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LCQ14: Free Quality Kindergarten Education Scheme
     Following is a question by the Hon Cheung Kwok-kwan and a written reply by the Secretary for Education, Mr Eddie Ng Hak-kim, in the Legislative Council today (January 11):

     The Free Quality Kindergarten Education Scheme (the New Scheme) has been scheduled for implementation in the 2017/18 school year. The Education Bureau announced in early December last year that 745 kindergartens (KGs) had applied for joining the New Scheme and it estimated that about 20 per cent of the half-day KGs joining the Scheme would still need to charge school fees from parents of young children in the 2017/18 school year to cover rental expenses. Moreover, under the co-payment basis between the Government and parents, whole-day (WD) and long whole-day (LWD) KGs are allowed to charge school fees at reasonable levels. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) whether it has set targets on the annual increases in the percentage of the free-of-charge KGs in the total number of KGs joining the New Scheme during the period from 2018/19 to 2020/21 school years;
(2) given that quite a number of low-income families will enrol their young children in WD or LWD KGs because both husbands and wives of such families need to go out to work to sustain their living, but the Government expects that those two types of KGs will still need to charge parents school fees in the amount of around $1,000 per month upon the implementation of the New Scheme, whether the authorities will consider further increasing the subsidies for those two types of KGs so that their school fees can be reduced, thereby alleviating the financial burden of such families;
(3) given that some media have uncovered that upon the implementation of the New Scheme, around 32 KGs in the territory will charge parents of young children school fees at levels higher than those of the school fees charged under the current Pre-primary Education Voucher Scheme, whether the authorities know about such a situation and the causes for it; whether they will consider forbidding KGs under the New Scheme from charging school fees at levels higher than those of the prevailing school fees; if they will not, of the reasons for that; and
(4) given that each KG joining the New Scheme will be provided with a one-off start-up grant in its total amount capped at $300,000 to be spent in a period of three years, and yet some practitioners worry that after the grant has been used up, KGs will need to substantially increase their school fees, whether the authorities will review if (i) the spending period of the start-up grant can be extended and (ii) the ceiling of the grant can be raised?
     As announced in the 2016 Policy Address, the Government will implement the free quality kindergarten (KG) education policy starting from the 2017/18 school year. The policy objectives are to provide good quality and highly affordable KG education, and enhance the accessibility of students to different modes of services that suit their specific needs. The Government's recurrent expenditure on pre-primary education is estimated to increase from an estimated expenditure of about $4 billion in 2016-17 to about $6.7 billion in the 2017/18 school year.
     With a substantial increase in the Government's commitment in KG education, the quality of KG education will be improved in various aspects, including providing direct subsidies to KGs joining the Free Quality KG Education Scheme (the Scheme); further improving the teacher-pupil ratio; strengthening the support for students' learning and development in different areas as well as catering for the needs of non-Chinese speaking students; creating a professional ladder for KG teachers' development and career advancement; reviewing the curriculum guide; stepping up quality assurance and refining the Performance Indicators; as well as enhancing parent engagement and parent education, etc.
     Regarding the question raised by the Hon Cheung Kwok-kwan, my reply is as follows:
(1) It is estimated that, among KGs approved to join the Scheme (Scheme-KGs), about 80 per cent of the half-day (HD) KG will offer free places in the 2017/18 school year. Some KGs have to charge school fees, which are estimated to be at a low level, for their HD programmes mainly to defray expenses on rent that are not fully covered by rental subsidy. Operation of the KG sector is characterised by a high level of flexibility and diversity, with individual school sponsoring bodies having different development targets. It is hence difficult to set a specific target for the percentage of free KGs. Under the new policy, to increase the number of KGs that will not have to charge school fees to defray rental expenses, we will explore feasible measures to provide more Government-owned quality KG premises with a view to progressively increasing the supply of free HD KG places. In this connection, as a long-term strategy, adequate space would be earmarked for KG use in new public housing estates with new demand, and we will explore the feasibility of increasing Government-owned KG premises in accordance with the established mechanisms for site search and/or premises allocation as appropriate. We will also explore the feasibility of co-location of KGs and primary schools.
(2) To unleash the potential of the local labour force under the population policy, the Government will provide eligible KGs offering whole-day (WD) and long whole-day (LWD) services with an additional subsidy. Hence, the school fees for WD and LWD services are expected to be at a low level. For the 2017/18 school year, information submitted by KGs by the end of November 2016 shows that about 50 per cent of WD/LWD KGs (about 290) initially estimated to collect monthly school fees at $1,000 or below. As compared to about 5 per cent of such KGs in the 2016/17 school year, this is a substantial increase. In tandem, the Government will continue to provide fee remission for families that pass the means test under the Kindergarten and Child Care Centre Fee Remission Scheme, and provide KG students from these families with an additional grant to defray their school-related expenses. The above measures will support needy families effectively.
(3) The school fee levels as uploaded at this stage are only initial broad estimates of the schools. Schools will submit their annual audited accounts for the 2015/16 school year in February 2017, and we will invite them to submit their detailed estimates for the 2017/18 school year in mid-January 2017. When submitting applications for collection of school fees, KGs have to provide full justifications and supporting data. Only expenditure items in recognised areas (e.g. rental expenditure that cannot be fully covered by Government subsidies) will be considered. Our preliminary study of information submitted by KGs shows that some KGs' initial broad estimates of school fees are relatively high. To help parents grasp the situation of such cases at this stage, we have added remarks next to the school information of these KGs as uploaded for reference. The Education Bureau will later vet all the applications for collection of school fees in a stringent manner to ensure that parents can benefit from the new policy.
(4) The Government will provide Scheme-KGs with a one-off start-up grant to facilitate their preparatory work, particularly the setting up of a proper internal control and reporting mechanism with rigorous checks and balances in administration, management and accountability, before the implementation of the Scheme. We understand the sector's concern about the time frame for using the start-up grant. Having regard to the possible need of individual Scheme-KGs to devise and adjust their school-based procedures and guidelines at the initial stage of implementation of the Scheme, we will set a period of up to three years for KGs to use the start-up grant so that they have more time and room for redeployment of the grant. As regards the amount of the start-up grant, according to our assessment, the grant is sufficient for the above-mentioned preparatory work. Regarding the expenses needed for KGs' daily operation, they will be covered by our recurrent subsidy to KGs (e.g. the basic unit subsidy calculated on a per student basis), which has already included elements related to general operation.
Ends/Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Issued at HKT 16:28
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