Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

‘Deeply worrying’ that some Hong Kong preschools reject ethnic minority pupils, equality watchdog says

Latest survey of 179 kindergartens reflects struggle for city to better integrate ethnic minorities, as many do not give non-native speakers Chinese language support, affecting their future social mobility

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 9:32am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 9:50am

Hong Kong has kindergartens that provide free half-day programmes, but one in four has shut its doors to ethnic minorities while far more do not give such pupils any support in learning the Chinese language, which is crucial for their social mobility.

These findings by the Equal Opportunities Commission, released on Wednesday, came from its survey of 179 – or a quarter – of the 743 local kindergartens that began providing free education from last year. The kindergartens surveyed were located in 11 of the city’s 18 districts, and researchers found that more than 2,000 pupils enrolled in the 179 preschools were not native Chinese speakers. They accounted for over 28 per cent of some 7,100 non-Chinese-speaking pupils in all 876 local kindergartens.

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Commission chief executive Michael Chan Yick-man said: “We are deeply worried that more than 25 per cent of the kindergartens surveyed rejected ethnic minority students.

“We are stunned to learn that some 20 per cent of the schools used the child’s proficiency in Chinese language to screen applicants.”

Schools risked committing “indirect discrimination” if they based their treatment of ethnic minority students on their language abilities, the commission warned.

The free kindergarten scheme began last year, and 140 kindergartens with eight or more non-Chinese speaking pupils were given nearly HK$51 million to ensure there were enough teachers and that they were sufficiently trained to help minority students learn the Chinese language.

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But according to the study, 102 of the 179 kindergartens had at least some non-Chinese speaking pupils, but close to 7 in 10 admitted that they provided zero support to pupils to learn the language.

At least one claimed that non-Chinese pupils did not need much support “because they learn fast”.

On Wednesday, the commission suggested the ministry expand the subsidy scheme to incentivise more kindergartens to admit minority children and also step up its supervision of the kindergarten admissions processes.

It noted that kindergartens who revealed they had rejected children gave several reasons, including the difficulty for those children to adapt, and never having admitted non-Chinese speaking children before. For more than 70 per cent of kindergartens, its official websites were only in Chinese, meaning ethnic minority parents struggled to get information about their programmes.

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According to the report, ethnic minority parents who posed as researchers conducting the study were asked by some schools: “Why don’t you choose international schools?”

Abeer Tafazzul, 28, a mother of two from India, said this was her experience. The woman she spoke to at a local kindergarten in Cheung Sha Wan also quizzed her rapid-fire style when she inquired about a place for her elder daughter.

Tafazzul’s child did not get a place, and also did not get an interview at another “good local kindergarten” in the same district. She was told that the school had “some other criteria for the interview”, but she was made none the wiser about what these were.

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Tafazzul, who eventually sent her daughter to an English-medium kindergarten, said: “We are also very interested in having our kids learn Chinese like local students … If this is how all the kindergartens are going to react, we are always going to lag behind.”

Chan expressed his dissatisfaction with the “obstacles” faced by minority youngsters, echoing growing concerns about the community’s welfare. The 2016 by-census said there were 254,700 ethnic minority individuals, excluding foreign domestic helpers, in the city’s population of over 7 million.

In his budget speech last month, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po said HK$500 million had been set aside to uplift ethnic minorities, while Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung on Sunday said Chinese language requirements for more government jobs had been lowered to give more non-native speakers a better chance of qualifying for the positions.

Raymond Ho Wing-keung, a senior equality officer of the ethnic minorities unit at the commission, said it had received 10 complaints about discrimination and harassment in school admissions since 2015. Most of the complainants were ethnic minority individuals.

Parents should lodge a formal complaint if they felt unfairly treated, Chan said. “We hope the parents can tell us clearly the questions they asked and the schools’ replies.”

Tafazzul, who sends her child to Chinese language tuition provided by an NGO, said she wanted her children to have the same skills as locals.

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“I believe ethnic minority children born in Hong Kong must have an equal right to education. I want to see her become something like a doctor, or an engineer, not just someone … like me who has got secondary education only,” Tafazzul said.

The Education Development Bureau, responding to the Post, said kindergartens receiving funds for having more than eight non-Chinese speaking pupils needed to submit plans to show how they were helping them to learn the language.

“Officials from the Bureau will also visit the schools to monitor their operations and use of the grant, and provide professional advice, such as enhancing the teachers and staff’s cultural sensitivity,” the spokesman said.

But kindergartens with under eight ethnic minority pupils were considered as having an “immersive Chinese language learning environment”, which would help non-Chinese speaking pupils with learning and social integration, the spokesman said.