More than 70 per cent of 240 kindergartens and nursery schools polled in Hong Kong say they have laid off teachers this academic year or plan to do so, with nearly half experiencing a significant withdrawal of pupils.
Emigration and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic were given as the main reasons for children being pulled out of preschool, according to the Federation of Education Workers, which carried out the survey.
The federation said the drop in pupil enrolment was expected to continue over the next few years because of the city’s falling birth rate, as it called on education authorities to increase subsidies for kindergartens to ease the financial blow.
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Of the city’s 1,050 kindergartens, about 760 are non-profit and heavily subsidised by the government based on pupil headcount. Most half-day classes at such schools are free with relatively low full-day fees, costing thousands of Hong Kong dollars a year.
But pre-nursery courses, which are for children under three but not compulsory under the Hong Kong education system, usually charge higher rates as they receive lower levels of subsidy. Private independent kindergartens often charge fees above HK$100,000 per year.
Government figures showed at least 11 kindergartens ceased operations during the pandemic, with three shutting down or expected to close in the 2021-22 academic year.
The federation’s survey of 239 kindergartens and nursery schools, conducted in January, found 45 per cent of them had each lost between 11 and 40 pupils to withdrawals since last August. Thirteen kindergartens reported more than 40 pupils dropping out from pre-nursery sessions.
About 80 per cent of the kindergartens polled also said they had so far received fewer applications for the coming school year, with pre-nursery classes taking the biggest hit.
“The financial difficulties we are facing are significant,” said Nancy Lam Chui-ling, vice-chairman of the pro-establishment federation and a kindergarten principal. “The [pressure] comes from paying teachers’ salaries, coupled with fewer students enrolling and a decreasing birth rate.”
About 72 per cent, or 171 kindergartens, said they had laid off staff in 2020-21 as a result of financial difficulties, or were planning to, while 52 per cent revealed teacher pay had been frozen. Nearly 11 per cent, or 25 schools, said they faced closing down in the worst scenario.
Some 77 per cent of kindergarten head teachers attributed the significant number of student withdrawals to the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced most schools to suspend in-person classes for months on end. Fifty-four per cent of principals cited the impact of pupils leaving Hong Kong.
Federation committee member and principal Choi Lai-fong said the reason for some families emigrating over the past year related to the 2019 anti-government protests and the national security law, which took effect last June to ban acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Some pupils, who have relatives living in mainland China, had also moved over the border to continue their studies because of the relatively stable pandemic situation there in recent months.
The federation urged the government to offer additional one-off subsidies for kindergartens to prevent staff members being adversely affected financially. It also called for an increase in the value of per pupil subsidies to help with running costs.
An Education Bureau spokeswoman, while acknowledging a drop in kindergarten students this academic year, said authorities believed the schools operated with flexibility and could “swiftly react to societal changes and parents’ needs” when it came to the supply of school places.
The spokeswoman also noted that the bureau had offered one-off subsidies of up to HK$160,000 (US$20,600) per school to kindergartens over the past year. She said authorities would closely monitor the sector’s needs and provide necessary help.
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