It is now well-recognised how important the kindergarten years are for laying sound foundations for a child's education. Get it wrong and children can go forward with their natural inquisitiveness shaken out of them by dull routine and excessive academic demands. The government has, quite rightly, been supporting the upgrading of the kindergarten teaching profession by requiring minimum qualifications so more now better understand young children's needs. However, much more needs to be done, with only 23 per cent trained to the higher certificate level and just 227 holding degrees. The government this week went further with the Chief Executive announcing an extra HK$2 billion a year to be pumped into the sector. Most of that will go to parents to help them pay school fees. Of vouchers worth HK$13,000 a year, just HK$3,000 will be channeled into teacher education until 2011-12. After that, the vouchers will increase to HK$16,000, all to be used for fees. However, there could be unexpected consequences that could work against the key aim of raising kindergarten quality. Under the scheme, all students will be entitled to vouchers - but only if they attend not-for-profit kindergartens that charge less than HK$24,000 a year for half-day sessions. This raises an issue as to what will happen to kindergartens that charge more. If they are to attract students, many will be forced to switch to non-profit status, and lower their fees. Currently, fees are controlled and profits are limited to a maximum 15 per cent. Those charging more than HK$24,000 often have more qualified teachers, smaller classes and better facilities than those charging the average HK$15,000 or less. So the question is how these schools will cut costs. As teachers' salary is their major expenditure, it could be in this area, or reducing the ratio of teachers to pupils. They may even get rid of some of their more qualified teachers. The obvious outcome could be a reduction in quality. Kindergarten teachers are the Cinderellas of the education system. At entry level, they earn at least HK$5,000 less than their primary counterparts and there is no pay scale that suggests those with degrees in early childhood education should get paid more. This is a gap that must be narrowed if kindergartens are to attract high quality teachers charged with guiding children in those crucial preschool years. Economist Milton Friedman's vision for vouchers was that they should give unrestricted choice to parents, while schools would face free market forces to raise their act. With its restrictions, Hong Kong's version of the voucher could have the opposite effect by driving more children to schools with bigger class sizes and less-qualified teachers.