ESF - English Schools Foundation

Give ESF time to implement reforms

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 February, 2005, 12:00am

The English Schools Foundation (ESF) has been chastised - like a naughty child - for bad behaviour and told it must do better.

It has been subjected to intense scrutiny in recent months and has effectively been hauled in front of the class twice to be given a dressing down. The latest criticism of its management came this week from the Legislative Council Public Accounts Committee. The Audit Commission voiced similar concerns in November.

The possibility remains that the ultimate punishment will be imposed - the threatened scrapping of its government subsidy. Much, it seems, will depend on whether the institution is able to put its house in order.

The reaction of the ESF to the criticism is therefore of the utmost importance. All those with a stake in the foundation - children, parents and teachers - will be relieved to see it has responded well.

The new management team has shown it is determined to try to meet education chief Arthur Li Kwok-cheung's demand that it 'pull its socks up'.

Now that deficiencies have been identified - and are being tackled - the attacks on the organisation should cease. It deserves to be given time to implement the reforms proposed in the two recent reports. It should be allowed to show if it is capable of implementing changes that will make it a model of good management, cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

Last year's management crisis and the subsequent exposure of failings within the organisation marked a low point in the 38-year history of the ESF. The two subsequent reports into its operations have highlighted wasteful practices, loose financial controls and poor management. The ESF, in short, was in urgent need of reform. That process has now begun.

A new, highly respected management team is on the job. Incoming chief executive Heather Du Quesnay, who arrived only last week, has accepted the criticism and pledged to put things right. Her vision of a modern, efficient, transparent and accountable ESF is the right one. But, given the shortcomings, she will need some time to make it a reality.

Changes were on the way even before she arrived. The ESF's cumbersome, and much-criticised, 132-member ruling foundation is to be scrapped in favour of a much slimmer, university-style council. A taskforce has been established to propose reforms. The Independent Commission Against Corruption has - at the invitation of the ESF - made recommendations on how it could improve its administration. And Ms Du Quesnay has promised to publish an action plan next month dealing with the recommendations made in the two critical reports.

The reform process must be monitored carefully to ensure that all the necessary changes are made. In the meantime, consideration must be given to the future of funding for the ESF. And this should not be restricted to a crude debate over whether to scrap the $278 million-a-year subvention.

The ESF performs an important function for Hong Kong, providing a middle way between the public sector and international schools. For many non-Chinese-speaking parents it is the only affordable option for the education of their children. But an increasing number of local children are attending the schools. And about 70 per cent of ESF pupils have parents who are permanent residents. These factors should not be forgotten when a decision on funding is finally made. Meanwhile, the ESF should be allowed to get on with putting its house in order.

Footnote: The chairman of the Public Accounts Committee also deserves a ticking off. Philip Wong Yu-hong - notorious for making an insulting gesture to protesters outside Legco in 2003 - saw no reason why he should answer media questions on the report. This is an extraordinary and unacceptable attitude for someone in his position. The media has a duty to ask questions on behalf of Hong Kong people - and Mr Wong has a duty to respond.