of activities."

The group plans to open another kindergarten in Pak Shek Kok, Tai Po, next year.

The Hong Kong government does offer a voucher scheme covering non-profit kindergartens which is worth HK$20,010 in the 2014-15 financial year, rising to HK$22,510 the following year.