HONG KONG has the world's highest percentage of pre-school children receiving formal education, with 96 per cent of three to five-year-olds going to school every day. But a close look at the pre-school sector reveals anomalies and oddities that do not match the territory's developed status. Take a look, for example, at the child care centre and kindergarten operated by Ms Wu Chiu-ha, who chairs the Hong Kong Kindergartens Association. Both institutions are housed on the first floor of a commercial building in Ngau Tau Kok. Yet there are three sets of toilets for the children. This is because the kindergarten is required to have separate toilets for girls and boys so that children can learn about social practices, while the child care centre must have a common toilet for both boys and girls. And take a look at a reputable kindergarten charging $7,000 a month, where mothers queue for admittance interviews for their children. 'They came in their Mercedes and dressed up like they were attending a ball,' said Maggie Fung Kwok Ching-yee, one of the mothers. It turned out the mothers, not the children, were interviewed, answering questions on where they lived, what cars they had and if they were related to well-known people in Hong Kong. Mrs Fung's son was not admitted. 'My son had been playing while waiting for the interview. The principal said my son was too active for the teachers to take care of and the school has a reputation of being accident-free,' she said. These strange facts are symptomatic of the chaotic state of the territory's pre-primary education sector. Now the Government has finally been forced to deal with it. A committee under the Education and Manpower Branch is studying how subsidies can be channelled to kindergartens, now run by the private sector, and the thorny issue of merging kindergartens and child care centres. Pre-school workers have long viewed the artificial division of pre-primary institutions as laughable. The chairman of the Alliance for the Improvement of Pre-primary Policies, Harlanna Yeung Chui-chun, said: 'What is the difference between children aged three to five at the kindergartens and those at the child care centres? Children of the same age level should receive the same kind of care and education.' A problem occurs when parents send their children from child care centres to kindergartens when they get older. Parents consider kindergartens provide a better preparation for primary school, but the curriculums at kindergartens and child care centres were different, Ms Wu said. While Hong Kong's 355 child care centres are supervised closely by the Social Welfare Department according to the Child Centres Ordinance, about 800 kindergartens observe the Education Ordinance like any other school. The Education Department's role is only advisory. Child care centres are subsidised by the Government and their staff are paid according to a fixed scale, while kindergartens receive no subsidies and many do not pay their teachers according to a scale which is recommended but not binding. This division of pre-primary institutions also extends to the training of staff and results in even more oddities. GRANTHAM College of Education handles kindergarten teacher training, which has a pedagogical emphasis, while training for nursery centre staff, with a stress on child care, is held at the Lee Wai Lee Technical Institute. There are similarities between the courses, but the qualifications awarded by Grantham are not recognised by the Social Welfare Department, while the Lee Wai Lee qualifications are not recognised by the Education Department. Mrs Chu Tang Lai-kuen of Caritas, which operates kindergartens and child care centres, said the rules caused difficulties in staff deployment when a Grantham-trained kindergarten teacher wanted to work for a nursery centre or vice-versa. At present, only courses run by the Hong Kong Polytechnic's Department of Applied Social Studies take into account both the educational and caring needs of pre-school children, whose awards are recognised by both departments. But the head of the Polytechnic's department, Ms Diana Mak Ping-sze, has expressed concern over reports that the Government was considering asking the Hong Kong Institute of Education to set up training facilities for kindergarten teachers, without first addressing the issue of unifying pre-primary services and the training of pre-school workers. In the meantime, serious inequities in pre-school workers' pay persist. Although the Education Commission proposed a recommended scale for kindergarten teachers in its second report in 1986, operators are not obliged to follow it. This has discouraged kindergarten teachers from receiving training and led to high turnover rates - 19.8 per cent in last year and 35 per cent in 1989-90. At present, only about 50 per cent of the teachers are trained and many of them are underpaid. On the other hand, while most child care centres' workers are trained and paid according to the approved scale, they are calling for higher pay in light of their heavy workload. During the 12 months to November, 801 child care centre workers resigned, about 23 per cent of its total strength of 3,483 at the end of that month. Earlier this year, an ad hoc committee of the Board of Education made a number of suggestions to improve the pre-school sector, including unification of pre-primary services as a long-term goal, enhancement of kindergarten teacher education and direct subsidies to kindergartens. Taking note of the Government's plan to subsidise kindergartens, the Council of Early Childhood Education and Services (CECES) published a position paper last month in which it stressed that unification was of paramount importance. CECES director Sansan Ching Teh-chi said improving only teacher training and salaries at kindergartens and leaving the unification problem unresolved was just like 'mending one hole but creating three others'. The Alliance for the Implementation of Pre-primary Policies has also sent an open letter to Governor Chris Patten, urging him to speed up the study on the unification issue and the provision of direct subsidy for kindergartens. Yesterday, another alliance on kindergarten education staged a rally at Chater Garden to press for direct subsidies. In response, Deputy Secretary for Education and Manpower, Kevin Mak Iu-kwan, said a recommendation on subsidising kindergartens was expected to be made early next year. If the Executive Council approves the policy and funding is obtained, it could be implemented by September 1995. On the unification issue, it is apparent the Government is still clinging to the idea that kindergartens and child care centres should be different. 'The major question is child care centres and kindergartens serve different functions,' Mr Mak said.