ESF - English Schools Foundation

ESF needs breathing space for survival

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 September, 2005, 12:00am

It was the lull before the storm. All had seemed calm in the English Schools Foundation after the public battering that it received last winter. Under the firm leadership of new chief executive Heather Du Quesnay, the future looked bright.

In fact, there was a much fiercer storm brewing. Ms Du Quesnay's challenge is now clear - to steer the foundation through the pain of swingeing cuts in staff costs of a scale that would threaten the stability of any organisation. It could be one task beyond her.

The stakes are huge. If she wins, the ESF could have all to play for. If she fails, the government is likely to cut the subvention that makes the foundation's schools affordable to many families who have few alternatives - Education Minister Arthur Li Kwok-cheung has often spelt out that the ESF must cut its costs before dialogue can begin over its public funding and its pay should not exceed that of other international schools here.

The 10 per cent target for the cuts has not come out of the blue. When added to the 4.42 per cent salary cut of the last year, it would bring the average package of $947,400 quoted in the audit report close to the $813,000 of the next most generous school - and within range of appeasing Professor Li.

Teachers are furious, doubly so because they were promised no cuts unless recommended by a pay review body. Its advice to keep the status quo until further information was obtained was ignored.

Teachers respond to the mockery of their inflated incomes by arguing the cash they receive falls well short of the sums quoted. The average, for instance, includes the benefit to live in ESF quarters that those on earlier overseas contracts receive, costed at market rates. In meetings this week, teacher after teacher stood up and said remaining here would no longer be viable.

Ms Du Quesnay has said that bringing in new teachers could do the foundation good. Some turnover may be healthy, but not the mass exodus of many good teachers, especially as the current package is no longer creating a stampede to take their places.

If these threats are real the ESF is in a no-win situation. If sidelined by government it will no longer have a significant role in education, except for the very well-off. Without its best teachers, it will be a shadow of itself.

Business leaders have no doubts about the need for affordable international-style education to balance local provision that so inadequately meets the needs of non-local children. The ESF is also valued for the variety it brings to the local system.

Hong Kong would be poorer without the rejuvenated ESF that Ms Du Quesnay is creating. Modernisation of pay scales and benefits is a necessary part of this and such reform would create significant savings. But to include an across-the-board pay cut of 5 per cent may be the step too far for many teachers.

If government genuinely wants to produce and attract the kind of talent that is needed for a vibrant international city it cannot watch this battle rage to the death. Instead, it should support a compromise that suits all - as it has done this week for its own civil servants.