At stake? Equal learning for all
As part of the government's drive to cut its budget deficit, Education Secretary Arthur Li Kwok-cheung must reduce education spending by about 5 per cent. The English Schools Foundation (ESF), with its well-equipped schools serving the seemingly well-heeled and foreign communities, is an obvious target.
The independently managed network of 16 schools offers probably the best example of top-level education in the publicly funded sector in Hong Kong. It is now threatened by Professor Li's insistence that the government review the ESF's grant of about $300 million this year, and possibly trim or scrap it.
The suggestion has caused enormous uncertainty among those who rely on these schools. Parents' views are being surveyed by Parent Teacher Associations, and even 10-year-olds are discussing whether they might have to leave their schools. That will depend on the outcome of Professor Li's review and their parents' ability to pay fees that, without the subsidy, would have to be raised by up to 40 per cent.
The ESF was set up by government ordinance in 1967 to provide native English-language education to all who could benefit from it. In the following two decades, it took over government schools that had catered to non-Chinese and built new schools. This growth was subsidised under the 'parity of subsidy' principle - which said children in ESF schools should be subsidised to the same degree as those in local aided schools. This support is currently frozen at 1999 levels. An extra level of quality above local schools - such as smaller classes - is funded by fees.
This parity is now at stake. The questions that should be asked today, when Professor Li meets ESF leaders, is whether Hong Kong still needs a subsidised foundation, and if it does, what level of support it should receive.
The number of ESF students has grown over the past decade from about 7,000 to 11,500, and the quality of education has improved. No education system is without its problems, and as the inspection of Beacon Hill School showed, that includes the ESF. In November, inspectors found the primary school had serious weaknesses in leadership and learning, prompting the principal's resignation. But ESF schools have on the whole kept well abreast of international trends in teaching and learning. Students generally finish their schooling with a well-rounded education and normally with a string of impressive public exam results to propel them to good universities both locally and around the world.
Once they have their degrees, they can expect to be sought after by major employers, in Hong Kong in particular, for their language skills and training in critical, creative thinking.
As local schools struggle to produce young people with these skills, Hong Kong must ask if the community would be diminished if ESF schools were undermined.
Other international schools, many similarly good and some arguably better, have long complained that the ESF's subsidy is unfair. They can rightly argue that they also contribute to the development of local education and to producing the high-quality graduates that Hong Kong so desperately needs.
But there are two differences. First, in scale: the ESF accounts for about one-third of all students receiving an international-style education. Without a subsidy, it could only serve the children of those rich enough to pay large fees, just like other private international schools, some of which also require debentures to pay down capital costs - up to $250,000 per student. It probably could not sustain itself at its current scale without the subsidy.
Second, the ESF helps fulfil the right of taxpaying parents to receive subsidised education for their children - a right enshrined in the government's commitment to provide all children in Hong Kong access to nine years of free education.
Many make huge sacrifices to pay for an ESF education. A family with a household income of $40,000 a month may seem comfortably off. But when that family spends $4,730 a month for one child to attend an ESF primary school, and $7,860 for their older child's secondary fees, the figures look less rosy. Close to 30 per cent of their net monthly income is spent on schooling. Many middle-income ESF parents who do not receive schooling benefits from employers are in this situation.
Pushed to their financial limits, with the prospects of tax and school fee increases on the horizon, these parents are close to despair. The non-Chinese in this scenario, some of whom have lived and worked here all their lives, feel betrayed and unwanted.
If these families can no longer pay ESF fees, what schools would educate their children? The government has made it clear that local aided and government schools must primarily meet the needs of local, Chinese-speaking students.
Integration is a good thing, but unfortunately for many non-local children it does not work, and certainly not for those coming into the system later in their school lives. I know, because I tried it for my own half-Chinese daughters.
The practical problem is that in classes of up to 40 it is nearly impossible for the teacher to cater for the different learning needs of a small group of children who do not speak Chinese. If their needs are not met, these children can all too easily become unmotivated and fail to achieve their potential.
The combined advantages of the ESF's lower fees, no capital-expense debenture and comprehensive rather than selective intake mean that it remains the best option for those living on tight budgets. The Chinese International School, an obvious alternative, costs $8,000 more a month for two children, plus capital fees of $75,000 per child.
Local schools would not be happy if several thousand children unable to perform adequately in Chinese came knocking on their doors. Until it can educate all students in a fashion that meets their language needs, the government should retain its support for the ESF, subject it to scrutiny for the public money it uses, and enjoy all the other benefits the network offers.
Katherine Forestier is the Post's Education Editor