An all-round education
Since last summer, the English Schools Foundation has been mired in controversy over the government's review of its long-frozen subvention. Although a decision is not expected until later this year, the ESF's popularity with local and expatriate parents remains solid.
Set up in 1967 by the government as a provider of English-language education, the ESF serves 17,013 students, of whom 70 per cent have parents who are permanent residents. Children of more than 50 nationalities attend its five secondary schools, nine primary schools, one special needs school, four kindergartens and two through private independent schools.
One of its largest primary schools - Kowloon Junior School - is undergoing redevelopment at a cost of HK$417 million, of which the government contributed HK$155 million. To accommodate 900 students under one roof, rather than in split campuses, the school site will be turned into a seven-storey structure equipped with multiple facilities and two activity rooms for children with special needs by August next year.
Chief executive Heather Du Quesnay said ESF schools provided a joyful learning environment. 'We offer a particularly vibrant environment where children's all-round development is encouraged very strongly,' she said. 'The relationship between teachers and students in our schools is very relaxed. Children actually encourage each other to a remarkable extent. We do not ask students who are not succeeding to leave.
'At a recent science competition at West Island School, all the children were delighted when the winners were announced; they were just pleased that their friends had won. That is a fabulous environment for kids to grow up in.'
Student councils give pupils a say in school affairs and a taste of 'mini-democracy'. One primary school banned ball games in its playground after some younger children expressed fears of getting hit by bigger boys running around fast chasing a ball, said Du Quesnay, who plans to meet council members in the coming school term to listen to their experiences.
Involvement in school affairs is seen as part of students' character development, which is emphasised in the International Baccalaureate curriculum implemented at Year 12 and 13 at all five ESF secondary schools.
'It is strongly led by values of mutual respect, hard work, collaboration, sharing, care for the environment and each other,' Du Quesnay said. 'Those kinds of themes run through all of our teaching programmes. If a child is involved in the production of a musical or play, they are not just learning how to act, they are also learning about discipline and team work.
'There are lots of opportunities for people to be captains of teams, to be class representatives of student councils, so they are learning to take responsibility, understand other people's needs and ideas and to behave like responsible citizens of a community.'
Last year, about 95 per cent of the ESF's Year 13 students sat IB examinations, with four achieving the top score of 45 points.
For students in Year 7 to 11, there is a choice of a range of subjects culminating in the University of Cambridge International Examinations' International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and GCSE examinations. There is also the Applied Learning option leading to the Business and Technology Education Council qualification recognised in Britain, covering a range of subjects such as graphics, engineering, business, performing arts and textiles.
A small number of students continue with the applied learning courses. As they do not require examinations, they suit those more driven by vocational interests than academically oriented IB diplomas. Students also get hands-on experience through running projects or events. They can combine the practical courses with individual IB subjects such as the core component of creativity, action and service to come up with an interesting package of qualifications that will get them into university.
'It will be good credential for universities specialising in vocational subjects,' Du Quesnay said. 'Lots of universities in England and Scotland welcome these qualifications. It is not quite so easy to find places in the US, but we work hard to find a university that suits a student's interests and then try to persuade them these are the right qualifications.'
The ESF has a team of higher education counsellors who are skilled at helping students find the best match for their interests and abilities.
Apart from a wider use of technology, Du Quesnay expects a continual evolution in curriculum to bring in more inquiry-based learning and integration of subjects - a growing trend in education. For example, separate courses on history and geography may be replaced by integrated humanities.
The Chinese programme is also under review. Since 2007, schools have offered a daily programme covering aspects of Chinese history and culture taught in Putonghua for all primary students. In some schools, like South Island School, it is compulsory for Year 7 and 8 pupils to study Chinese. The foundation also launched two new Chinese tests - an assessment for Year 9 students and an IGCSE Chinese as a second language developed for the Cambridge International Examinations, for Year 11 students, which will be an important reference for their choice of Chinese options in Year 12.
ESF Chinese adviser Wang Xiaoping points to the importance of keeping up ties with the local community. 'Chinese is the language of Hong Kong. If we lock ourselves up in an international school mindset, we are not connecting to the local community, and it's not good for our students,' he said.