Hong Kong kindergartens must do more to accept and integrate ethnic minority children
It is that time of the year again when parents of two-year-olds have finished submitting applications for kindergarten places for next year and begin the anxious wait for results.
As educator Maria Montessori said, “Early childhood education is the key to the betterment of society.” Or as Bill Gates said,” The first five years have so much to do with how the next 80 turn out.”
In Hong Kong, the competition for opportunities begins early, with getting into the kindergarten of choice being the first step. While all Hong Kong parents face the same process, we at the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), are frequently made aware of how much harder it is for the underprivileged among the non-Chinese communities.
In the last few years, there has been a growing awareness among non-Chinese parents on the importance of learning Chinese and they are keen to give their children an early start at language acquisition by getting them into Chinese-medium kindergartens. This can be attributed to their own experiences of hardship during education and in finding employment owing to language barriers.
The Education Bureau has taken significant steps in the last two years to improve information access for non-Chinese parents as well as strengthened its guidelines for kindergartens to provide support for non-Chinese students and parents. This includes language support or allowance during admission interviews.
But guidelines are insufficient unless backed by stringent monitoring. We still hear of concerns surrounding some Chinese-medium kindergartens’ unwillingness to make adjustments to the interview process. Interviews are being conducted only in Cantonese, without providing any support for those applicants who do not speak the language.
How can a child of two who has only been in a mother-tongue-language environment be expected to speak a different language, let alone be judged based on it?
The EOC has recommended on several occasions that other means be used to test the suitability of an applicant, if at all there needs to be such a test, such as observation during playtime.
Being made to go through this kind of experience may weaken the resolve of many a parent to get an immersed Chinese language kindergarten education for their child, a goal that would set the child up for success in Hong Kong’s education system and eventually in the job market. However, the road is uphill and littered with obstacles.
If the child does get admission into the kindergarten of choice, another hurdle raises its head. A disturbing practice we have heard of is the separation of Chinese and non-Chinese students into different classes or different sessions.
Ethnic minority parents shared their experience of being assigned the afternoon or PM session as the AM sessions are purportedly filled with Chinese students. This is subtle resistance from the kindergartens, even if done ostensibly in the child’s best interests.
We are told that often the reason given by these kindergartens is that non-Chinese students would have difficulty coping if they do not understand Cantonese or that the child would feel more comfortable if he/she is with students from a similar background.
Faced with this Hobson’s choice, parents understandably succumb, knowing fully well that this situation is not ideal for language learning or integration.
There is a need for kindergarten teachers and administrators to be adequately trained to handle mixed classrooms. The coping, I suspect, is not so much an issue with the child, as they learn quickly, but rather the teachers.
More Education Bureau support and learning from schools that have successful immersed environments should give teachers the confidence to nurture kids of all backgrounds.
Apart from language and cultural acquisition, there is another vital reason for having diverse classrooms. Children start forming stereotypes and prejudices about others based on what they see and hear around them from an early age.
Segregating children is counter-productive to the principle of integration and can hamper social inclusion. Cultural competence is an essential trait in a globalised world. Imbibing that skill at an early age can be an asset, no matter the race one belongs to.
Hong Kong is privileged and distinct from its many neighbours because of the diversity of its people. To have that advantage and not capitalise on it is a tragic loss.
(Note: The article was published on South China Morning Post on 20 November 2021.)