A research by Dr Gail Yuen Wai-kwan, Associate Professor at the Department of Education Policy and Leadership, The Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK), led to fundamental changes in government policy and the funding of early childhood education. It showed that the marketisation model using voucher funding decreased educational quality, and increased social and economic inequities.
The research, which involved knowledge transfer and public engagement, was backed by four studies conducted at EdUHK between 2007 and 2012. It identified key limitations in the Hong Kong government’s 2007 policy of giving parents a fee subsidy in the form of a voucher.
The first two studies, involving over 1,700 parents of various socio-economic backgrounds about their kindergarten choices and the voucher scheme, found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds encountered barriers in kindergarten choices because of limited options and the way their parents made their choices.
The third study in 2010, involving over 10,000 parents, found that whole-day kindergartens served mostly children from poorer families with working mothers. The study found clear evidence of the inequities and injustices arising from the marketised structure of early childhood education, and recommended free quality kindergarten.
The fourth study, conducted in 2010, which surveyed over 1,400 kindergarten teachers, found that teachers faced intense pressure due to policy requirements for professional upgrading and quality assurance, heavy non-teaching duties, and low morale because of the lack of a career path and the removal of the recommended salary scale. It found that the voucher scheme and market forces were reducing opportunities for quality early education.
In 2013, Dr Yuen was nominated as convenor of the Alliance on the Fight for 15-year Free Education (the Alliance) and was appointed as a subcommittee of the Education Bureau (EDB) to review the kindergarten sector. She drew on the comprehensive proposal for 15-year free education she wrote in 2012 based on her research into the voucher system, and her proposal was adopted in 2014 as the Alliance’s reform blueprint, thus establishing a coherent policy framework of public provision.
As Alliance convenor, Yuen led public engagement with the equity, quality and justice issues highlighted in her research by organising public hearings, press conferences, teacher events, and meetings with legislators and EDB officials. Public awareness, reflected in references to these issues in 180 newspaper articles, nine television programmes and nine radio programmes, was further substantiated by numerous policy forum and seminar discussions attended by about 1,600 principals, teachers, parents and organisation representatives.
The recommendations of the studies by Dr Yuen and her colleagues were adopted by major professional and advocacy groups, leading to a new government funding model of direct subsidies for not-for-profit kindergartens. The government initiative to replace vouchers with direct subsidies for kindergartens drew upon Yuen’s comprehensive proposal and public engagement, resulting in a basic subsidy for half-day kindergartens, additional subsidies for whole-day operations, an improved teacher-student ratio, improved remuneration and improved opportunities for career progression for teachers, and a continuous professional development policy. The policy change benefitted children and parents, especially the socioeconomically disadvantaged, as well as kindergarten operators and teachers.
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