ESF - English Schools Foundation

'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