No easy options for the ESF dilemma
Negotiations between the government and the English Schools Foundation are going nowhere. The government wants to let go of the ESF, if not now then eventually. The ESF, however, wants to stay with increased public funding.
Either outcome is acceptable. In the first case, ESF institutions would become fully-fledged independent international schools. In the second, they would come under the government's direct subsidy scheme, much like many elite local schools, which enjoy a good deal of autonomy but not full independence.
The ESF will prosper one way or another. Of course, as at international schools, families who cannot afford non-subsidised fees will be forced out, but these places will be filled given the demand for such school places.
What is not tenable, however, is the status quo. ESF schools currently receive public funding well below what is given, on average, to schools under the direct subsidy scheme. This means the ESF has had to raise fees regularly, antagonising parents in the process. Despite the current subsidy, ESF fees are approaching those of some international schools. Without adequate funding, the foundation cannot properly budget for future expansion and development.
But it is difficult for the government to justify increased funding for the ESF - widely regarded as a colonial legacy - if the foundation continues giving admission priority to non-Chinese speaking families. Unfortunately, few local schools have the facilities to accept non-Chinese speaking students, so schools such as the ESF's are essential for the expatriate community.
A rational and humane solution is for more local schools to develop the capability to take foreign students. The ESF could then drop preferential admissions in exchange for higher funding. But this calls for long-term commitment, and the government may instead be tempted to take the easier way out and let the ESF go.