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Infants squeezed for cash;News;News and opinion

Katherine Forrestier reports from Hong Kong on the nursery scandal ignored by inspectors.

HONG KONG's huge private kindergartens have been systematically overcrowding their classrooms for years to boost profits, an Ombudsman's investigation has revealed.

Children have allegedly been hidden in storerooms or taken on bus trips to avoid detection by inspectors. But, despite knowing about the widespread flouting of enrolment rules, the government took no action.

The inquiry, launched after increasing complaints from parents, found that more than 180 infringements had been recorded since 199697.

One unnamed school had admitted 945 pupils even though it was only allowed 332. Six other schools were found to be admitting an average of 200 pupils more than their permitted number. More than 100 kindergartens took children under the minimum age of three.

The inquiry also found 10 schools had overcharged parents - two had asked for more than 50 per cent in excess of government-approved fees.

Ombudsman Alice Tai Yuen-ying called for schools which committed offences to lose their licences and for the government's enforcement measures to be reviewed and fines increased.

Cheng Man-yiu, assistant director of education, said that action had not been taken for fear of disrupting the children's schooling. "We hoped the schools would improve without our intervention but the situation didn't get any better. That's why we started to enforce the regulations seriously this year," he said. Sixteen schools have been convicted this year.

Democratic party legislator Cheung Man-kwong has demanded that education director Fanny Law apologise. "Officials must admit their negligence over children's safety and rights," he said.

More than 90 per cent of Hong Kong's three to six-year-olds attend pre-schools run by profit-making or charitable organisations.

The government has accepted the Ombudsman's recommendations and the fines for each over-crowded class will rise from pound;400 to pound;2,400.

One teacher who presented evidence to the Ombudsman showed The TES photocopies of a register of a pre-school class which she claimed was full of children below the minimum age of three. The children's birthdays have been clearly altered with a pen.

"Inspectors allowed these children to remain. If you and I can clearly see what the school has done, why can't the inspectors?" she said. "These little guys were so young they had them use buckets as toilets in their classrooms."

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