Time for the ESF to clarify its teaching mission

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 November, 2009, 12:00am

The English Schools Foundation increasingly resembles private international schools, yet it continues to receive substantial government subsidies. Its school charges are rapidly approaching those of the more expensive schools in the city.

The latest is a HK$25,000 capital levy on new pupils and those in its primary schools transferring to secondary schools. The levy is expected to generate about HK$300 million a year towards a building and renovation programme in excess of a billion dollars to replace ageing schools. There will be no hardship fund or discounts for needy families. Such hefty fees create social inequities and raise serious questions about the foundation's educational mission.

The foundation's rationale for government subsidies is that not every family who needs to send its children to such schools can afford to. But through increasingly high fees and a self-selecting process, families of ESF students generally tend to be affluent. The new levy will further discriminate against poorer families. ESF chief executive Heather Du Quesnay puts it bluntly: 'If people are going to be able to send their children to an ESF school, they have to be able to afford it.'

No doubt she is right about the socio-economic status of most ESF families. But if so, this begs the question as to why taxpayers should continue to subsidise such affluent families, a well-endowed foundation that owns property in some of the city's most desirable locations, and a management that enjoys some of the best-paying jobs in international education.

Since the handover, the student populations at the foundation's 14 publicly funded schools are being increasingly made up of children who speak Chinese as their first language. In some ESF schools, a majority are from local families.

Parents have every right to send their children to schools they consider most suitable. After all, the foundation enjoys a justifiable reputation for providing high-quality education in an English-language curriculum. But the government already spends billions of dollars every year to provide a free education for local children. We come back to the question of fairness and equity in subsidising such families who opt out of the local system - and equally, the burden on families who have no choice.

The foundation's mandate has become increasingly unclear. Its management enjoys the best of both worlds. On one hand, it receives about 20 per cent of its budget from the government. Yet it feels free to squeeze more money out of the parents of pupils when the need arises. The foundation is not only asking parents of new pupils to fork out the capital levy, it is also appealing to the government for capital grants to help rebuild several older school campuses.

Without doubt, the billion-dollar rebuilding programme will create some of Hong Kong's most desirable campuses. But the government must ask to what extent it is right to ask taxpayers to help foot the bill.

Under Du Quesnay's leadership, the foundation has cleaned up its corporate governance and made management more accountable. But the reform has done nothing to clarify its changing mission. It should not be to provide a luxury education for princesses and princelings at the expense of taxpayers, but quality teaching for those who genuinely need an English-language education at an affordable price.