Full subsidies for kindergarten education would improve their status and boost learning in Hong Kong
Paul Stapleton says with research on early childhood development now showing the importance of preschool, the Hong Kong government should invest in giving children a head start
Two recent news items, seemingly unrelated, bring pause for thought and the need for reform: The first is lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun's comment last week that Hong Kong's English standards need improving; the second concerns the ongoing anxiety about kindergarten tuition fees.
Tien's comments about English standards and declining competitiveness in the city are not new. They reflect the ever-present concern that our education system is not doing a good enough job in teaching the world's de facto lingua franca.
This mention of the education system leads to the recent concerns about the cost of sending children to kindergarten. Over 80 per cent of kindergartens have raised their fees by an average of over 8 per cent, which has resulted in some charging over HK$40,000 a year - or roughly the equivalent of tuition fees for a year of undergraduate studies at local universities.
Although that may seem absurd, it is not necessarily incongruous, given new understanding about intellectual development. Research in early childhood education increasingly reveals that it is the period from birth to about the age of five that the brain is at its most malleable and able to learn at a remarkable rate. Research also informs us that the steady decline in learning ability as we advance towards our teenage years reflects the decreasing plasticity of the brain. In other words, in terms of value for money, teaching a five-year-old trumps teaching a young adult every time.
Actually, most of us are aware of young children's astonishing ability to learn, via our own experiences acquiring second and third languages, for example. Many parents are willing to part with their hard-earned money to send their kids to kindergarten in the knowledge that great benefits can be accrued.
With this background, the government's policy of only partially subsidising kindergarten education while also setting a low median point for teachers' salaries sends a message that kindergarten is not so important.
The rationale for not fully subsidising kindergartens may simply be historical momentum, whereby the teaching of children at that age is viewed more as playschool than the more academically oriented education that starts in Primary One. Thus, under this thinking, kindergarten is not deserving of the same financial support that real school merits.
In essence, without a full subsidy, the image of the kindergarten will remain the same - that is, not a place for serious learning, perhaps because that learning appears to involve a lot of play.
In light of our increasing understanding of children's special learning abilities in their preschool years, it is time to reconsider and upgrade the status of kindergartens. Being fully subsidised, with teachers' salaries on a par with those in the school sector, kindergartens could stand as venues of learning equal to primary and secondary school. With fully fledged status, they could attract more qualified teachers and better informed instruction, and a more regularised curriculum would give parents confidence that minimum standards were being met.
And, if all children had a year of English immersion in kindergarten, this could be worth as much as, or more than, multiple years of English classes in primary and secondary school.
Being fluent in English is no longer an option in a world where we need every competitive edge possible. Therefore, our education policy must capitalise on our knowledge of the human brain and put curriculums in place that best take advantage of our developmental propensities.
Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education