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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

'Local' ESF more at home in international system

Peter Craughwell says the ESF should have lobbied to be part of the Direct Subsidy Scheme for local schools but has instead chosen to behave more like its well-heeled international rivals

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 2:20am

After an unforgivably long period of dithering by successive education secretaries, it seems that the government is determined to phase out public funding for the English Schools Foundation. For many parents who aspire to send their children to ESF schools, this is worrying news. For those with an intense dislike of the organisation, Christmas seems to have come early.

Why have the government and the ESF been unable to reach an accommodation, and why is it all taking so long? As usual, there is fault on both sides.

The ESF's strapline is "Hong Kong schools. A world of opportunity." This neatly sums up how the organisation sees itself at a strategic level: part of the spectrum of local education options and distinct from the international schools. The ESF points to the proportion of students whose parents are permanent residents (more than 70 per cent), their ethnicity (almost half are Chinese) and how a growing number go on to universities in Hong Kong rather than overseas.

And yet, with a few honourable exceptions, ESF schools have remarkably little interaction with the local system. Who do its teachers network with; its rugby teams compete with; its debating societies dispute with? International schools. These represent the ESF's comfort zone and perhaps, deep down, how ESF schools view themselves.

It's difficult to convince others that you are part of the local system if you don't really believe it yourself. This has been the ESF's undoing.

Once it had jumped through all the hoops of reform demanded by the government, it should have lobbied hard to be included in the Direct Subsidy Scheme, like so many other local schools.

This would have resulted in a little "loss of sovereignty", but ESF pupils would finally have received an equitable level of funding. Instead, the ESF wished to continue under a unique funding regime that the government is clearly uncomfortable with and which provokes the ire of a vocal minority.

The DSS route would have hugely alleviated pressure on fee-paying parents and the ESF system as a whole.

Working from within, the ESF would have been able to contribute enormously to the education reform agenda in Hong Kong. What educationalist wouldn't relish that prospect?

The remaining argument that the ESF could have deployed to demonstrate its separateness from international schools was on the issue of debentures: international schools sold them; the ESF didn't. Debentures had always been a red line.

Once this was crossed - in September, when the ESF introduced a non-refundable HK$500,000 "place reservation" debenture - the government's dilemma was solved: if you act like an international school, you fund yourself like one. One can only hope the ESF anticipated this reaction.

None of the above can let the previous administrations under Donald Tsang Yam-kuen off the hook. They obfuscated endlessly and intervened unhelpfully.

The ESF's unwieldy 27-strong board of governors is just one indicator of government involvement in the reform process.

As secretaries of education, the grandstanding Arthur Li Kwok-cheung and the less-than-dynamic Michael Suen Ming-yeung preferred to delegate the ESF issue to civil servants. And the civil servants calculated that it was best to do nothing. Keep your head down, make no decisions lest they turn out to be unpopular. Survive three years in education and then start all over again in transport and housing.

It's nearly 10 years since Li threatened to come down on the ESF "like a ton of bricks". Famously, he never had time to meet ESF CEO Heather Du Quesnay. Whatever point he was trying to make, the uncertainty that he and his successor inflicted on parents during that period was shameful, and no way to treat taxpayers. Equally, the uncertainty over the ESF's role in local education as shown by its leadership has had unfortunate consequences.

The insistence on phasing out the government subsidy may be bad news, but a clear direction and decisiveness on this, and other matters, could bode well for how Hong Kong is administered in the future.

Peter Craughwell was head of marketing and communications at the English Schools Foundation from 2005 to 2010


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This article is now closed to comments

About Cactus’ (10:22&28pm, NOV16)
Farm and Forum
Noises in a farm express feelings and not ideas
Cactus’ noises (typify ignorance, pettiness, narrow racial prejudice, etc)
mean nothing but anger
Mental inflexibility and geographical immobility
cause inconsequential noises regurgitation,
“Singaball 5, Dongdong 0” – and silly delusions
Discussions in a forum express ideas of people who freely come and go
I’d fly to Timbutuk if I think it is good
I have huge respect for Lee KY
A great disciplinarian whom I’ve never met
But we share some common experience of, and feelings about, Cambridge.
A discussion forum is not an animal farm
No place for wild and unintelligent utterances
If I stretch my equalitarian tolerance
I’d laugh without giving my humanitarian reply
Generosity is not limitless.
The Government is damaging the use of the English language in HK for blatantly political and nationalistic motives.
Singapore 5 : Hong Kong 0.
Too many won’t care less about Christmas
That’s why those who care should be more intense about it.
True experiences of two highly educated local families
(1) Talking about education planning, a pregnant woman told me she would join CIS’ waiting list. I asked why not the ESF school next door. She said “it’s not for us, disgusting experiences too widespread to ignore.” For example …
(2) Opting for diverse education experiences, a couple wanted to place a child with ESF. Shortly after application, a woman called, claiming to be living in the neighborhood and teaching at the school where her daughter attended. She said “I don’t want your child to be at my child’s school.”
Both families have continued to prosper in HK’s robust development. Their children are credits to their respective schools (CIS and an elite local school). ESF, just like bird dropping on the pavement, is off the radar range in the course of their lives.
But for HK, the moral fiber of our city, we must be vigilant.
(1)Segregation is ESF’s defining character. It puts on a “multi-ethnic” appearance and uses “non Anglo Saxon against non Anglo Saxon” stratagems to preserve its deep-seated tradition of discrimination which is the last and rickety pillar to support the dying sense of “British superiority”.
(2) None of the ESF staff involved in the insulting practice has the courage to admit and take credit for their “achievements”.
Segregation? What rubbish. You typify the ignorance, pettiness and narrow racial prejudice introduced by Arthur Li who used ESF to boost his ambition to become Chief Executive.
Your analysis of what happened is spot on, and the only honourable thing for carlson and hdq is for them to resign. what is the point of having a CE that costs millions if she did not even bother to meet up with the three different education ministers during her tenure??? as for carlson, he hit the nail in the coffin where subvention is concerned by introducing debentures as a fast track entry for the super rich.
However, keep in mind that carlson was appointed by the govt - of course he is carrying whatever hidden agenda there is.....................
I think you need to have some sympathy and concern for the students throughout this current anti-ESF campaign. I am not saying that I am happy with the ESF. They could and should do more to meet the needs of the local community. There should be a real effort made to work with other local schools. When you put kids from different linguistic backgrounds together you don't see them stressing the differences, as many adults seem to, rather you see them trying to find the best way to communicate their support or love for a popular singer or a football team or whatever is 'in' at the time. The students want to mix and don't have any hang-ups about someones' social or cultural background, but that can't be said to be true for the management of ESF. The benefits of integration far outweigh those of 'elite' isolationism both for the students and for society as whole now and in the future.
Lay-off the 'holier than thou' attitude, the 'we are the best local school' attitude, employ some true local teachers (I am a local teacher, we are not the rubbish that the SCMP readers are always saying we are) and engage the local community and people will see the ESF as more worthy of funding. The article was correct - it is not just about how good your academic performance is, but also about who you are in relation to the community. A resident school or a local school?
I do have loads of sympathy for my kids and myself... I pay the school fees for 2 kids attending schools run by ESF.... and I am outraged about the way ESF have managed to kill the subsidies
I agree ESF has not handled the situation well, but they did not start this. You forget it was Arthur Li who started this subliminal campaign of racial discrimination against the ESF and successive Secretaries for Education allowed it to continue. It is the parents and students who will pay.
It doesn't really matter who started it. Both ESF and Gov't need to make progress. ESF by trying to engage the local community. On the other hand it is disgusting that the Gov't is using the threat of cutting subvention to get its way. The students in ESF are HK kids whatever their ethnic background. The Gov't should remove the proverbial gun from the ESF temple, be more mature and try to work to find a solution. The ESF is valuable to HK and if both sides work harder then it can become even more valuable.



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