Initiative 'hijacked' by talk of profit-making kindergartens rather than aim to make them accessible to all The government's proposals for subsidising early childhood education have been 'hijacked' by a debate dominated by the issue of education vouchers, Deputy Secretary for Education and Manpower Chris Wardlaw said this week. 'I'm intrigued that a pretty straightforward initiative in our kindergartens could get hijacked, really, away from some pretty fundamental principles,' he said. 'I've not been surprised by the community debate. But I have been surprised that some in the education sector have thought that the principle of funding being siphoned off for profit making would be an easy thing to do. It's a very significant policy change.' The voucher scheme was announced by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in his policy address last month, as part of a package to improve the quality of early childhood education. Under the scheme, due to be debated by Legco's panel on education on Monday, parents would be able to use a HK$13,000 voucher to pay for school fees at non-profit-making kindergartens. The value of the voucher would go up to HK$16,000 over the next five years. However, the proposals have been criticised for not including profit-making kindergartens in the scheme and for having an eligibility cap at annual fees of HK$24,000 for full-day schooling. 'There has been far too much focus on the voucher, and the voucher seen out of context,' Mr Wardlaw said. 'This chair has got three legs. You can't talk about one leg only.' The voucher system was designed to complement the drive to improve teachers' qualifications and to promote transparency in schools, he said. 'I think a lot of kindergartens are very transparent, but systematically the transparency on the source of funds and the use of funds is not well known,' Mr Wardlaw said. The Education and Manpower Bureau plans to establish a quality assurance mechanism that would ensure only accredited kindergartens were eligible for the voucher scheme by the end of the 2011/12 school year. However, Mr Wardlaw said teacher-training was the bureau's principal means of improving the quality of education. As set out in the policy address, the goal was to have all kindergarten teachers qualified to certificate level within five years. To achieve that, an average-sized kindergarten of about 180 students would receive roughly HK$1.8 million over the next five years, he said. 'The money is for teachers, regardless what type of school they work at,' Mr Wardlaw said. 'We want to give the schools and the teachers flexibility for timetabling it, because some teachers may be more keen than others to enrol, for whatever reason ... we want to make it as user-friendly as possible. 'And on the other side, the teacher-educators have got to have and will be providing extra places over the next five years.' Bureau statistics showed that by September last year, 23.8 per cent of kindergarten teachers had already attained a certificate in early childhood education, while a further 21.5 per cent were enrolled in courses working towards the qualification. About 70 per cent of parents would currently be eligible for the voucher scheme today, he said, without any changes to enrolments or the profit-status of their children's kindergarten. But that figure was expected to rise to roughly 90 per cent over the first five years of the scheme. Mr Wardlaw conceded that some kindergartens had legitimate concerns about the effect the voucher scheme's introduction next year could have on the profit-making sector. 'It depends on how quickly the private independent schools would change [to non-profit-making status],' he said. 'I think the market will change significantly.'