English Schools Foundation
The English Schools Foundation (ESF) operates five secondary schools, nine primary schools and a school for students with special educational needs across Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. It is the largest international educational foundation in Asia.
Taskforce members quit in ESF row
Parents distance themselves from reform document after their version is rejected as 'inappropriate'
Three members of the English Schools Foundation's taskforce reviewing its governance and structure have resigned after a row over its final consultation document.
Parents Christine Houston, Jennifer Saran and Nick Bilcliffe quit the 14-member group after being outvoted by the majority.
They claim they were given just 90 minutes to approve a paper that was 'radically different' from a version Ms Houston and Ms Saran had drafted and had been agreed as a working document at the previous meeting.
'I resigned because this was a sham. I am not prepared to have my name attached to an illegitimate document. We were charged with reform and have failed,' Ms Houston said. 'I'm disgusted that I wasted 100 hours for them to rewrite the document.'
But parent Charles Grieves, who chaired the taskforce, said the pair's draft was rejected by the majority of the taskforce as inappropriate and going 'beyond the brief'.
It was the taskforce's duty to recommend a new structure, not deal with wider issues the ESF faced. 'It can't restrict the board [of governors] in what it does,' he said.
'[Members] felt it went beyond the agreed brief of the taskforce and was unsatisfactory in its presentation,' he said.
'[ESF chief executive] Heather Du Quesnay, with input from others, prepared at speed a consultation document that was intended to better reflect the discussions of the taskforce over its past eight meetings. On the 28th, the majority of the members chose to work on this second document, which formed the basis of the published consultation paper.'
But Ms Houston and Ms Saran claimed the final document failed to address important issues.'The problem is they don't want to reform the structure and put mechanisms in place that secure accountability. They have slashed anything of importance from the document,' Ms Saran said.
Issues they claim were not dealt with include whether accounting should be devolved to schools; finite definitions of responsibilities of the management office over key areas of education, real estate, finance and human resources; and the governance of ESF Educational Services Ltd.
Mr Bilcliffe said: 'You can't cherry pick issues you are going to look at in governance.'
Ms Saran said failing to define roles would give the chief executive the type of power enjoyed by previous head Jennifer Wisker. 'They want to keep the same structure but give it a new name,' she said.
'The reason for establishing the taskforce was to make considered and logical recommendations to international standards for reforming the 'governance' and 'management' of the ESF. If any of the existing governors or managers is 'dictating' the reform recommendations to the taskforce, through these kind of 'set up' meetings and partisan chairing, there will arise an issue of a major conflict of interest,' she wrote in her resignation letter.
Ms Du Quesnay defended the taskforce. 'We have done our utmost to create a process that is respectable and decent and creates opportunities for public involvement. I am sorry some have chosen to distance themselves, but I do believe we must work in a democratic way, and that is what the taskforce sought to do. I felt it was the professional duty of officers of the foundation to take the responsibility of putting something in the public domain that reflected the views of the whole taskforce.'
Of the final meeting, she said: 'It was 90 minutes after 10 meetings. The group could have continued discussions for another 18 months, but that would not have served anyone's interests.
'The proposals that have emerged are radically different from what exists at the moment, in terms of the reduction in size of the foundation to a board of governors and the abolition of the executive committee as it currently exists. I am not sure in what sense it could be suggested anyone is seeking to protect existing positions.
'What we are doing now will require a change of legislation. It needs to last many years.'
Many other reforms were under way as part of the ESF's action plan following the recommendations by the Public Accounts Committee and Audit Commission.
The three parents had opposed the idea that teachers should be represented on the board of governors and school councils because of possible conflict of interests. But Ms Du Quesnay said it was important for staff to be included.
The taskforce included six out of nine of the current executive committee, plus eight other members, including the three parents who gained notoriety for spearheading the public campaign to prevent Mike Haynes being appointed chief executive.