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  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 1:26pm

English Schools Foundation

The English Schools Foundation (ESF) operates five secondary schools, nine primary schools and a school for students with special educational needs across Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. It is the largest international educational foundation in Asia. 

CommentInsight & Opinion

End of ESF as the affordable choice for Hong Kong's middle class

Kent Ewing says lack of government vision hastens its return to elite roots

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 1:42pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 3:57pm

Ever since British gunboats took on the overmatched Chinese navy in the name of "free trade" (then a euphemism for the right to peddle opium), Hong Kong has been a place of great paradoxes - a clash of East and West that ultimately became a triumph of accommodation, ingenuity and hard work.

The contradictions have only deepened and multiplied since the city's 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty. Post 1997, Hong Kong inherited an English educational system, for example, the unique and exemplary aspect of which was the English Schools Foundation, now a group of 20 schools with a track record of excellence.

For years, the ESF provided a high-quality education not just to a revolving door of wealthy expats but also to a Chinese middle class.

Unfortunately, the ESF is a paradox with which the Hong Kong government can no longer live. As the blinkered official argument goes, the government subvention that has kept ESF fees significantly lower than those at the best international schools amounts to nothing less than an antiquated, unjustifiable subsidy for rich foreigners.

So the annual HK$283 million subvention will end in 2016 - and, in anticipation of that loss, the ESF has been raising fees and imposing capital levies willy-nilly for the past several years. Just this month it announced a non-refundable HK$38,000 charge, on top of tuition fees, for each new student starting next year. Financially strapped ESF parents are again up in arms, lashing out at new ESF head Belinda Greer, and pleading for relief. But the die is cast. It's time to write the sad epitaph for the ESF as we have known it: once an affordable middle-class refuge for a top-notch English-medium education, it will henceforth be just another group of overpriced international schools catering to deep-pocketed expats and the local elite.

It's too bad; it didn't have to be this way. If the Education Bureau had demonstrated a little imagination, not to mention appreciation of Hong Kong's paradoxical history, the ESF could have continued to serve the city well, playing a key role in an educational vision that is woefully lacking at this time.

Instead, authorities couldn't stomach subsidising an institution rooted in the privilege and snobbery of Hong Kong's colonial past. What they failed to acknowledge, however, is that the ESF cast off its upper-class snootiness years ago when many local families, dissatisfied with the beleaguered local educational system, took advantage of the government subvention and enrolled their children. Now, ironically, with that subvention disappearing, the ESF is free to return to form as a haughty educational playground for the elite.

But where do middle-class Chinese families who value a high-quality English-medium education go? And let's not forget the many middle-class expats who also will find themselves at a loss.

Tuition at top-tier international schools that is comparable to the ESF in quality can top HK$200,000 a year, not including debentures, application fees, capital levies and other expenses. Only the rich can afford to go to these schools.

An ESF education, on the other hand - despite the recent rash of tuition hikes - still costs about half as much. Removal of the subvention, however, will signal the end of the unspoken social and economic contract that existed between the foundation and its host city, keeping costs reasonable.

Soon you can expect to see ESF fees, like those of its international school counterparts, soar into the stratosphere. Meanwhile, the city's education policies lie scattered in incoherent pieces.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer based in Hong Kong. He can be reached at kewing56@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1


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This article is now closed to comments

The ESF schools should be free for HK residents but foreigners should be charged full fees as is the practice abroad.
I am sorry to rain on the parade, but even currently, the ESF is NOT affordable for the 'middle class,' unless your definition of middle class is the same as the one Chief Financial Nitwit John Tsang (earning >350k a month) uses.

School fees for ESF primary are 70k per year, and its secondary fees are well over 100k pa. This is excluding the 'deposit' for a place, and other costs: of uniforms, extra-curricular activities and so on.

If I may define the Hong Kong 'middle class' by the middle 50% of incomes (so stripping out the top 25% and the bottom 25% of earners), then I am left with a bracket of household incomes of roughly 12k~38k HKD in gross monthly income. That is roughly 140~450k in a year.

To have one child in an ESF primary school, even the top end Hong Kong middle class would have to spend at least 20% of their gross income on school fees alone. For secondary, this would be over 25%.

Two children in an ESF secondary school would demand over 50% of the top end of the Hong Kong's middle class' gross annual income in school fees. For the lower end, forget it.

The end of the ESF as an affordable option for Hong Kong's middle class occurred at least ten years ago. Already now, the ESF is at best accessible to the top 15-20% of incomes.

And by the way, that is fine. I have nothing against elite schools and people paying for them. But please, let's not pretend that the ESF student body is an economically diverse affair at the moment.
R.I.P. affordable education
It is well known that the government subsidy allowed the ESF to pay above average salaries for teachers, putting enormous pressure on all other international schools to recruit talent, and is one reason for their high school fees. The abolishing of this colonial relict will calm the competition for teachers and bring overall school fees to more reasonable levels.
Urban kid
Afine article. Fortunately my son who attends an ESF primary school will benefit from the subvention as parents of existing children in ESF schools were protected.
Not so for the children starting at ESF schools in 2016. Unless their parents are rich expats who are provided with generous education allowances their choices will be severely limited. An affordable education for these children of the middle class will no longer be available.
How, for example are children of NET teachers supposed to find schools for them when the EDB does not provide an education allowance?
In substance, schools across the world offer comparable syllabus
to prepare students for internationally competitive tertiary programs
Jung Jiang, Ha Jin and Charles Lee are examples
that the lack of “native” english education during formative years
in no way impedes successful development of careers that require fluent English
The main difference between local EMI schools
and the various english-speaking countries sponsored “international” schools
is that the latter prepare students for easier matriculation exams
that in turn affect how teaching is conducted in the easy schools
Being HK’s education minister with the experience heading the Exam Authority
Eddie Ng lacks political integrity as he sends his children to Australian “int’l” school
A useless defeatist and hypocrite
I’d wonder how he could stand the shame when he faces Carrie Lam and Regina Ip
His counsel for student protesters is disgracefully egoistic:
“consider your prospect of a professional career”
He has no faith in intellectual and moral persuasion
We need an education minister with the integrity, vision and courage
for this critical moment of HK’s reunion with China
HK’s local CMI schools used to compete well with EMI school
boasting Nobel laureates and distinguished scholars in various disciplines
China has a glorious tradition of social mobility thru education
We don’t need turncoats who lack confidence in their own children
I just love people like impala .Middle class ...You have money for trips ,poshish dinners in high class restruants and yet you will not think you are in the middle class .Just because you do not like the ESF or what so ever reason .Those of you were not educated in the ESF should not judge it by the school fees.Please sit back and think why, now so many of the local parents are senting their kids to the ESF .WHY ? Every parents will like to give the best to they children .Let stop all this and think .It is a choice as a parent we make .No high,low,middle and rich class .
If HK doesn't improve the English speaking and writing ability of its population, it will continue to lose out to HK and SG, neither of which cities are so intent on destroying their competitive advantage.
English is part of the Gao Kao. Most students attending 1st, 2nd and 3rd tier Chinese universities speak and write reasonably good English.
China's "glorious tradition of upward mobility thru education" was available as a practical matter only to the gentry -- those able to support a decade of tutoring in the classics prior to taking the imperial examinations. Success once every three generations was sufficient to maintain gentry status, given the ability to make money out of an imperial position gained through a good examination result.
Students who think of investing time to improve their English
should ask themselves why and what they expect to do
with their english language skill?
Would it be so that, as JvdK derided,
their “tea or coffee” could be better understood
when they serve meals in airplanes or in McDonald’s?
Unless one’s primary interest is in english as a language
and not in something else for which english is a tool
it’s stupid to make oneself a linguistic slave
indentured to a foreign tongue
Mother tongue education is the key of developments
technical and cultural, in Japan, Germany, …
where people with respect for and confidence in
themselves and their native cultures
and no colonial delusion
would find the suggestion ridiculous
that they had to learn english well
before they may study and think of anything else


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