ESF is part of what makes Hong Kong a success

Kelly Yang says the ESF is a vital part of the Hong Kong success story, as its subsidised education helps create a diverse population

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 3:15am

One of the cardinal rules of education is "if something's working, leave it alone". Last year, ESF's South Island School students attained one of the highest International Baccalaureate (IB) results in Hong Kong - an average 36.2 points versus the worldwide average of 31.9. Just to give you an idea, only two international schools "outscored" South Island - Chinese International School with a 38-point average and United World College with a 37-point average. Fees at both are far more expensive than at ESF schools.

I've taught local students and those from elite international schools in Hong Kong for more than seven years. I know the English Schools Foundation system works, and it does so because it's cheaper.

If you take the average student and the best student from ESF schools and compare them with their international school counterparts, the former are just as strong, if not stronger. This is particularly true in secondary school. This past year, seven ESF students achieved a perfect 45 points in the IB.

I've asked myself many times why the ESF works. In theory, it shouldn't get comparable results to international schools; it has bigger class sizes and a higher student turnover, and I think ESF parents have fewer financial resources to give their children. It works because it's subsidised: by being cheaper than international schools, there's greater diversity in the student body. Unlike international schools, it's not just full of the children of bankers and lawyers.

It's this diversity that drives the students. They are motivated to do well because they know there's no safety net, no trust fund, to fall back on. When I tell an international school student they need to work harder or they'll fall behind, they yawn. When I tell an ESF student the same thing, they sit up.

The ESF should remain as it is - subsidised, in English and offering an excellent international curriculum - because it helps drive the city's success. Hong Kong is what America was 100 years ago; a place that welcomes talented immigrants. Yes, the ESF's HK$273-million-a-year subsidy seems hefty, but it's the price of having a diverse, international population, one that doesn't just help launch IPOs but also helps write our newspapers and teach our students. It is this eclectic mix that helps make Hong Kong Asia's world city.

The question remains, if the expats without lavish expat packages want to move to Hong Kong, why don't they put their children in local schools? The answer is simple: the vast majority of local schools operate in Chinese. Not only do they teach Mandarin, but most courses are also taught in Cantonese - that's just too hard for most non-Chinese-speaking families. It can be done, but I wouldn't recommend it. Education is stressful enough in Hong Kong without throwing two foreign languages into the mix.

Yes, the local system needs revamping, for a variety of reasons, not least because Hong Kong's standard of English is among the lowest in Asia. But major overhauls to the local system will take decades. In the meantime, leave the ESF alone.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.