My Take

English Schools Foundation happy to let market forces dictate

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 3:55am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 3:55am

A while ago, I asked a permanent secretary for education why the government should phase out funding for ESF schools when both locals and expatriates attend them.

There is, after all, the English Schools Foundation mandate to provide affordable education to those who can't integrate into the local Chinese school system. Then, there is the long-standing promise and policy of the government to provide free or subsidised education for all.

By my (mis)understanding, the government then had a double mandate not only to continue funding the ESF but to double down on it.

But no, the senior official said, putting me in my place. "When you decide to leave the local school system," she said, "you become responsible for paying for schools outside the system." It's the same for foreigners or expatriates.

She considers it the government's responsibility to make available the private international schools, but not the means to attend them, that is, paying for them. So tough luck if you can't afford them. Now, you may disagree with it, but that is the government policy, which has a certain unassailable, brutal logic. You either include ESF in the direct subsidy school scheme or let it go. The government does the latter; and ESF management is more than happy with that, whatever it says publicly.

Three of seven elected parent representatives have resigned from the ESF board of governors as a protest against plans to raise fees and capital from parents. It's a noble gesture but a futile one.

When public subsidy for ESF ends in 2016, its schools will become private, and they will charge the exorbitant fees and debentures that international schools now charge. They are certain to do so given their dire needs to upgrade existing facilities, which have decayed in the past decade due to insufficient public funding.

Given the phenomenal demand for international schooling in Hong Kong, the ESF will be able to charge whatever it wants. This brutal logic is summarised by an ex-board member: "The board wants to see the government subsidy go away so ESF can go private and do whatever it wants."

Exactly! Once funding stops, there is no alternative.