Hong Kong's preschools must serve their purpose of getting children ready for school

Aniruddh Gupta says there should be no need for interview prep classes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 2:47pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 2:47pm

Recent reports about a tutoring centre offering kindergarten-interview training classes for children as young as 18 months have understandably caused outrage among a public concerned about a school system that puts so much pressure on young children. From a parent's point of view, they don't want their child to be left behind; from an operator's viewpoint, they are filling a "market need".

The fact that parents and children feel such stress shows that the early childhood industry is not doing its job here. Hong Kong has one of the world's most expensive early childhood systems, and yet preschools and kindergartens across the city have essentially abdicated their responsibility to make children school-ready.

Even some of the more expensive preschools conduct "transition to primary" and interview prep classes for extra fees. Isn't it the job of a good preschool to get children ready to enter school?

There appears to be two main tracks of practice here. "International" preschools profess to follow essentially European philosophies on early childhood education developed 50 years ago, and when they find these are not what primary schools are looking for, they run "extra classes".

Meanwhile, local preschools turn into cram schools for three-year-olds without any regard for the overall development of the child. This dichotomy reflects a lack of understanding of the importance of early childhood education, and the practical stresses on parents raising children in Hong Kong.

The first five years of a child's life lay the foundation of his or her future; 85 per cent of the human brain develops in these years. A good preschool would develop children organically, at a pace they are comfortable with, across a range of areas including academic proficiency, self-confidence, ability to express themselves, creativity and imagination, logic and reasoning, communication, writing abilities and the like.

Given that most parents in Hong Kong send their children to playschool from the age of nine months, these skills can be developed very early. What it needs is an early childhood education industry that is conscious of its responsibilities to parents and children, willing to incorporate different methods of development, and slightly less materialistic.

A primary role is to get the children school-ready; it is important as the method of getting the children school-ready will determine what they will enjoy doing for the rest of their lives. Children who develop their innate abilities step by step, and at their own pace, will flourish in primary schools and beyond, because the process of learning has become fun and natural.

Interviews for primary schools (and some kindergartens) are a fact of life not just in Hong Kong, but the world over. For a four- or five-year-old child, however, it is not an interview - it is a situation where he or she is speaking to a stranger, possibly for the first time.

If the child is conditioned to be confident in front of peers and adults, to be able to express himself or herself, then it's just another conversation. And the responsibility for making children confident and articulate enough to be themselves in any situation falls squarely on the preschool he or she attends.

Preschools in Hong Kong need to realise that they have an enormous amount of responsibility towards both the children and their parents when it comes to getting the children school-ready. Only when they do that will there be no need for parents to send their kids to interview prep classes.

Aniruddh Gupta is CEO of the international preschool chain Safari Kid in Asia and the Middle East