The same factors appear to drive early childhood policy in all parts of the world, including the importance accorded to early childhood education, national goals, governments' beliefs about their role in the early care and education of young children, governments' regulations of early childhood services, and the background and characteristics of stakeholders. Early childhood education is also embedded in, and molded by, the social and cultural context in which it occurs. This article highlights the role of both social and political forces in shaping early childhood education policy and practice in Hong Kong.
Until recently, early childhood education in Hong Kong, as in many other nations, operated outside the boundaries of formal government policy. A turning point for early childhood policy in Hong Kong came, however, with the publication of proposals for education reform in 2000. This transformation was presaged by comments made by the Chief Executive C. H. Tung in his inaugural speech following Hong Kong's return to China after 100 years of British colonial rule ("Reunion assures better future," 1997). In the speech, C. H. Tung highlighted his commitment to enhancing the quality of education in Hong Kong in order to ensure the existence of a well-rounded, highly skilled, and innovative workforce. As a result, Hong Kong's education system has been subject to dramatic policy initiatives. Based on principles outlined in a blueprint of reforms published by the Hong Kong government in 2000, Hong Kong's schools are currently evolving from teacher-didactic, examination-oriented institutes into student-oriented, democratic learning centers.
The authors will examine the implications of these recent reforms for the early childhood sector. Various challenges faced by stakeholders also will be addressed. Perhaps the most significant of these is a clash between traditional and contemporary attitudes towards education, and an underestimation of the potent force of sociopolitical and cultural ideals in shaping beliefs about the nature and outcome of education.
Early Childhood Education in Hong Kong
Accounts of pre-primary schooling in Hong Kong date back to the mid-1800s, when primary schools, the majority of which were run by Christian missionaries, introduced infant classes. Indeed, despite a lack of support from the British government, a number of colonial educators expended considerable effort to establish Westernized preschool education practices in Hong Kong (Sweeting & Ching, 1988). The most significant historical influence on preschool provision in Hong Kong, however, was an influx of refugees from China following the Japanese invasion. The population increase from this migration and the resulting demand from working parents for preschool education and care were considerable. The number of children enrolled in kindergarten in Hong Kong rose from 13,000 in 1953 to 198,351 in 1979 (Rao & Koong, 2000).
Although significant growth in demand led to equally substantial increases in provision, the outcomes were not all positive (Opper, 1992). For example, the number of qualified teachers decreased dramatically, from 35 percent in 1958 to 20 percent in 1971. Class sizes increased from approximately 25 to 35 children during this period (Hong Kong Government, 1959, 1972). Another result of high demand was the introduction of entrance examinations in many kindergartens. Parental concern over entry into primary schools introduced an orientation towards academic curricula into early childhood education. Large class sizes in kindergartens also led to a strong emphasis on discipline.
Despite its unofficial status in education policy, preschool education in Hong Kong has been, and continues to be, closely aligned with primary schooling by both parents and teachers. Historically, Hong Kong's education system has been regarded as relatively didactic and geared primarily towards examination success (Watkins & Biggs, 1996). Pedagogical objectives at the pre-primary level, therefore, have tended to focus on preparing children for the highly performance-oriented, structured learning environment that they experience at the primary …