Hong Kong kindergartens have been notorious for children being packed into over-crowded classrooms, taught by poorly trained teachers to pursue boring, inappropriate tasks. The importance this sector plays in igniting a child's interest in learning has been recognised in the reforms. But measures to upgrade the quality of teachers, as well as the new financial support offered to kindergartens, have been criticised as ineffective and insufficient. Next Sunday the Professional Teachers' Union (PTU) will lead kindergarten teachers on a march in Central to urge the Government to withdraw its new subsidy plan, which introduces a group grant for each 15 students, instead of the 30 students under the old system. In a survey conducted by the PTU, 101 out of 130 kindergartens interviewed said the new plan would leave them with less money at a time when they were desperate for more resources. Vinnci Lau Wing-see, the head teacher at a private kindergarten, is among those who fear that the change could force some kindergartens to close and provide no incentive to others to employ better qualified and better paid teachers. With little money, kindergartens would prefer to employ only fresh graduates with minimal Qualified Kindergarten Teacher training, she said. The upgrading of teacher quality also faces obstacles, with tertiary institutes unable to meet demand for in-service training. The Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd), the main provider, is hoping for more government support as its School of Early Childhood Education increases the number of places on its oversubscribed programmes. For instance, it plans to increase the number of admissions for its in-service certificate programme from 180 to 240 in 2003. Demand has been so great that so far it is catering mainly for principals and head teachers. Professor Lorna Chan Kim-sang, the school's head, would like to see more class teachers enrolled. The Education Department last month commissioned the University of Hong Kong (HKU) to launch a one-year programme on principalship training for current serving kindergarten principals and supervisors at childcare centres. Cheung Kwok-wah, associate dean of HKU's Faculty of Education, said that the programme, which could cater for 120 heads of pre-schools, was heavily oversubscribed. However, he said the university did not plan to use the funding it received from the University Grant Committee to launch any early childhood education courses. 'We already have many education programmes to manage. Besides, our university only has one expert in the field at the moment,' he said. An Education Department spokesman said it had sponsored 400 places for pre-service early childhood educators to study at the HKIEd, Polytechnic University, Vocational Training Council and HKU this year. So far, no extra provision has been made for in-service training. Professor Chan is concerned that the funding for this is insufficient. 'Our main worry is that the lack of funding will force teachers to self-fund their studies,' she said. 'The Government has made a commitment to enhance the quality of early childhood education and should therefore ensure that teacher training is also subsidised in line with the primary and secondary sectors.' Those enrolled in in-service early childhood education courses offered by the Department of Continuing Education at Hong Kong Baptist University have to pay for their studies. Those wanting to upgrade their skills often meet obstacles in their schools. Kindergartens have been reluctant to give teachers time off for training, and operators usually give priority to head teachers. Ms Lau is the only teacher in her kindergarten who has had the chance to follow a three-year certificate programme, while nine of her colleagues would like to do so. She said that a new government subsidy was needed to enable pre-schools to hire teaching assistants and allow teachers to take study leave. But Ms Lau also criticised the training that she was receiving. 'Much of our study bears no relation to our teaching practice,' she said. This included the advanced level of mathematics and chemistry they had to study.