A lesson in subsidies for parents of ESF school pupils
with Jake van der Kamp
Carlson Ton Ka-shing says his priority as the new chairman of the English Schools Foundation is to negotiate with the government for extra funding and more school places to serve the city's high demand for teaching in English.
SCMP, May 7
I know the sting of school fees. Our three children went through Chinese International School and that came to 40 school years of tuition. Put together the school fees, school bus, books, uniforms, trips and all the rest and, yes, ouch!
You tell yourself that there is nothing you would rather spend your money on than your own children, and it's true, but still it's a big sting and you don't always like to be reminded of how much it costs.
Yet I have never objected to the basic formula for international education in Hong Kong. The government provides the land for the buildings by private treaty at a nominal sum and the parents buy debentures to cover the cost of construction. School fees then cover the operating costs.
Of course, my wife and I could have avoided these heavy costs if we had chosen to enrol our children in local schools, but we chose not to do so.
We wanted an international education for them and so we had to pay the price. That's the way it is.
It's a choice that many people make and, when you make it, you say, 'Ouch!' and you haul out your chequebook.
So why should the English Schools Foundation be so special? Why should it get a regular annual subsidy from the government, HK$283 million last year, and other international schools not get one?
The historical answer is that the ESF was originally set up to educate the children of expatriate civil servants.
Back in the old colonial days it was a given that good government required foreign government officials. What's the good of having a colony anyway if your own people don't run it?
And if you are going to bring in such people, all dedicated to the service of mankind and high moral principle in administration, surely the least you can do for them is see that they are not troubled by commonplace difficulties like having to find affordable school places in a proper school that teaches their children as if they had never left Blighty.
Let's say that we accept this as an eminently logical and sensible reason for subsidising ESF in the past. Maybe you have difficulty accepting it, but just try for the moment.
This still leaves us with the obvious question for the present. Old colonial days are now 13 years in the past. This is now Chinese sovereign territory. Why are we still running our education system as if it were a British colony?
I can almost hear that huffing in the Mid-Levels by now. Experience has long taught me that you never get an ESF parent quite so huffy as when you talk about that subsidy.
And then you get all the other arguments.
ESF doesn't just teach the children of expatriate civil servants now. Its enrolment is far wider. Yes, and so is the enrolment of other international schools. Why is ESF special?
ESF teaches English and Hong Kong has need of good English. Yes, and other international schools also teach English (and Chinese and French, etc). Why is ESF special?
Teachers' salaries are going up. ESF needs the money. Yes, and teachers' salaries are going up in other international schools too. Why is ESF special?
Let's also remember that the only time we ever saw published comparative figures on ESF salaries was back in 2004 when the Audit Commission said they were the highest of all international schools. This was followed by a separate pay review study that said ESF salaries were 10 per cent above the top decile worldwide.
By about this stage in the debate with any ESF parent, the huffiness has reached the blown top level and the retort becomes, 'Yeah, well, you made your choice to send your kids to CIS. Live with it and don't bother me.'
Fine, but then don't bother me with tax demands for an ESF subsidy.
If employers are not paying enough to cover school fees we have an employment problem, not an education problem. Fixing it with a subsidy just subsidises employers to continue paying too little.
I fully appreciate that some ESF parents have a hard time with those school fees. Some of the parents I know at CIS also found it very difficult. No one ever said kids come cheap. That's the way life is.
But it's well past time for our government to wind down the ESF subsidy.
I don't say it should go to zero tomorrow. That would be too big a jolt. The eventual target, however, should be zero.