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Where teachers are re-hired not retired

Hong Kong has the world's highest percentage of pre-school children in formal education with 96 per cent of three- to five-year-olds attending kindergarten. But only 50 per cent of teachers in the sector are trained, and many are underpaid.

As part of the government's drive to improve education standards, Hong Kong's governor Chris Patten, in his annual policy speech to the legislature in October, announced an extra Pounds 130 million for education of which Pounds 13.5m will be spent on kindergarten teacher training over the next four years.

The minimum academic qualification for kindergarten teachers is to be raised from nine years of schooling from the age of six to 11 in 1995 and a course leading to a certificate in kindergarten teaching will be introduced. The government is also planning to subsidise kindergartens from September 1995. To qualify for the additional funds, kindergartens will be required to have 40 per cent of their teachers trained and 60 per cent by 1999.

However improvements in the quality of teaching in primary and secondary schools were hampered this year by a lack of school places and a continuing shortage of teachers, making it difficult to achieve the goal of reducing class sizes from 40 to 35 as announced by Mr Patten in 1993.

An increase in the birth rate during the Chinese year of the dragon in 1988, which many believe to be a lucky one to give birth, led to a shortage of primary places in many parts of Hong Kong this year, but is unlikely to be a problem in 1995.

However, the strain on schools is likely to continue because of an influx of mainland children which is expected at least until 1997. Some 5,000 children arrived during the year and almost 100,000 are eligible to join a parent resident after 1997.

Meanwhile, waiting lists for places in the private international school sector, which caters for non-Chinese speakers, lengthened dramatically in 1993 and 1994 because of a huge influx of foreign professionals coming to work on the mammoth airport project, and the return of many Hong Kong-born people after securing passports in the US, Australia and Canada.

The government-subsidised English Schools Foundation is having rapidly to expand the number of primary places - as there are now 500 families on the waiting lists - and has made a bid for school premises recently vacated by departing British forces as the garrison is wound down in the run up to 1997.

Given the general shortage of land for schools, competition for these well-endowed premises is stiff. The result of the bids will be known by March next year with the premises available for occupation by September.

Opening more schools is no panacea, however, as the colony suffers from a major shortage of teachers. This year there were some 700 vacancies among 3,000 government teaching posts, and turnover, particularly in the primary sector, is high. About 620 new posts were created by the government in primary and secondary schools as a result of the decision to cut class sizes. But smaller classes have only been achieved by bringing teachers out of retirement, and allowing more part-time posts.

A survey by the Government's education department this year showed that about 3,800 teachers left the profession in the previous academic year, a wastage rate of nearly 10 per cent. One third left to emigrate, another fifth to take up jobs outside the profession.

Hong Kong's labour market is generally tight, with virtually no unemployment, and labour mobility is high. However, in the semi-private government-aided sector, the shortage is not so severe, an indication that pay and promotion prospects in government schools may need to improve to attract teachers.

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