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 level by ensuring that children achieve formal literacy and numeracy skills through direct instruction. Indeed, preschool professionals have expressed concern over the tendency for practitioners in kindergartens and nurseries to adopt formal teaching methods with children as young as 3 years of age (Opper, 1992; Sweeting & Ching, 1988).
Notwithstanding these concerns, center-based education and care form a significant part of the early childhood experience in Hong Kong, where almost all children are enrolled in some form of preschool. In 2004, as many as 136,096 children between the ages of 3 and 6 were enrolled in 768 kindergartens; in recent years, 258 child care centers provided places for over 29,000 children (Hong Kong Government, 2005a). All told, about 95 percent of children in Hong Kong between the ages of 3 and 6 attend either kindergarten or child care (Rao, Koong, Kwong, & Wong, 2003).
Two separate government offices, the Departments of Education and Social Welfare, administer early childhood education and child care, respectively, in Hong Kong. Moves to enhance collaboration between the two services were made as early as the 1980s, when the government began to promote "harmonization" between early childhood care and education. Recent moves to unify early childhood services include the development of common standards for regulatory, management, and curricular aspects of early childhood education and care. Despite the Education Commission's (2000) more recent acknowledgement about the value of having early childhood centers regulated and registered by distinct offices, the same document also refers to the need to view "education" and "care" separately. Such a view ignores much of the literature from around the world on early childhood education, which views children's education, health, and socio-emotional needs as intertwined. In order to ensure that all children receive the foundation for lifelong learning, the Hong Kong government needs to continue working on establishing common ground on which the Education and Social Welfare Departments can collaborate to enhance children's early childhood experiences.
History of Preschool Education Policy in Hong Kong
Despite the significant role of early childhood education in children's development, the government of Hong Kong has not supported pre-primary education to the same extent as it has primary and secondary education. The historically dismissive attitude of the government towards preschool has left early childhood professionals dismayed. Furthermore, the laissez-faire approach to social welfare and public expenditure that has guided Hong Kong policy throughout its colonial past has meant that government support for kindergartens has been meager. Until the 1990s, when the government began to provide financial support for early childhood teacher training programs, its "hands-off" approach was clearly reflected in its policy of subsidizing preschool provision through payment of rates and rental reimbursements for nonprofit kindergartens and fee assistance to economically disadvantaged parents.
In 1971, the government published the Education Ordinance, ostensibly geared towards all levels of education, from preschool to secondary school. However, as Opper (1992) suggests, "kindergartens came under this legislation more by default than intention" (p. 13). The ordinance provided legal guidelines more applicable to primary and secondary schools, covering such issues as staff, inspection, and premises. Much of what was included in the ordinance, such as a recommended teacher to child ratio of 1:45, may be seen as wholly inappropriate for young children (Opper, 1992).
The government's 1981 White Paper on Primary Education and Pre-primary Services, published in response to rising concern among stakeholders and the general public, represented its first move toward assuming some responsibility for control over preprimary services. The paper covered issues relating to structure and standard of services and financial assistance for low-income families with children attending kindergarten. It also highlighted the need to accelerate training for kindergarten teachers. Because of its informal status, until the 1980s early childhood education in Hong Kong was mainly provided by untrained teachers. The 1981 White Paper called for 45 percent of kindergarten teachers to receive the 120-hour, part-time basic training of Qualified Assistant Kindergarten Teacher (QAKT) by 1986, rising to 90 percent by 1992. Also, all kindergarten principals were expected to take the two-year part-time Qualified Kindergarten Teacher (QKT) training by 1986. Despite these targets, the government's financial commitment to raising teacher training remained limited. It is noteworthy that the government recently withdrew funding for early childhood teacher training, despite renewed commitment at the beginning of the new millennium to enhance this critical aspect of early childhood education and care.
In 1982, a panel of visiting experts made an overall review of Hong Kong. However, its findings did not receive full support (Wong & Rao, 2004). In 1986, Education Commission Report No. 2 (Education Commission, 1986) questioned whether kindergarten education was indeed essential, arguing that its impact on academic development was only short term and therefore not deserving of aided-sector status. The commission did make recommendations for improvements in kindergarten teacher training and curriculum development, and for improvements in the fee assistance scheme. It also promoted unification of care and education services. Despite the scope for reexamination offered by these recommendations, and the appointment of a working group to study them, as late as 1992, Report No. 5 (Education Commission, 1992) made only brief mention of statutory staffing requirements and financial schemes.
Since the 1990s, the government has increased its support for early childhood education and care in Hong Kong. In the early 1990s, kindergarten teacher training courses received funding of HK$163 million, and by 1998, 38.4 percent of kindergarten teachers had received QKT training. This figure has continued to rise; by 2004, 86.5 percent of kindergarten teachers had received training (Hong Kong Government, 2005a). One of the government's most significant recent achievements has been its introduction of a quality assurance framework in early childhood education and care, through identification of performance indicators (Education Department, 2000) that cover: management and organization, learning and teaching, support to children and school culture, and children's development. The performance indicators document emphasizes external monitoring by school inspectors and early childhood experts, as well as school self-evaluation and accountability.
The early 1990s also brought a movement toward amalgamation of nursery and kindergarten services in order to produce a more cohesive policy in terms of desirable developmental and educational goals during the preschool years. In 1995, the Working Party on Kindergarten Education began to examine the feasibility of producing a joint set of recommendations for nurseries and kindergartens, the results of which were provided in the 1996 Guide to the Preprimary Curriculum (Education Department, 1996). The guide provides a relatively comprehensive set of guidelines for curriculum content, developmental goals, and educational environment. In 2003, the government announced its intention to begin implementing measures to harmonize kindergarten and child care services by the 2005/06 school year (Hong Kong Government, 2003). Based on recommendations from the Working Party on Harmonisation of Pre-primary Services, unification of monitoring mechanisms for the 3- to 6-year-old age group began in September 2005. Therefore, pre-primary services are set to enter a period of transition during which not only will teaching and learning be undergoing reform, but child care and kindergarten services also will be merging to create edu-care centers catering to 3- to 6-year-olds. The implications of this move are clearly significant for early childhood education in Hong Kong. While all edu-care centers will be jointly administered though an office staffed by officers from both the Education and Social Welfare Departments, "special" child care centers will remain under the regulation of the Social Welfare Department's Child Care Services Ordinance. Qualifications of both teachers and child care workers will be recognized by the Education and Social Welfare Departments, although there are no proposals at present to amalgamate training courses. By the late 1990s, the government had invested HK$51 million in kindergarten-based education research (Hong Kong Government, 2005b).
Education Policy and Reform, Pre- and Post-1997
Although early childhood education in Hong Kong was not recognized as playing a formal role in children's education until recently, it has been significantly influenced throughout its history by the policies, objectives, and expectations that have driven mainstream education. Here, we briefly examine attempts by the British colonial government to implement policy changes at the primary school level, and discuss the difficulties associated with implementation of adjustments in policy both before and after the handover of sovereignty, particularly with regard to the role of teachers. The fact that the first major attempt by the British colonial government to intervene in early childhood education in Hong Kong, in 1981, was made in response to increasing public expression of concern, sheds some light on the government's political agenda and its role in shaping education policy. According to Morris and Scott (2003), an enduring issue faced by colonial governments has been that of having to prove their legitimacy by implementing largely symbolic policies considered unlikely to cause undue social and political disruption. Chan and Mok (2001) also suggest that the Hong Kong government, in its reform efforts, has tended to adopt an approach that mirrors the marketization of education in the United Kingdom throughout the 1970 and 1980s. It has done this in the belief that excessive government influence over public services restricts their ability to respond effectively and efficiently to public and stakeholder needs.
In effect, then, many policies have remained at the rhetorical level, with little concerted effort made to ensure their successful and sustained implementation, and, in some cases, an insufficient understanding of the context for which they are designated. Fear of promoting dissent has prevented both the colonial and new Hong Kong governments from seeking proper public consultation and dialogue. While most reforms have been endorsed by experts in the field, more attempts could have been made to involve frontline workers in the consultation process. One example of such a policy change was the attempt made by the government in the 1970s to broaden the curriculum in mainstream education by introducing new subjects, such as liberal studies, which involved civic, sex, and moral education. However, since their adoption was not mandatory and no effort was made to adjust learning assessments, teachers had little incentive to implement the subjects in schools. Unfortunately, this pattern of implementing education reforms has meant that the new, post-1997 government faces a culture of what Morris and Scott (2003, p. 71) describe as "an inherited culture of inertia and cynicism towards reform."
The new, post-1997 SAR government also has been hampered in implementing policy changes by political considerations. While it clearly has adopted a more interventionist approach to policy (Mok & Currie, 2002), the SAR Hong Kong government has not had a clear power base from which to execute persuasive, coherent policies. In terms of improvements to its education system, Hong Kong, like many nations around the world, has been heavily influenced by dominant, Western perspectives. Yuen (2003) outlines several examples of initiatives, such as Target Oriented Curriculum, Quality Assurance, and Research Assessment Exercise, which reflect the Hong Kong government's dependence on ideas developed elsewhere. The most significant implication of this dependence is that many of these imported ideas may be considered at odds with the socio-cultural context in which Hong Kong children and teachers operate. Hong Kong parents' strong Confucianist orientation towards education, which promotes teacher-centered learning experiences and academic performance in formal examinations, is one such conflict (Ho, 1994). In addition, as Morris and Scott (2003) suggest, this discrepancy is accentuated by inconsistent messages from a government that is under pressure to represent the ideals of opposing groups: "Thus, in the promotion of civic education, important differences relate to the emphasis on patriotism, nationalism, and Chinese cultural identity on the one hand, and, on the other, to the quest for critical thinking and active and democratic citizenship" (p. 80).
It could be presumed that, since early childhood has not been directly involved in Hong Kong's examination-oriented system, pre-primary education would be in a better position than either primary or secondary education to implement new curricula that promote child-centered approaches to learning. However, due to the tradition of "top-down" approaches, early childhood education has been heavily influenced by formal education practice and its most important perceived role has been preparing children for the formality and routine of primary school. N.C. Wong (2003) reports on the stress that early childhood teachers feel when asked to use teaching approaches with which they are unfamiliar. She also notes the lack of communication between management and teachers on the front line. In support of this, S. S. Wong's (2003) report on observations of teacher-child interactions in kindergartens also discusses the difficulties associated with changing teachers' practices and styles. His discussion places particular emphasis on the importance of personal knowledge and understanding, as well as professional preparation, in shaping teaching styles.
Although the reform proposals reflect a greater interest on the part of the government in early childhood education, there does not appear to be a great deal of change in the perception of early childhood education as falling outside the sphere of formal education. Early childhood education is still largely the domain of private operators, many of whom have a professional interest in enhancing its quality. However, these operators also must respond to the wishes of parents who are fearful that their children will not achieve later academic success unless they attain formal numeracy and literacy skills, as well as discipline early on. Successful implementation of child-centered teaching and learning approaches depends largely upon collaboration among parents, teachers, and administrators (N.C. Wong, 2003).
The Future of Early Childhood Education and Care in Hong Kong: Reforming the Education System
Early childhood education in Hong Kong has entered an exciting and challenging phase. For the first time in its history, preschool education has been formally acknowledged by the Hong Kong government in its recent reform proposals as providing important foundations for children's all-round development and lifelong learning. The Education Commission's blueprint for education reform identifies five areas of focus for enhancing preschool provision in Hong Kong: enhancing professional competence of early childhood educators, improving quality assurance, unifying monitoring mechanisms for kindergarten and child care sectors, enhancing links between early childhood and primary education, and promoting home-school cooperation. The blueprint also emphasizes children's interest in learning, balanced learning experiences, and positive learning attitudes: "to help children cultivate a positive attitude towards learning and good living habits in an inspiring and enjoyable environment" (Education Commission, 2000, p. 30).
The government appears to have focused largely on management in its identification of areas in need of reform. However, the role of teachers in implementing and sustaining these reforms will be critical, as is the case with most education change. Indeed, this government-initiated impetus for improvement at all levels of education has led to widespread analysis of Hong Kong teachers and about the extent to which the proposed reforms clash with their beliefs about education and classroom practices. Teachers' culturally defined beliefs about children's education may be equally potent in shaping children's educational experiences as education policy (Pearson & Rao, 2003). The implications of this are significant with regard to evaluating implementation of the reforms, and determining whether or not the reforms are intended to change the culture of teaching and learning or simply learning outcomes. For example, Ng (2004) also found evidence that, while Western reform ideas appear to be evident in pedagogy, characteristics of Confucian-heritage cultures continue to dominate the social milieu of the classroom. In other words, although classroom structure remains formal, teachers are increasingly focused on children's development of concepts and hands-on learning.
A special edition of Early Child Development and Care, which was published in 2003 and dedicated to discussion of new directions for early childhood education in Hong Kong, provides evidence of multiple challenges to early childhood teachers in implementation of the reforms. The proposed changes in the education of young children, which promote child-centered learning and whole-child development, present many teachers in Hong Kong with unfamiliar concepts and will require re-assessment of theory and practice. As Honig and Lim (2003) explain, ways must be found of "working sensitively and empathetically with teachers who love children and love their jobs, but for whom developmentally appropriate practice ideas may be completely new and still uncomfortable" (p. 4). The Hong Kong government has indicated its commitment towards changing the culture of education in the territory through various enhancement measures. However, financial support for early childhood education remains minimal. In order to achieve the proposed reforms, there must be a financial commitment to teacher training as well as promotion of sensitivity towards the needs, customs, and expectations of all stakeholders involved in this critical period of a child's development.
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Emma Pearson is Lecturer, Institute of Early Childhood, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Nirmala Rao is Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong.…