ESF - English Schools Foundation

Paying the price for a better education

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 2004, 12:00am

TURMOIL IN THE English Schools Foundation has once again turned the spotlight on the funding it receives from government.

Many in the local community are questioning why, in the post-colonial era, a group of schools offering British-style education should be subsidised by Hong Kong taxpayers, especially when many of the children in the schools are not Chinese and come from relatively wealthy families.

Other international schools have also long complained that the playing field is not level. Smaller international schools lose pupils and staff to the ESF because it can charge lower fees thanks to its government subvention, and it pays teachers at rates even the foundation admits to be among the highest in the world - with or without the proposed 4.42 per cent pay cut.

The release of former chief executive Jonathan Harris' highly critical letter of last June to then chairman Jal Shroff, in which he detailed serious concerns about the quality of the ESF, has inevitably fuelled arguments that the Hong Kong taxpayer should no longer foot any of the bill.

But before the Education and Manpower Bureau - eager to cut costs - takes any precipitous action, it is important to consider what the consequences would be for Hong Kong and the families who rely on its schools.

There is no doubt that the ESF is in crisis; five leading committee members having resigned in the past month and its efforts to appoint a new chief executive was a fiasco. The Harris letter could be seen as the final death sentence.

David Dodwell, the crisis manager appointed to help it redeem its reputation, has stressed that organisations emerge from such turmoil either weaker or stronger, but never the same.

For the ESF, there is optimism that under new leadership it can find new strength, given the government ordinance that underpins it, and the good practice that can be found in most of its classrooms.

The fact that the ESF did not come up to scratch in the eyes of Harris - a leading British education administrator - is bound to alarm parents. As Harris and more recently Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung have suggested, parents deserve answers, in the form of an independent review of its finances and governance. They also need reassurance that professional and curriculum development, and its mechanisms for quality assurance - among the issues raised by Harris - are up to leading international standards. Although the ESF has addressed many of the points, lingering doubts may remain.

There is also pressure for the days of its senior officers wining and dining on parents' school fees and government funds, described as 'totally unacceptable' by Li, to come to an end. But for the ESF's many supporters, the 16 foundation schools that receive the subvention still have much to contribute to the diversity of education in Hong Kong. Teaching and learning in many is a paragon of educational advancement compared with the way most schools in Hong Kong are run - only a small minority of schools across the private and public sectors can match the best of the ESF for quality and outcome.

'Thank God for the ESF,' wrote one parent this week, who recently transferred her children from a prestigious local school, where she also taught, to an ESF primary school. 'Like so many other parents of mixed children, I gave up on the local system after seeing first-hand how truly awful it is and how my children were suffering,' she continued. She could not afford more expensive international schools.

The fact that there was so much protest in the wake of the appointment of insurance executive Mike Haynes as chief executive, and that the decision was overturned, could be a sign of life, not the death knell. In the local sector, where some sponsoring bodies oversee hundreds of schools, few pay any heed to who is appointed to lead them, or have such demanding expectations.

There is also the ESF ordinance, dating back to the foundation's creation in 1967. Across school parent teacher associations and school councils this has now been dusted off in preparation for the election of a new chairman and vice-chairman on Monday, reminding themselves of what the foundation is. The ESF, they have found, is unique as a community charitable foundation dedicated to education. Foundation members are drawn from key organisations in Hong Kong society: government, the legislative council, universities, churches, professional bodies and the corporate sector, not to mention those with a direct stake in its well-being: parents, teachers, principals and senior management. From this community there are hopes that they have the people who care enough, and have the talents, to take action to put the ESF's house in order. There is already much talk of a new era of modernisation, greater transparency and communication in the way it should operate as it emerges from turmoil.

It is against this backdrop that the future of the ESF and its subvention will be defended.

The subvention, which now accounts for 28 per cent of ESF income, is rooted in the history of education in Hong Kong. The ESF was founded to offer English education to all who could benefit from it. It was to receive public funds not more than those allocated to local schools, although it could charge fees for its higher quality - in its case smaller classes, better facilities and overseas teachers.

In 1979 it was asked to take over five government schools, including King George V School. It did so under what has become known as the parity of subsidy principle - that it would receive a subvention based on the cost per child received by local schools. Abandoning that principle today would be like telling aided schools that have responded to government encouragement to transfer to the Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) that their subsidies are no longer secure.

The ESF's subvention has already been eroded, after negotiations in 1999 between then ESF chief executive Jennifer Wisker and the then Education Department. It has been frozen since that year and will be cut by 6.44 per cent in the coming financial year.

ESF parents have defended the subvention ever since it came under attack from Li, who suggested just over a year ago that it could be scrapped or reduced.

Their argument is that they are as entitled to subsidised education as other families, with three-quarters being Hong Kong residents and many of these unable to find suitable schooling in the public sector. More than 75 per cent are Asian, mainly Chinese. But because the latter are usually returning from overseas the children do not have the literacy skills to meet standards expected in local schools. Only a minority of leading DSS and aided schools have indicated a willingness to admit such children and, to be fair to them, they are not set up to cater for the learning needs of native English-speaking children.

The ESF has argued in its submissions to the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) that it costs the government less for these children to be educated in ESF schools. The EMB's own figures show the unit cost per child funded from public coffers (see table) are lower in the ESF than in DSS and aided schools. But ESF classes added since 1999, as well as upper secondary classes, receive no subvention, according to its financial controller, John Bohan, lowering the costs still further.

There are other arguments put forward for retaining a strong ESF. With a large number of Chinese students attending these schools, they contribute to improved English standards. Professional exchanges with the local sector also have a wider benefit, as does the ESF's role in pioneering the development of private independent schools for local children. Its first of two is now under construction at Ma On Shan.

Without affordable education of comparable quality to that available in the west, Hong Kong would be out of bounds for many looking to work in the region, which would undermine its ambitions to be an international city. But the current funding model is not sacrosanct. Even former chairman Shroff has said that in planning for the future the ESF could consider the option of transferring to the DSS, for instance.

There is a more ambitious model that could be fairer to students who fail to win ESF places and to international schools. That would be to give parents freedom to spend the subsidy their child is entitled to in any approved private school - a system Harris last year acknowledged would be fairer, and worth exploring, according to academics such as professors Cheng Kai-ming and Mark Bray, at the University of Hong Kong. This is a voucher system as advocated by economist Milton Friedman and used successfully in countries such as Sweden.

Arguments against this are that it could widen the divide between rich and poor. The poorest families would not be able to pay the remaining school fees for their children to go to private schools. It would also be costly. There are currently 51,700 students in private schools. If all were to receive funding equivalent to the parity principle - which averages about $27,000 a year - the government would need to find another $1.4 billion a year, out of the question in the current financial climate unless accompanied by means-testing.

Such a move would also be contrary to current government policy, which in the past decade has been to encourage the development of international schools, but on a self-funding basis. Many used to come under the umbrella of the DSS. Moreover, it is policy that only permanent residents are automatically entitled to subsidised education.

The question for government is whether the ESF is part of local provision or international. The ESF would argue that although it offers a British curriculum, it is part of the Hong Kong infrastructure, as defined by its ordinance.

In the absence of radical reform, Hong Kong stands to gain by continuing to fund the ESF.

The foundation, meanwhile, can only benefit from the period of rejuvenation that should lie ahead.

Katherine Forestier's children study in ESF schools, after starting their education in the local sector.

What the government pays out

Unit cost per student, as funded by the government:

DSS schools (2002-3 academic year) - Primary: $23,990; Secondary: $35,700.

Aided schools (2002-3) - Primary: $22,810; Secondary (Forms One to Three): $34,440.

ESF schools (2003-4) - Primary $23,080; Secondary: $31,680.

Source: Education and Manpower Bureau