Time we debated ESF's role in city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am

The English Schools Foundation has raised a few eyebrows in education circles by urging parents to step up pressure on the government for more public money by writing to officials and lawmakers. One education consultant describes the move as a 'bit naughty'. But it comes ahead of an important moment in a long stand-off. Next week, Legco's education panel will discuss a report on the issue from the Education Bureau after talks with the ESF, prompted by a request for HK$160 million for school rebuilding. There is much at stake.

For too long, the funding issue has remained unresolved, with neither the ESF nor the government seeming to want to broach it. A decision is needed on the long-term future of ESF schools. Government spending cuts and a damning audit report on ESF management in 2004 mean the foundation's HK$283 million subsidy has remained frozen for more than a decade. Meanwhile parents have faced fee rises of more than 27 per cent for primary schools and nearly 18 per cent for secondary schools since 2005.

The case for relief is complicated by the ESF's history. It was established 43 years ago to provide an English-medium education for the children of expatriates, a role increasingly played by the independent international schools. Meanwhile, ESF schools have become international in all but name, with 70 per cent of students having parents with permanent identity cards and more than half of them Chinese. What sets the schools apart is that they still get government funding without offering the local curriculum. Some think they are no longer entitled to it and that parents should pay a premium for the schooling they want. Others argue the ESF has a role to play in maintaining our city's competitiveness by providing a cheaper alternative to independent international schools and that this depends on additional funding. Either way, the Education Bureau stipulated that its review would include the question of whether the ESF's modern role justifies its unique position and subsidy.

What is not at issue is Hong Kong's need for more international school places to help attract talent. The ESF is trying to capitalise on this, arguing that the city's prosperity depends on the availability of high-quality English-medium education. Meanwhile, critics have pointed to the foundation finding it increasingly difficult to fulfil its core mission of providing an affordable English-medium education, even with a subsidy, while it has used financial reserves to build private independent schools and kindergartens through a commercial arm.

Officials and lawmakers should bear in mind the importance of diversity and excellence in education. There is a need for a serious debate on the ESF's role and how it should fit into our city's education scene. Next week's debate in Legco would be a good place to start.

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