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China bill aims to make preschool more accessible amid flagging birth rate

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Chinese lawmakers on Monday submitted a draft law aimed at making preschools more accessible and affordable, state media reported, part of a drive to encourage people to have more children following the first population drop in six decades.

The draft Preschool Education Law includes measures to curb excessive profit-seeking by preschool providers, the state-backed China news service reported.

Children applying for preschool places should not be subject "to any form of examination or testing except for necessary physical examinations," the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Playing must be prioritised, it said, while teaching of any primary school materials during kindergarten is banned.

Minister of Education Huai Jinpeng said the development of the sector remains "unbalanced and insufficient" with many people finding it difficult to enter preschools due to high expense and concerns about quality, Xinhua reported.

The draft law comes as China's fertility rate is estimated to have dropped to a record low of 1.09 in 2022, one of the world's lowest alongside South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

High childcare costs and the need to pause careers have put many Chinese women off having more children or any at all. Gender discrimination and traditional stereotypes of women caring for children are still widespread.

Concerned about its rapidly ageing population, Beijing is urgently trying an array of measures to lift the birth rate, including financial incentives and improved childcare facilities.

The draft preschool law will now be reviewed by the National People's Congress Standing Committee.

(Reporting by Farah Master and the Beijing newsroom; Editing by Conor Humphries)