ESF to impose HK$25,000 building levy
Liz Heron and Elaine Yau
The English Schools Foundation will impose a HK$25,000 levy on new pupils admitted to its 14 publicly funded schools to raise cash to replace ageing buildings.
The move, announced yesterday, was greeted with disbelief by parents. It takes the schools group for English-speaking children closer to the private international sector, where most parents pay a hefty debenture or refundable capital levy.
Some international schools have introduced refundable levies in recent years as a fairer alternative to corporate and individual debentures, which must be sold on and have drawn criticism for allowing queue-jumping and soaring second-hand prices.
Annual fees for ESF pupils are HK$89,250 at secondary schools and HK$58,100 at primary schools. They were frozen last year after increases of nearly 23 per cent in primary schools and 13.45 per cent in secondaries over three years.
All pupils admitted to Year One of primary schools and Year Seven of secondary schools will have to pay the one-off levy on top of the normal fees when they start school from August 2011 onwards. Children who enter the school in other year groups will also have to pay. The levy is refundable in full, with no interest, when a child leaves school.
All children now attending ESF primary schools will have to pay the levy when they transfer to secondary school. However, those already at secondary school will not be affected.
ESF chairwoman Professor Felice Lieh Mak said the levy was needed to 'help bridge the gap between the government grants that are available to us and the substantial investments that we need to make' in rebuilding schools.
ESF chief executive Heather Du Quesnay said it would generate HK$300 million a year towards a building programme to replace ageing schools, starting with Kowloon Junior School, King George V School and Island School.
The ESF had applied to the Education Bureau for a capital grant towards the HK$420 million cost of rebuilding Kowloon Junior's Perth Street campus, and planned to lodge applications for rebuilding KGV and Island schools, she said. These projects are expected to cost HK$240 million and up to HK$1 billion respectively.
'We are hopeful that we will get funding from the government,' Du Quesnay said. 'But we do think that we have to be realistic about how much the government can do. And we have to demonstrate the commitment to the ESF of our parents.'
Du Quesnay said there would not be a hardship fund or sliding scale for needy families in relation to the levy. 'If people are going to be able to send their children to an ESF school, they have to be able to afford it. We believe that a level of HK$25,000 will be affordable to such people.' The levy was announced to parents in an email sent out yesterday, after being unveiled to the ESF parents' committee on Thursday night.
Parents reacted with anger and disbelief, saying it would bar pupils from poorer families.
One parent with a son and daughter at South Island School, who asked not to be named, was outraged, although he would not be affected. 'I am absolutely flabbergasted. The fees they have and the support they already have from the government should be sufficient,' the parent said.
'It shows very, very poor financial management on behalf of the ESF and use of its assets. I think this levy will present a barrier that will prevent some English-speaking parents sending their children to ESF schools.
'A lot of parents are already struggling to pay not only the fees but also the additional costs for their children. At South Island School you have to buy your child a computer and by the time you have got all the add-ons that the school requires, you have a flat rate of around HK$10,000.'
Mark Taylor, whose 16-year-old son attends an ESF school, said the levy did not make sense. 'It's a blatant charge. They didn't consult parents beforehand. I am glad my son is not going to be affected by it. ESF is supposed to be run along the vein of a charity. It's like extorting money.'
But Dr Albert Yeung, a parent representative on the ESF board of governors who has two children studying at Sha Tin College, said the levy was the only means available to the ESF for renovation of old buildings.
'Government subvention can only be used on students,' he said. 'There's no other way to raise money to refurbish the buildings, which are already 40 years old. ESF is just borrowing the capital levy from parents which is refundable.'
An Education Bureau spokeswoman said the ESF had informed it of the levy plan. 'We asked the ESF to fully consult parents and other stakeholders, clearly explain to them the rationale and detailed arrangements and forge consensus before the proposal is implemented,' she said.
The ESF's government subsidy, amounting to HK$287 million or about 20 per cent of its income in the current school year, included a sum for repairs but not for new buildings, the spokeswoman said.
What levy will mean to parents
1 HK$25,000 per child on admission to ESF school
2 First two children pay in full; third and further children pay HK$10,000
3 Refundable, with no interest, when child leaves school
4 Students already at primary school pay levy on entry to secondary school
5 No hardship fund or sliding scale for needy families'