Needs versus wants
The English Schools Foundation's chief executive, Heather Du Quesnay, and her revamped school board have proved their effectiveness by the deft way in which they handled imposing the controversial new capital levy. Their public-relations blitz would have made any blue-chip company proud. Unfortunately, like any PR exercise, it obfuscates and confuses some key issues that confront the ESF today.
Undoubtedly, the ESF is a jewel in the city's education sector; it is a crucial asset of our internationalised economy. But the city has changed dramatically since the handover, and the ESF's mandate, long understood to cater to the educational needs of expatriate and British colonial families, has fundamentally transformed.
Today's ESF student population includes nearly half who are ethnically Chinese, many of whom speak Cantonese as their first language. Declining government subsidies mean parents are increasingly being asked to pay more. Rising fees and an increasing local Chinese population make the ESF more and more like other independent international schools. But is this what its mission is supposed to be - running de facto international schools for well-off families at subsidised rates?
The foundation's current predicament over subventions dates back to the assault launched by former education minister Arthur Li Kwok-cheung during the Tung Chee-hwa era. Li was right that the old ESF board was unruly, its management unaccountable, and the salaries and perks of its older teaching staff ridiculously generous. But the way Li went about it completely politicised the ESF and poisoned the atmosphere for years afterwards. He used the government subvention as the sword of Damocles to force the ESF to reform its governance, and he got his way. No other subvented school board in Hong Kong has had to face this kind of political pressure and harsh publicity. Most perniciously, it makes the current government reluctant to take up serious talks with the ESF about recurrent subvention. The foundation, in turn, is happy to focus, for now, on getting the government to subsidise its proposed capital works to rebuild old schools - for which the new HK$25,000 levy per student is being imposed. There appears to be a tacit understanding that the current level of annual subsidies - about 21 per cent - will continue in the short term.
Any serious talks about revising recurrent or capital subvention will have to address the foundation's core values and stated mission. If many of its families are there because of their need for an English-medium education rather than because of their wealth, then the ESF deserves much higher levels of subvention and other financial support. But, if more and more ESF families are rich or well-off, then that presents a very different funding picture. But this seems to be a political hot potato that neither the government nor the ESF wants to touch.
Rising fees keep out lower-income families and attract professional or well-off ones. This, however, is not what the ESF should be about. It is disturbing to hear Du Quesnay say, at the capital levy conference, that parents who send children to ESF schools need to be able to afford it. What about those who have the need but not the means?
More and more Chinese-speaking families opt out of free or subsidised local schools due to their perceived inadequacies and failures. If the government had not bungled so miserably in its decade-old education reform, there wouldn't have been such a mass exodus to ESF and international schools.
But we need to ask whether it is fair to enable economically advantaged families to opt in and out of two education systems heavily supported by public money when lower-income families and those who need an English-medium education have no such choice. Do we want the ESF to be another five-star luxury international schools chain - we have plenty of those already - or one that offers quality English-medium education at an affordable price for families who need one? Such questions can only be resolved by an equitable level of public subvention, settled through forthright negotiations and public understanding.
Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post