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
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 So we have a subvention calculated by reference to an outdated formula, frozen in cash terms and constantly subjected to question and challenge.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