The debacle over a Tin Shui Wai preschool which was ousted from its campus by a rival shows the market-driven system is detrimental to early childhood education, an advocacy group for free kindergartens says.
"Early childhood education is often seen by the government as a private-sector responsibility," Gail Yuen Wai-kwan, convenor of the Alliance on the Fight for 15-year Free Education, said yesterday. "It means educational issues - such as quality, places and development - are being determined by the market."
Yuen, an education policy specialist at the Institute of Education, said the fate of Topkids International Preschool, which has to move from its Sherwood Court, Kingswood Villas campus before the new school year in September, exposed "harsh" conditions in the private market.
The government's voucher scheme for kindergartens is worth HK$20,010 per child for the 2014-15 financial year and goes up to HK$22,510 the following year.
But Yuen said government spending on kindergartens accounted for just 4 per cent of the education budget.
That means kindergartens must rely on tuition fees, putting poorer families at a disadvantage.
"Now more than ever is the time for the government to deliver free kindergarten education," she said. "If it chooses to ignore the issue … we will still be in this position in eight or 10 years."
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying promised 15 years of free education in his election manifesto, but has so far only set up a committee to look into free kindergarten places.
Topkids on Monday said it failed to secure a lease renewal from Fortune Real Estate Trust despite offering to almost double its rent of HK$260,000 a month. Zenith International Education Foundation outbid Topkids.
Fortune said yesterday it had discussed the renewal with Topkids many times, but its rent offer was 20 per cent lower than Zenith's. Topkids only raised its offer after the lease was signed.
Parents want Topkids to move to an empty school nearby. But Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim said the site was earmarked for a primary school.
Meanwhile, more than 500 parents of Topkids pupils yesterday sent a message to tycoon Li Ka-shing, whose Cheung Kong conglomerate has an interest in Fortune. They marched from Chater Garden in Central to the nearby Cheung Kong Center, calling on the landlord to allow Topkids to stay.
Cheung Kong earlier clarified that it owned about 28 per cent of Fortune but did not manage the company. Singapore-listed ARA Asset Management (Fortune) was the manager.