Hong Kong kindergartens in areas with too few children will be offered 10 new sites to move to, as the city’s falling number of births contributed to the closure of 20 preschools.
The first eight months of this year saw only 21,895 registered births, 16 per cent fewer than the 26,027 over the same period last year, the latest official data showed.
If the trend continues, 2022 could see the lowest number of babies born since data became available in 1961. Last year’s 37,000 registered births were already a record low.
Preschools have been feeling the impact of the declining number of babies for some years now.
A list of measures accompanying Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s first policy address on Wednesday revealed that the Education Bureau would provide 10 premises by the end of next year to encourage subsidised kindergartens to move to new development areas.
Those approved to relocate would get more help, with the removal grant doubled to HK$3 million (US$382,197).
The kindergarten relocation scheme began in 2017 to encourage preschools in areas with an ageing population to move to newer areas with younger families, to premises with lower rent, or to government-owned sites.
Those approved to move began receiving a grant of HK$1.5 million from 2020.
The 10 sites and added help came after 20 subsidised and private kindergartens, out of around 1,000 in the city, closed down in the last academic year.
A spokeswoman for the Education Bureau said three of the preschools merged with others. At the same time, five new kindergartens had been registered and five more were in the process of registering.
Rosa Chow Wai-chun, president of the Early Childhood Educators Association, welcomed the doubling of the relocation grant, but said the main problem was still the city’s shrinking population of young children.
She said she expected keen competition for the new sites, as most preschools would prefer to be in areas with enough students.
Chow added that nursery applications for next year had dropped by 30 to 40 per cent at most kindergartens as they were admitting children born in 2020, when the city had 43,000 births, the second lowest recorded.
Preschools were facing a double whammy because aside from the low birth rate, the wave of emigration over the past two years had seen families leaving Hong Kong with their children, she said.
The association president urged the government to increase the annual subsidy of around HK$37,000 per child at subsidised preschools by 10 to 20 per cent, to ensure that schools provided a quality environment and retained teachers.
Choi Lai-fong, a council member of the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, also welcomed the increased relocation grant but said it would not fully cover the cost of moving.
“For an average kindergarten to relocate, the basic expenses are around HK$10 million, so the grant only covers a third,” she said.
The schools’ sponsoring bodies should pay the rest, she added.