SCMP Debate: is English Schools Foundation worth its government subvention?
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The English Schools Foundation has long pleaded for more money from the government, having seen its government subvention of HK$283 million frozen for a decade. Its announcement last month of the introduction of a HK$500,000 debenture charge to reserve a place prompted outrage. We asked parents, educators and experts what direction the foundation should take and whether it is worth more government cash.
Q1 Should the government continue or increase its HK$283 million subvention for the English Schools Foundation?
Q2 What role can ESF play in an international city like Hong Kong?
Q3 Do you think there should be a greater diversity of international schools in Hong Kong?
Mother of a three-year-old daughter
A1 Government funding should either apply to all schools or none. We have public schools and Direct Subsidy Scheme schools receiving the largest subsidy, ESF schools receiving a smaller subsidy, while international and independent schools receive none. Subvention to the ESF gives it an unfair advantage over other, privately run English-speaking schools. It would be more worthwhile for the government to spend money on elevating the level of English in public schools than to spend it on the ESF, as its curriculum, student mix and tuition (before subvention) are really no different to most international schools.
A2 The role ESF plays is no different to other international schools - its schools are English-speaking and cater to expatriates who can afford education similar to that where they come from, and to locals, and they offer an internationally recognised curriculum. For Hong Kong to be a truly international city, the government should provide public education in both Chinese and English streams (our two official languages). A few elite DSS schools have very high English standards, but top DSS schools are already very competitive among locals, which leaves non-Chinese speakers almost no chance of getting in. (Browsing through online education forums, you see that many well-educated expats are choosing Singapore over Hong Kong because they can send their children to public schools and it is much easier to get into international schools).
There is inadequate public education support for non-Chinese speakers, as many ethnic minorities from Asia can attest. The government tries to integrate them into the public Chinese system, while the high tuition fees at ESF are beyond their financial means. What the government can do is provide more English-speaking public schools that truly cater to non-Chinese speakers, regardless of ethnic background and social class. This would require public schools to have a much higher level of English. I do not see the current ESF being able to fill this gap, because even if the government gives the ESF the same subsidy per student as local schools, it will still have to charge a fairly high tuition fee (for building maintenance, staff remuneration and so on), and this would still exclude those without financial means. In the short term, the government should let the ESF go private, and work on elevating the level of English in public schools that can cater to non-Chinese speakers, which would require them to re-evaluate the pay of public school teachers to attract the type of teachers who qualify to teach at ESF and international schools.
A3 Hong Kong needs more international, and more English-speaking, schools if it is to attract non-Chinese speakers, so regardless of whether a student comes from Hong Kong or another country, he/she can integrate into a school if he/she can understand English. Hong Kong as a city has a great built-in advantage of having two official languages, but as English standards in local schools have gone down dramatically, many local parents choose to send their children to ESF, international or elite DSS schools, which makes these schools much harder to get into. The demand for good English-speaking schools is far greater than the supply, so yes, more international/English-speaking schools would certainly be welcome.
Vice-president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union and former lawmaker
A1 If you get government subvention, you should give everybody a fair chance and not give priority for places to the rich. How can you expect the government to continue to subsidise you when you exercise class discrimination (by reserving 150 places for parents who pay HK$500,000)? I favour putting ESF under the Direct Subsidy Scheme model, but they must cancel the debenture policy first. ESF must be fair to all Hong Kong people if it is to be given subvention at the level of Direct Subsidy Scheme schools. The biggest problem with ESF is that it receives government subsidy and yet is free from government regulations. The colonial era is gone; it cannot receive government money without being regulated. DSS schools are governed by a mature monitoring system acceptable to Hong Kong people, one that also provides greater financial accountability. Like other DSS schools, the ESF should also reserve 10 per cent of its fee income as financial aid or scholarships for deserving students. But as it caters for expatriates working in Hong Kong, it should enjoy autonomy in its curriculum, unlike DSS schools.
A2 ESF can provide high-quality education for children of expatriate families. The current situation, where many ESF places are taken up by local children, is not ideal. While receiving government subsidy, it is supposed to play the role of providing education for the children of foreign nationals working in Hong Kong, or non-Chinese residents. It has not fulfilled this role because many of its places are taken up by locals, putting people to whom it should give priority on long waiting lists. If ESF were to enjoy a special funding arrangement, it would have the responsibility to accept expatriates' children - that is the deal. We have given the ESF a lot of subsidies and land in very good locations for the building of its schools. It should serve the people it is supposed to serve.
A3 It is OK to have a greater diversity of international schools offering different curriculums provided they do not require government funding. Foreign governments can support schools offering their national curriculums. But we cannot turn DSS schools into ESF schools because the former are intended to serve locals. Some DSS students want to go to local universities, so you need to teach them the local curriculum. Hong Kong people can accept a special organisation like the ESF, but that does not mean that DSSs should be turned into ESFs.
Other international schools have asked the Legislative Council for help in providing land and the construction of campuses. I agree we need more international schools but the problem is, some accepted many local children and then came to Legco saying they had no extra places. We cannot populate international schools with local children, who can go to DSS schools instead.
The public will be upset to see international schools built for locals. We should build more international schools to meet the needs of children of foreign nationals working here. We can set a quota on the number of local students accepted by these schools. Hong Kong cannot give land to schools who end up accepting local children. We don't even have enough land for local schools.
Head of Strategic Access, a public policy consultancy
A1 The option has always been there for the ESF to forgo the subvention. Mainstream international schools have sought this, jealous of the lower fees the ESF is able to charge. Some in the ESF have also argued for an end to the subvention. They believe this would give the ESF greater decision-making autonomy, liberating ESF schools from the obligations that accompany the subvention. However, since the ESF is an inseparable part of the local education system, I believe the subvention should be maintained, and be subject to the same rules as subventions to other local schools.
A2 Hong Kong's international schools, and the ESF system, are not international schools in the conventional sense. In other economies or leading international cities, international schools strictly follow the curriculum of their "home" country. They exist to ensure that the children of expatriate families temporarily resident in a city are able to stay on top of their home curriculum, and return home without disruption after a few years, able to resume study in their own schools. In Hong Kong, the ESF and most international schools perform a very different - and distinctive - role. They are part of the spectrum of choice for local families as they seek to equip their children for the ferociously competitive challenges ahead, working in one of the world's most international and skill-intensive cities.
While ESF schools maintain their original mission to educate those who, for one reason or another, are unable or unwilling to study in the Chinese medium, their role at the heart of Hong Kong's education system has changed fundamentally since they were set up to educate the children of British civil servants. Many nowadays seek places at an ESF school not simply because it uses English. More important is the "problem-based" style of learning embedded in the recent adoption of the widely respected International Baccalaureate curriculum. The ESF schools thus perform a critical role in tailoring a curriculum that will best meet the needs of children entering the highly international Hong Kong workforce. They ensure local Chinese-medium schools - and the local curriculum - are under constant competitive scrutiny to deliver the best possible education. By offering local families more choice, and by delivering consistently excellent results, ESF schools force schools teaching in Cantonese to do better.
A3 It would be hard for any city to offer greater diversity. Bundle ESF and international schools together, and you have more than 60 schools providing 60,000 to 70,000 places. This is an extraordinary number. The last time I counted, New York had six international schools, for example. However, there is relentless pressure in Hong Kong for more international school places, and more educational choice. Combine the children of expatriate families with the thousands of Hong Kong families who want - and will save - for their children to receive an education that equips them to live competitively in one of the world's three most dynamic international business hubs, and the truth is there probably can never be enough ESF or international schools, nor enough diversity.
Dr Gary Morrison
Assistant director, head of international education services, Yew Chung Education Foundation
A1 We believe that education must change with time, that education must produce long-term benefits for individuals, and that education must help to create a better future for all mankind. Our future social and economic success depends on our ability to provide educational opportunities and jobs for the next generation. The success and longevity of our international education system also relies on our ability to foster and fortify unity, co-operation and understanding between various stakeholders such as the government, education providers, end users and the community. Educational institutions have a responsibility to play a leading role in Hong Kong as well as Asia to embrace a new set of standards and enable students to develop truly global perspectives. To nurture and help students to become future world citizens, education providers must focus on the all-round development of the intellectual, physical, cultural, spiritual and social capacities of individual students. They also need to promote innovation so as to diversify the educational scene in Hong Kong and the region. We believe good education is priceless. Therefore, the government should continue to support and promote education in all sectors and at all levels because it is critical to our future competitiveness.
A2 Answered above.
A3 Diversity is an absolute plus, be it cultural, financial or educational. Diversity means choice, inclusiveness and competition. Hong Kong's international school students come from different countries and cultures. We need to cater to this diversity and keep our vision firmly focused on the future. The way forward should be about helping children develop a global mindset while exploring their individual interests and potential to the full. We need to promote cultural, intellectual and ethnic diversity and nurture young people to develop the ability to function in an increasingly multicultural and international society. Starting from a young age, we must provide an environment that encourages children to express themselves, explore their surroundings and ask questions as well as develop essential education skills like literacy and numeracy. Through dual-language education in Chinese and English, education providers can enable students to assimilate the strengths of two great cultures - Western analytical thinking based on fact-finding as well as Chinese philosophical, conceptual thinking. We can offer opportunities to visit different places and learn from different cultures so their way of thinking starts to shift from local to global. In all these ways, we can not only provide students with important tools for their careers but also empower them to bridge the gaps in understanding between people in different places. In other words, they will become true global citizens. Many will agree that these goals are not just an aspiration but are achievable. They flow directly from the three core beliefs that underpin our school's philosophy and practice: that education must change with time, that education must produce long-term benefits for individuals, and that education must help create a better future for all mankind. The further development of quality international schools will also help turn the city into a regional hub for education.
Father of an ESF pupil
A1 The ESF ten years ago had its subvention frozen because of bad management. It claims to have improved but to me it has not. As it was not allowed to open more ESF schools, it has come up with two private independent schools in the meantime, at one of which, Discovery College in Discovery Bay, it is trying to impose additional, previously unknown, higher fees in the form of a non-refundable building levy that would leave many parents unable to afford to continue sending their children there. Luckily, the Education Bureau has rejected this unreasonable application. It is similarly unreasonable for the ESF to impose a HK$500,000 debenture as a fast-track option for the rich when it is running government-subsidised schools. The ESF's justification that it is in urgent need of additional funds to renovate ageing schools is a statement proving poor management. As a professional company/organisation, it should have built up the appropriate reserves for that, which is the very basics of book keeping, first semester. Any failure to do so is both unprofessional and irresponsible, especially when the education of more than 17,000 students is involved. Such a statement is particularly unjustified given that the ESF has, in fact, accumulated big reserves and has more than 200 highly valuable properties in Hong Kong.
A2 We should have more English-medium schools if we want to remain an international city. The ESF could take an even bigger role for Hong Kong in this regard. However, the current development of the ESF, which is geared towards significantly higher fees and focusing more on the (financial) elite, is steering it in the direction of elite schooling. It is unreasonable on the one hand for an organisation that runs mainly government-subsidised schools to press so hard for an increase in funds. On the other hand, if that is the course it decides upon, it has to bear all the consequences, the scrapping of all subsidies being the most obvious one. That would be very, very sad.
A3 Removing the ESF subvention will make affordable English-medium schooling even harder to find in Hong Kong. It may, in all probability, disappear. That must be avoided by all means. Since the ESF, through all its recent decisions, is working towards killing a whole school sector, and no alternative organisation is in place to take over, I fear that "greater diversity" is nothing more than wishful thinking unless the ESF changes its approach and becomes more professional, reasonable and accountable. Accountability includes the moral responsibility for the education of our children.
Chairman, English Schools Foundation
A1 The government should increase the ESF's subvention to a fair level - matching the sum per student Direct Subsidy Scheme schools receive. Until 2000-01, subvention was about 30 per cent of ESF's income. Since then the subvention has been frozen and cut. In 2010-11 it represented only 19 per cent of ESF's income. Over this period, competition worldwide to raise educational standards has increased and this means increased costs. Parents' expectations rise constantly. ESF schools must offer a modern curriculum, relevant qualifications and high-quality facilities. It is inevitable that fees rose. Hong Kong parents care deeply about education, so they pay. But it is tough because the ESF educates a high proportion of children from middle-class families. It will be even tougher if the subvention is cut or abolished, causing further fee increases of up to 27 per cent. This is an opportune time for the government to review its policy on English-medium education and to reassure residents and businesses that want to bring staff here that first-class English-medium education will be available.
A2 We have a 45-year track record of success in educating English-speaking children. There are nearly 13,000 students in the traditional subvented ESF schools. Twice as many children apply for Year1 than there are places. The ESF has expanded because it offers an education that meets modern expectations. Apart from high-quality teaching in English, we offer a systematic approach to supporting children with special educational needs. We have the only English-medium special school in Hong Kong and a centre of excellence in psychology, speech and occupational therapy. More than 95 per cent of students achieve university places, with more than 23 per cent last year going to the word's top 30 universities. Since the introduction of the International Baccalaureate, ESF graduates have been seen as a ready source of internationally minded students by local universities facing the pressures of internationalisation. ESF's rich programmes of Chinese language, culture and traditions will make it easier for them to make their lives and careers in Hong Kong, helping drive forward its economy in a world increasingly influenced by China.
A3 Hong Kong is a place where, at its best, there is a blending of the most successful elements of Chinese and Western culture to produce a uniquely dynamic, free but properly regulated business environment. The same should be true of the education it offers. Any world city must offer high quality English-medium education, particularly when English is an official language. Middle-class Hong Kong families increasingly want an international style of education, based on the medium of English. Nearly 45 per cent of ESF students have Chinese heritage. A freer, more competitive educational environment will ensure innovative, international practice is represented and that parents have choice. But choice depends on price as well as quality. If the government wants choice for as many as possible, it needs to offer support to keep some non-government schools accessible to more. A group with a proven track record like ESF that has shown willingness to enter into a service agreement with the government would seem a good place to start.