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The Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre (the Centre) released a study on ‘Developing child support services on all fronts: To facilitate both parenting and employment’ today, with a focus on examining whether there are inadequacies of existing child care services in Hong Kong subsidised by the Government and provided by NGOs for those aged below 6 who are not receiving pre-primary education services. With reference to child care policies implemented by other countries and regions, the Centre has forged policy directions and recommendations that could improve local child support services.
The Centre’s Chairman and Convenor of the study Dr Donald Li, is concerned about the shrinking workforce in Hong Kong. “The labour force participation rate of women in 4th quarter of 2014 was 51%, far less than men’s 69%. At the same time, Hong Kong recorded over 0.62 million women aged 15 and above engaging in household duties. Unleashing the potential of family carers might alleviate the problem of the diminishing workforce.”
Dr Li added, “Proper and well-arranged child support services could unleash the potential of parents in the labour force participation, lay a solid foundation for developing a pool of quality manpower, and uphold Hong Kong’s long-term competitiveness.”
The study indicates that local child care services could be improved in three major areas: service supply, resource allocation and the concept of child care services. Child care policy should constantly adapt to changing needs of society in order to meet the actual needs of parents.
“The provision of local child care services cannot comprehensively support parents with regard to its concept and positioning, number of places, coverage of services and manpower planning. Parents suffer from an imbalance between work and family. We believe that different stakeholders should be encouraged to work together to formulate appropriate strategies for enhancing child care services, and it is hoped that when commissioning a consultancy study this year, the Government will take into consideration a holistic approach to advise on the long-term development of child care services and provide diversified services and support families in need”, the Chairman said.
Healthy growth of children requires sturdy support from many parties. The Centre advocates two basic principles prior to implementing the recommendations: i. to think out of the box, i.e. not to be bounded by the existing child care concept and strike a balance among the development needs of children; ii. to draw up a comprehensive child care policy and propose relevant measures with due emphasis on both quality and quantity. Twelve policy recommendations under four strategic directions are further outlined under these two streams.
Direction 1: INCREASE IN THE SUPPLY
In 2011, the number of children aged below 2 in Hong Kong was 101,659. However, the number of places in various centres (including Standalone Child Care Centres and Kindergarten-cum-child Care Centre) remained nearly the same in the last five years, with an average of 59 children competing for one place in child care centres. The competition is particularly radical in lower-income districts. According to the study, districts with the keenest demand are Wong Tai Sin and Sai Kung (1:155), Tai Po and North District (1:122), Kwun Tong (1:116), Tuen Mun (1:109) and Sha Tin (1:98). It is noteworthy that both Wong Tai Sin and Sai Kung and Kwun Tong do not provide subsidised child care services in standalone child care centres for children aged under 2.
The study also reveals that the number of places provided by child care centres are insufficient to meet the needs of working parents. The Centre recommends the Government to extend the scale of the ‘Neighbourhood Support Child Care Project’ to fill the gap in service hours of regular child care services. Refined measures include setting up a central registration system to formalise home-based child care services, attracting young elderly and offering incentives to suitable candidates to join the Project. For example, the Government could set up a mechanism to adjust the incentive payments periodically to home-based carers and enhance their skills, quality and employability by providing appropriate training. The home-based carers could be further catergorised into ‘Registered Carers’ and ‘Experienced Carers’ in accordance with their qualifications and experiences. The Qualifications Framework could be implemented in care service industry, which allows the carers to set clear goals and directions for continuous learning to obtain recognised qualifications.
The Centre encourages social enterprises to provide child care services and facilitate cross-sectoral collaboration. The hurdle these social enterprises or other organisations might face is a shortage of land. The Centre recommends exploring land resources with a multipronged approach, such as seeking resources from the Government owned buildings and facilities.
From the figures indicated above, a misallocation of resources could probably explain the excessive demand for child care services in numerous regions. The Centre is of the view that when allocating resources to different districts, factors on the number of children, family income, etc. should be taken into consideration in order to cater to the demands of needy parents. The Centre suggests extending the operating hours by opening the community centres in non-office hours, providing services ‘on a community-based approach’ by diverting the newly added quotas of ‘Extended Hour Service’ to districts that have keen demand on child care services, e.g. Sham Shui Po and Wong Tai Sin and Sai Kung. The Centre also recommends increasing quotas of ‘long whole-day’ kindergarten in districts that are far from the central business district, and reallocating quotas of other services to areas with higher demand.
Direction 2: IMPROVE CAREER PROSPECT
Compared with child care workers, kindergarten teachers have clearer career paths, which is likely to discourage holders of early childhood education certificate from joining the child care service sector. The Centre suggests re-engineering manpower planning and providing a more rewarding career prospect for child care workers. Also, it is important to improve the staffing situation by recruiting additional staff members and improve the staff-to-child ratio.
The frontline child care workers shared their views through in-depth interviews that some parents underestimated their significant role in children’s development. The Centre recommends the Social Welfare Department or NGOs inviting experts to share their professional views about looking after the children, provide psychological assistance and help parents solve early childhood problems, hence enhancing their parental involvement.
Direction 3: EXPAND THE FUNDING MODE
The Government has been emphasising that parents should take care of their children themselves. However, this might lead to refusal of work opportunity and earnings among parents. In order to tackle this dilemma, the Centre recommends the Government to study the feasibility of implementing a ‘Pilot Scheme on Carer Supplement’, which enables eligible parents who need to look after children aged below 2 to apply for the supplement. The applicants must pass the income test, the benchmark of which could be set at 75% of the median monthly household income by household size in Hong Kong. The proposed allowance would be HK$2,000 per month per child.
The Centre also recommends the Government to issue ‘Child care services voucher’ with an amount of HK$12,000 to eligible families. The criteria are that parents should have a child aged between 2 to below 3, and pass the income test and ‘social needs’ assessment. The voucher could be used on all expenses incurred in child support services flexibly. This funding mode, namely the ‘money-follows-the-user’ approach, not only could help relieve financial burden on low-income families, but also divert the demand to private market, which could expand the scope of child care industry and create more job opportunities.
Apart from low-income families, the needs of marginal middle-class should not be overlooked. In view of relieving their financial pressure, the Centre suggests child care expenses tax deduction of a maximum HK$30,000 per annum for parents who have a child aged below 3.
In addition, the Centre proposes the Government to review the mechanism of the ‘Kindergarten and Child Care Centre Fee Remission Scheme’. Practical measures include raising the income ceiling and expanding the scope of ‘Adjusted Family Income’ subsidy, which would allow more eligible families to apply for subsidies.
Direction 4: CHANGE IN MINDSET
Affected by the traditional mindset of ‘Men go out and women stay home’, women in general are expected to perform more household duties. In light of alleviating women’s obstacles to entering the labour market, the Centre advocates the Government and other stakeholders for promoting gender equality in labour division and the sharing of child-raising responsibilities.
A family-friendly workplace allows employees to work wholeheartedly with their mind at peace. The Centre encourages employers to introduce family-friendly employment practices such as flexible work arrangements and child care facilities at the workplace. These supportive practices not only meet employees’ needs, but also enhance a sense of belonging and loyalty of employees, which is beneficial to both parties.
The Vice-chairman of the Centre Mr Lau Ming-wai concluded, “According to figures estimated by the Centre, if the Government is willing to endorse the new subsidies recommended, an extra amount of HK$580 million to HK$850 million would be required and 85,000 to 108,000 children would be benefited from the subsidies. This is a question about social cost: by allocating more resources to young children, on top of less privileged families and children could be benefited, its contribution to society would be substantial. In the long run, proper child care services and reinforced measures to support families in need could enhance the quality of Hong Kong population and competitiveness of Hong Kong. It could also tackle the challenges arising from the shrinking workforce.”