Educators say the plan may fail to improve quality in the kindergarten sector because of the restrictions on schools' eligibility The kindergarten voucher scheme announced in this week's policy address is flawed, educators have said. Reacting to Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's scheme, they said it could fail to raise the quality of the sector because of restrictions on the eligibility of schools and most of the money would go to parents rather than provide a direct income for preschools. But after Mr Tsang's announcement, Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung said on the EMB website that the quality of preschool education would be improved by raising the qualifications of principals and teachers, improving transparency, strengthening quality assurance and providing support, such as grants for upgrading facilities. 'We estimate more than 80 per cent of preschools will be eligible for the [voucher] scheme,' he said. The scheme will help parents with tuition fees, starting next year. It will cover all children aged three to six who attend non-profit preschools that charge HK$24,000 a year or less for half-day classes, or up to HK$48,000 for the whole day. The scheme is expected to cost HK$2 billion a year by 2011-12. By then, the fee remission scheme for needy students will be scaled back. A one-off grant of HK$70 million will also be available for non-profit preschools for teaching resources. Mr Tsang also said that in five years all kindergarten teachers should be trained to diploma level and principals should have degrees. Lily Chan, head of the department of early childhood education at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said the new initiatives gave little support to preschools. 'The voucher scheme benefits parents, not schools,' she said. 'Those wishing to do something different, such as develop a special curriculum or improve the teacher-student ratio, may not be able to do so with less money,' she said, referring to schools that would have to cut fees to come under the HK$24,000 ceiling. 'We need a long-term plan to improve the quality of education among preschools in, for example, curriculum development and teacher salary.' Dr Chan said the Quality Early Childhood Alliance, which consists of academics and representatives of preschool groups, would meet to discuss how to convince the government to adjust the salary scale of preschool teachers to accompany plans to raise their qualifications. Gail Yuen Wai-kwan, a lecturer on early childhood education at HKIEd, said the measures were nothing new and had not been effectively carried out. For example, teacher development suffered from a shortage of subsidised places for preschool teachers, she said, adding that quality assurance relied too heavily on quantitative criteria. Dr Yuen feared the voucher scheme would trigger cut-throat competition and some schools would reduce fees to attract parents at the expense of teacher salary. 'Teachers' morale will be affected and it will be more difficult to attract and retain people,' she said. 'The quality of education will be compromised.' Quality services cost more money. 'Is HK$24,000 enough to sustain quality education?' she asked. But Hung Fan-sing, at the department of educational administration and policy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the voucher scheme would promote quality by ensuring more stable enrolment for schools. New inspection measures for schools entitled to accept vouchers would also help ensure quality, he added. However, Thomas Ho, of Rightmind Kindergarten, criticised the government for discriminating against profit-making schools. He said that some profit-making preschools would meet today to come up with a joint declaration in response to the voucher scheme. Connie Lam Shui-ki, head of non-profit making Hong Kong Kindergarten Association Preschool, said the vouchers were good news for parents but more details were needed before she could assess the impact on kindergartens. The initiatives will be discussed at the Legislative Council education panel meeting on Thursday.