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ESF - English Schools Foundation

Education officials failing Hong Kong children

Mike Rowse questions decisions on issues including ESF subvention

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 3:35am

I have begun to wonder whether the Education Bureau is still part of the government, or secretly declared independence when I wasn't looking. It certainly seems to be pursuing its own agenda.

The first sign that something might be amiss came with the controversy over national education. We can go a bit easy on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Education Minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim because they inherited this unexploded ordinance from their predecessors. That said, they hardly helped themselves by being slow to recognise disaster as it approached and handling it clumsily when they did.

But what about the officials who were on board all the way through? Did no one warn their political masters that they were sailing into troubled waters?

Once Leung finally grasped the seriousness of the issue and sent the doughty Anna Wu Hung-yuk in to bury the subject, reports suggest there was last-ditch resistance from a hard core of zealots who wanted to stick to the original game plan.

Full marks for patriotism, perhaps, if not for political sensitivity.

Now we have the matter of the subvention to the English Schools Foundation, which seems to have reached a climax. It is common knowledge that some in the education hierarchy dislike all international schools, but seem to hold a special grudge against the ESF. Having shamefully frozen the subvention many years ago, officials would now appear to have achieved their dream of ending it altogether.

Yet, no one has made a case to explain why all children of permanent Hong Kong residents should not enjoy the same level of subsidy, irrespective of whether they go to local, ESF or international schools.

Moreover, during the chief executive election campaign, candidates were quizzed on a variety of issues. Albert Ho Chun-yan, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Henry Tang Ying-yen all pledged to continue support for the ESF, while Leung said: "I support continued subvention to ESF to enable it to fulfil its duty of providing affordable English-language education for non-Chinese-speaking children in Hong Kong".

When and how did Ng persuade his boss to renege on this pledge? I think we are all entitled to hear the arguments.

Next up is the subject of educating our ethnic minorities. If they are to integrate fully into our community, it is essential that they learn to read, write and speak Chinese. Many pick up spoken Cantonese in the streets or the school playground. But learning to read and write in a home where neither parent uses the language is a Herculean task.

There is a desperate need to make proper provision for teaching Chinese as a second language. That means a syllabus, appropriate teaching material and trained teachers. If as a community we fail to do this, then we risk perpetuating a cycle of non-integration, with implications for poverty and security.

Since at least 1998, the non-governmental organisation Unison has been pressing the bureau to prepare a relevant curriculum, but without effective response. Instead, the children have a choice of either mainstream schools where they struggle to keep pace with native Chinese speakers, or so-called designated schools where a majority are from minorities and they all achieve an equally poor standard of Chinese. Why are we failing these children so badly?

In the film To Sir, With Love, a dedicated teacher reached across ethnic lines to bring solid education to students from a deprived area. I fancy our chief executive, suffering in the opinion polls at present, is at least as tall as Sidney Poitier.

It would be nice if he got his mojo working on this subject. A good way to start would be by seizing back control of the Education Bureau.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk