Time to resolve the doubts over ESF funding
When teachers with the troubled English Schools Foundation went on their summer holidays they seemed safe from threatened cuts to their pay and perks. A remuneration study group had just released a report not recommending any cuts without further consideration.
But after two weeks back at school, the axe has fallen. The foundation's new management has decided there is no alternative but to swallow the most bitter pill among the reforms demanded by education chief Arthur Li Kwok-cheung. The pay cuts are one of the measures needed if it is to stave off a threat to its annual government subsidy of $278 million - nearly 28 per cent of the ESF's income. The result is a plan to cut the staff bill by 10 per cent to meet criticism that ESF teachers are overpaid.
Outraged teachers predict dire consequences for the ESF's ability to retain and recruit quality staff and maintain standards. They may have a point. But it is just one part of a debate over the ESF's role in the wider education scene that affects the entire ESF community. Their angry reaction will inject urgency into that debate, which is not a bad thing.
The new management team has been addressing deficiencies exposed by a management crisis last year and reports on the ESF's operations by both the Audit Commission and the Legislative Council's Public Accounts Committee. These reports highlighted wasteful practices, loose financial controls and poor management - and called for urgent reform.
New chief executive Heather Du Quesnay started work in February. Given the shortcomings, she will need more time to make good on her promise of a more modern, efficient, transparent and accountable ESF. But the question of future funding cannot be put off. The Education and Manpower Bureau is reviewing the subsidy. Professor Li has indicated he is prepared to consider future support if the ESF puts its house in order and proves to be cost-effective. Management therefore has to be seen to be doing something meaningful to answer the criticisms.
The ESF provides a middle way between the public sector and international schools. About 70 per cent of its students are permanent residents, most from Chinese families. Without the subsidy, an ESF education would become unaffordable to many of these families. And non-Chinese students would be left with very limited options for their schooling.
However the controversy is resolved, the priority for the ESF must be to carry out the necessary reform. This is inescapable. If it is done, the ESF is entitled to expect continued government support.
Just when things had settled down, the pay-cut report may usher in a new period of turbulence for the ESF. For the sake of the students, all the stakeholders, including the government, should act quickly to remove doubts about the foundation's future role and funding support.