Pay gap raises brain drain fears

Some kindergartens have experienced operational difficulties after a months-long pandemic shutdown, with preschool teachers’ welfare of particular concern.

According to a Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union’s survey conducted while Hong Kong was experiencing its third wave of Covid-19 infections in August, more than 100 kindergartens faced potential closures due to the a decline in admissions and a dramatically increased number of dropouts.

Chow Wai-chun, president of the Hong Kong Early Childhood Educators Association, pointed out that available funding resources for kindergartens is significantly affected by school enrollments. During the pandemic, enrollment rates have dropped by 20 percent, with some private kindergartens seeing nearly 200 students drop out, resulting in them closing.

Meanwhile, things seem good for teachers – research conducted during the same period showed that the average salary for newly graduated preschool teachers in 2020 rose nearly 5 percent over the previous year to HK$22,713.

The Hong Kong Early Childhood Education Manpower, Pay and Benefits Survey was organized by Hong Kong Baptist University Business School’s Centre for Human Resources Strategy and Development and HKBU School of Continuing Education’s Early Childhood and Elementary Education Division.

It involved a final sample of 102 schools, or about 10 percent of the 1,049 kindergarten schools in Hong Kong.

Within the survey period between September 2019 and August 2020, the average salary adjustment rate was 4.8 percent, with a projected 2.96 percent adjustment from September 2020 to this August. Most other industries face wage freezes and cuts.

However, more than 10 percent of full-time teachers have quit due to being overworked.

A paper submitted by the Education Bureau to the Legislative Council’s finance committee has revealed this is 9 percent higher than the turnover rate of kindergarten teachers during the last school year.

The increasing workload, resulting in “emotional exhaustion,” was primarily attributed to a change in working methods due to school suspensions, when most schools faced difficulties in finding operational assistance while running online classes.

Teachers were concerned about the challenges they would face after schools partially reopened, such as how their students would adapt, their school’s anti-epidemic measures and parents’ expectations.

The survey showed that for schools who did not participate in the government’s 2019-2020 Kindergarten Education Scheme, the average annual salary for principals and teachers was slightly higher than those who did participate in the scheme. For nonprofit-making schools, the average annual salary was also higher than those of private independent schools.

The increase in starting salaries for graduates attests to the need for kindergartens to recruit talent, said the business school’s associate dean, Huang Xu.

“If you want to attract talent, you have to pay more,” said Huang, adding that compared with previous fully market-based early childhood education, the government’s support since 2017 has shown progress.

However, it was noted that compared to primary and secondary schools, there is still a significant gap in salaries and welfare for those involved in early childhood education.

The initial pay of newly graduated primary school teachers is around HK$35,000 – 1.5 times that of preschool teachers.

“The range between the starting salary and the maximum salary of preschool teachers is too wide,” Chow said. “We hope the government will introduce a pay scale as soon as possible to avoid a brain drain.”

(This article was published at The Standard on May 4, 2021: Education: Pay gaps raises brain drain fears )

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