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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

End subvention debate so ESF can move on

Heather Du Quesnay says that, above all, the ESF needs clarity on its financial future, to allow it to move on and bring to an end the debilitating subvention debate that has been clouded by half-truths and misunderstandings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2012, 2:55am

It's that time of year again. The English Schools Foundation subvention is on the Education Bureau's agenda and there is a media feeding frenzy. We welcome the debate because our 13,000 students are important to Hong Kong's future.

Nearly a quarter of last summer's university entrants, including some of our IB diploma 45-point scorers, entered Hong Kong universities. They, together with their peers who have gone overseas for higher education but will in many cases return, are the future movers and shakers of Hong Kong, as their predecessors have been. Ageing Hong Kong needs its youth talent pool and ESF students are an important part of it.

But the debate, if it is to be useful, must be based on facts and not on the half-truths and misunderstandings that have taken on a life of their own in a decade of argument. We have to debunk some of these myths.

Let's start with the notion that ESF exists only to educate the children of rich expatriates. The ESF Ordinance says nothing about expatriates; it talks only about children who can benefit from an English-medium education. Today, we have students of more than 50 different nationalities: 74 per cent are Asian or Eurasian by ethnicity (44 per cent are Chinese) and nearly 70 per cent are from permanent resident families. These are all "local" children in the sense that they are growing up here and most of them stay throughout their schooling. Some of their parents have to scrimp and save to keep them in our schools. In modern Hong Kong, the term "expatriate" is an anachronism that defies definition and certainly does not tell us anything meaningful about the ESF student body.

The second myth is that the ESF Ordinance in some way entitles us to government funding. In fact, the ordinance is silent on finance. The original funding practice was that the government paid an amount equivalent to that spent on local children's education and parents made up the rest of the costs of an international curriculum. But that so-called "parity principle" was unilaterally abandoned by the government 12 years ago and repeated arguments by the champions of ESF have failed to move three governments since then. So we have a subvention calculated by reference to an outdated formula, frozen in cash terms and constantly subjected to question and challenge. The resulting uncertainty has led inexorably to the kind of media debate we are now experiencing, healthy if it happened once and led to a resolution, but debilitating for parents, students and staff alike when it is repeatedly linked to ill-informed criticism and offensive comments that rich Western expats are getting something they have no right to. The ESF needs, above all, an end to this uncertainty and strife so that the board can plan confidently for a sustainable financial future and the professionals can concentrate their energy on educating the children in our schools rather than dodging brickbats.

Then there is the myth of mismanagement. In 2004, the ESF became a pariah organisation after the Director of Audit's review. The audit report was debated brutally in the Legislative Council's Public Accounts Committee. But once it was published, the ESF did not challenge it. We put our house in order, painfully and publicly, and it took four years before our completed action plan was signed off by the committee. Only then did the Education Bureau allow us to discuss the subvention.

Myth number four is that we missed an easy win by failing to seek Direct Subsidy Scheme status. The proponents of this line have simply not done their homework. Apart from the fact the government has categorically ruled out DSS status for the ESF, the current DSS funding formula just would not fit ESF schools without considerable revision and we would lose much freedom and control over our own affairs.

What of the myth of the ESF's vast cash reserves? The accounts show reserves of more than HK$900 million last year, but this is not money waiting to be spent. The rules of accounting require an organisation to show the profit and loss accumulated since its inception. This is all money which has already been spent on building improvements, equipment and other capital items. On the balance sheet, the reserves are matched by the assets which they were used to buy.

More than anything, the ESF needs clarity about its financial future. With the present government, we have at least some signs of a will to bring this protracted public wrangle to an end. After much pressure from the ESF Board, the government seems willing to protect the subvention of all the children currently in the system and we are urging them to go a step further to protect their siblings.

We are also negotiating for a new subvention which would include funding for the teaching of Chinese to non-Chinese speakers and the education of children with special educational needs. The latter is more than overdue because over many years and by default, the ESF has become the government's proxy in the delivery of its statutory and humanitarian responsibilities for the education of English-speaking children with special educational needs. Yet we are woefully underfunded even for our special school, Jockey Club Sarah Roe, the only one of its kind in Hong Kong, which receives far less than if it were a local school.

Given the age and condition of some of our buildings, like Island School, we will also need government support for capital expenditure if we are to keep the facilities in schools up to scratch without imposing an impossible burden on parents' fees.

The ESF subvention has become the lightning rod for the confused and contradictory feelings in this city about its colonial past. That such feelings exist is understandable and they may take many more years to work through. But the ESF must be freed from that vortex of emotion and allowed to take its place in Hong Kong as a modern organisation, educating young Hongkongers for whom the British colonial past will take its place in the history books alongside the Treaty of Nanking and the demise of the Qing dynasty. The subvention debate needs to be concluded once and for all.

Heather Du Quesnay is chief executive officer of the ESF


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This article is now closed to comments

The reality is that the majority of Hong Kong people are angry at anything that is connected with the wealthy or elite or is seen to be unfair to the average Hong Kong person. The ESF falls into this because many average HK families, regardless of native English language ability, would like to send their children to an ESF school and cannot afford to do so. Other targets of anger are private hospitals, housing policy, international schools (free land), and so on. On most issues, the HK civil service is unable or unwilling, due to pressure from certain groups, to make things in HK more fair. ESF is an exception - it is fair game possibly because it is used by the HK middle class and not the elite. At the same time, the civil service has no interest in adjusting downwards its own privileges and subsidies. No surprise there. Time to cut the ESF free, with no government funding and let it run its schools just like any other international schools. The HK government has no interest and no vision on investing in education, so being tied to the government would only be a hindrance.
Like you said, the institution's leadership is indeed stuck in a colonial time warp.
HdQ should remember to include Mau Mau “uprisings”, Kenya concentration camps, Bengal famines, British tradition of knighting seadogs for overseas robberies in ESF’s history classes.
An immediate 30% cut of ESF subvention is justified to adjust for its admission of non-residents at the expense of “local” applicants.
Next, EB should consider action against ESF’s avowed policy of linguistic discrimination against Cantonese speakers.
Then we should review local universities’ admission that it should require results of standardized public exams from all local applicants.
Our immigration department should also review its policy of screening migrant “expat” workers because we don’t seem to be getting the kind useful for the city’s development needs.
HK used to have highly respectable Chinese schools that once produced Nobel laureates, until local schools became flooded by incompetent “teachers” and overwhelmed by delusions about everything western. We should work to revive the good old tradition.
Some teachers in local schools are good but most are such that they can’t even pass the exams which they’re supposed to prepare their students for.
We shouldn't overwork local students, spare incompetent local teachers, indulge pretentious but ineffectual expats and perpetrate colonial perversities.
An honest question because I don't know the answer. During the time of Hong Kong being a colony of Britain, especially from the 1970s onwards, was the British Empire taught as a positive thing in Hong Kong?
For interest I was not taught that it was a good thing in Britain in the late 1970s to early 1980s.
How to domesticate puppy wolves?
You don’t tell them how good you’re
Throw them crumbs and show them they’re uncivilized
(re: Caroline Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning)
Devilize their kind
Honor their feeble-minded and kill off their courageous
Stockholm syndrome will do the rest
Colonised subjects became colonizers in Northern Ireland
On match the Orange Lodge
The British art of politics is to turn their raping seem seducing
Their lootings as givings – experiences of Jardines and HSBC in HK
Dramatize the tragedies: Jame Clavell, Richard Mason, and “scholars” like Julia Lovell, etc
An interesting topics I wish to but can’t talk more because other matters are calling my attention
Thank you bmr, for giving me this chance to burble.
So the answer is 'Yes'. Maybe next time a simple Yes or No would suffice. You are, however, as always interesting. It's strange, though, that the British authorities could get away with it in HK but not in the UK. I do like your burbles.
I've to come back to share this one
Or I'd die laughing, if I monopolise it
This is a must read
We should find the time for his next sermon at the Union Church
maybe simply ending ESF altogether is the best and fair policy for our Government. Expats are entitle to schooling for their kids, but not at public expenses. I personally welcome expats and their families working / living here, but the ugly fact is that ESF schools are miles better than the average public schools due to colonial preferred treatments. This must end now, its way past 1997!
Dear Megafun, you are being mega unreasonable! This is not a racial issue, this is not about colonies or whats happening in cities and countries after handed over etc. This is about Hong Kong today and about ESF having misused funds previously, obviously not showing much improvement today and most of all about 13,000 innocent kids deserving to be treated as humans, and deserving the continuation of their education on levels and under conditions that have existed at time of entering the schools. I do not know what people call local, but i guess even by the most stringent interpretation, the majority of ESF kids are local. If you allow "permanent residents" as criteria, obviously even more than 70% are locals. ESF have already proven that they can survive without the subsidies (re 500k fast track). That's our dilemma, ESF don't need the money, the kids currently in their schools do
Sticks Evans
Cities that do not offer ex-pats excellent alternative schools for their children (The international schools are per country not like Manhattan's East Side System which offers many racial neutral schools like the ESF welcoming all sorts of nationalities including local folk) are destined for the junk heap.
Hong Kong portends to be an international city. Mr. Ng and his Chief Executive should start running it like one if they want to keep up with the surrounding region and elsewhere.
Does Hong Kong offer subsidy to the universities here which host international students? Places like HKUST and Hong Kong Poly?
If Hong Kong wants to become a protectionist island/exclusive Cantonese entity Mr. Ng is our man.
If it wants to remain as an international, diverse and welcoming place for foreign business (Yes lots of business is at stake by his action aka David Dinkins as mayor or New York-Read your history gentlemen-Hong Kong is not any different despite your cynicism) then Ng should be:
1) Reeled in at the very least and sent for sensitivity training.
2) Perhaps replaced with someone who understands finances and the cost of absorbing the 70% locals and 30% foreigners who will not have any native English speakers to educate them and will launch law suits against him and the government-Westerners like to sue and challenge governments and we will.)
3) The overall image of Hong Kong will be severely damaged-Shanghai is gearing up and welcoming the ESF.Missed the boat Mr. Ng?
Clearly explained. May all to be true or hope SCMP gives its side of the story again otherwise.



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