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  • Updated: 9:26am

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. 

NewsHong Kong

ESF to end admission priority for non-Chinese speakers

Foundation changes tack on admissions policy, with the move likely to increase the competition for primary places among expatriate children

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 February, 2013, 9:06am


  • Yes: 58%
  • No: 42%
5 Feb 2013
  • Yes
  • No
Total number of votes recorded: 344

The English Schools Foundation announced on Monday it will be ending its admissions priority for children who do not speak Chinese.

The move is likely to increase the competition for expatriate children seeking to enrol at its primary schools.

And it comes at a time when the ESF is seeking to secure official funding for its English-medium schools from a government increasingly inclined to view it as an outdated colonial institution.

Another change in admissions policy announced on Monday includes scrapping the priority for interviews for primary school places given to children who have attended ESF-affiliated kindergartens, from which around 600 children graduate every year.

The changes will begin taking effect from August, the ESF said. But the one most likely to alarm expatriate families is the ESF's decision to end the priority given to non-Chinese speakers for primary school places.

The policy was maintained previously on the assumption that Chinese speakers could go to Chinese-medium schools.

Such a change is likely to make it more difficult for non-Chinese speaking children to find a school place, because of the increased competition it will create for places at the ESF's English- medium primary schools.

ESF chief executive Heather Du Quesnay said that stringent interviews would be conducted for school applicants, which would include English proficiency tests.

She did not believe the new system would reduce the number of non-Chinese students at ESF schools.

And she insisted the changes had nothing to do with the foundation's on-going attempts to persuade the government to maintain, if not increase, the ESF's annual HK$283 million subvention, or subsidy.

She told a news conference the implementation of the policy to give priority to non-Chinese speakers had been unsuccessful.

She said: "It's pretty difficult to test if the child cannot speak Cantonese. We have never been able to do it. That's one of the reasons the system didn't work very well."

For years, children unfamiliar with Cantonese – mainly expatriates – were treated favourably when applying for a place at one of the ESF schools.

The schools were set up in the 1960s by the British colonial government to serve non-local families, many of them civil servants from Britain.

They [non-Chinese taxpayers] will just leave Hong Kong if they can't find a school place

Each year the ESF offers about 13,000 places and the competition for these has become keen in recent years.

Demand from both local families and expatriates has grown, particularly after the government switched the medium of instruction for most of its public schools to Chinese.

Last year, more than 2,400 applications were made for places at ESF primary year one admission, according to the ESF office, compared with 1,340 in 2007. Thousands are on the schools' waiting list.

Some expatriate parents said the new arrangement would make it harder for expatriate families whose children do not speak Chinese to find a school place.

The make-up of the ESF primary and secondary schools has changed greatly in recent years.

According to the ESF's annual report, 44 per cent of its students are now ethnic Chinese.

Amanda Chapman, head of the Native English-speaking Teachers' Association, said modifying the language criteria was unfair for non-Chinese-speaking taxpayers because these families were already finding it difficult to find school places.

"They will just leave Hong Kong if they can't find a school place," Chapman said.

Willy Ewal, an expatriate father, said he believed the ESF had the right to change its admission policy. "The government wants to make it private so [the ESF] has to behave like a private school. They need the money, so money will come first," Ewal said.

An Education Bureau spokeswoman said in response to the announcement that the ESF has autonomy in deciding on its curriculum, the student mix and admissions criteria.

"In the context of the ongoing subvention review, the services provided by the ESF should be underpinned by, amongst other things, relevant parameters in its admission policy as a condition for granting new subvention, if any," the spokeswoman said.

Du Quesnay said she did not face pressure from the government over the admissions policy changes. She said fees for the next school year would be announced next month.

And she said the ESF was also considering a new "nomination rights" scheme for companies. Purchasing the rights would give them advantages in the admissions process.

Legislator Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector, said any arrangements should not be at the expense of the educational needs of children.

He added that the availability of quality school places, along with air quality and high rents, was an area of concern for sustainable development in the city.


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Many locals hold overseas passports, and get into ESF using their overseas passports. They may not even speak good English. The new criteria is good as it sieves out bona fide foreigners from these abovementioned locals who can easily survive in local schools.
Clearly the move end to admission priority for non-Chinese students is the ESF’s misguided attempt to appease the Hong Kong SAR Government in its threats to withdraw its subsidy. Instead of going down this path I believe the ESF, in attempting to keep the subsidy, should argue the cost of the HKSAR Government funding a cheaper ESF student as compared to funding a more expensive local student. ESF chief executive Heather Du Quesnay is living in cloud cuckoo land if she believes the new system would not reduce the number of non-Chinese students at ESF schools. Of course it will! Children who do not speak Chinese will now be competing directly with large numbers of Chinese children who have been groomed and coached by well organized well paid home tutors to pass the new ESF admission interviews and tests. This will result in a decrease of non-Chinese students. Moreover this move makes it even more difficult for non-Chinese speakers with children to settle and work in Hong Kong thereby making Hong Kong less international. The ESF might as well change its name to CSF (Chinese School Foundation)!
This kind of change is to be found throughout the four Charity Commissioner operations in the UK. There the test for a charity is "public benefit" and at least one large private charity school is warned to lose their charitable status in 2014 if they do not qualify. They then could lose the "Gift Aid" access by which donations are topped up by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs IF the donor pays United Kingdom personal tax.
The statistics ESF show in their Annual Report (and communicate/ or don't communicate publicly) are very interesting, just as "interesting" as their policies are. Here is just a few:
First Language of students English: 73%, yet under nationalities, only 53% of students come from countries where English is the first language. Don't know who and why they want to confuse. They have ca. 2,200 full time staff (who's kids are on top of the priority list for admission). Imagine an average of 1 kid each; that means 17% of the 13,000 places are gone and not publicly available (still better than entrance tickets to the Rugby 7s though)... add the "500k fast track entry for the super rich" spots... add the new admissions policy.... available places become very rare; which means even higher prices yet again... Many more confusing statistics...
If 44% of ESF students are ethnic Chinese and perhaps another 20% (just an estimate, not an ESF figure) are not native English speakers but are also not Chinese (i.e. Spanish, Japanese, Korean, etc.), then 64% are not native English speakers. This figure is probably too low. The percentage of native English speakers is actually very low, likely less than 25% overall. Lots of families are a mix of backgrounds and so don't easily slot into a definition of this or that.
Often when the parents don't have a common language i.e. one parent is native French speaker and the other native Japanese speaker, they chose to use English as their common family language therefore the child grows up speaking English as its first language hence the discrepancy. This is more common than one might think.
ESF foundation was set up to (and still should) provide middle class non Cantonese speaking children with affordable schooling. This originates with the English civil servants and today has developed into schools with a variety of nationalities, locals and expats, English, Germans, Chinese, Koreans etc. For this "affordable English medium education", ESF used to get government subvention, which now has been cut. This is very bad news for all possible new students and parents from the middle class. It is rather simple "news" for ESF, no problem though. There is huge demand for its places, both from rich locals, rich non Chinese "locals" (with HKG permanent ID's), as well as expats on good packages. ESF has introduced many steps towards becoming fully private (re: $ 500k fast track entry for the rich etc) and it was clear to them that subsidies would be cut with such policies. They have been fighting to keep the subsidies for as long as possible, not for the sake of the middle class but for their own good, as it was easy income. ESF today have no problem without subsidies... As a first step, they (naturally, because they don't need us middle class anymore) cut our entry privileges. They ensure though that their own people remain on top of the priority list. They don't care if middle class kids get English education, as long as they can attract rich customers with good teachers (who would not come if their kids can't get affordable schooling). Ironic, isn't it?
I thought the intention was to drive the locals away. By interviewing the parents, they can tell if the child is a local or an expatriate or how good their English is. Some expatriates are leaving Hong Kong amid the high living costs including education costs. A lot more decided not to come to Hong Kong because they have not been able to find schooling for their children. I thought this may ease some of the tensions. However, if the intention is to take away the priority of the English speaking children and comply to the requirements to keep the fundings, it will only worsen the situation.
I think most expatriate families are fully aware that ESF offers the best education setup in Hong Kong and will continue to fight to get their kids a place in the school. That is why there are 5 applicants for each position.
What expatriate families are really upset about is that they loose their advantage from holding a foreign passport and the feeling of entitlement. However if these same families were back in UK / US do they think they could argue to keep locals out of certain schools. I do not believe so.
the best way for this to be solved is to build more ESF schools (or better yet use the schools already built)
The new admissions policy is, so far, very vague. If the criteria is to choose students who are 'very strong' in English, i.e. native speaker, and determined through interviews, then there will not be a decrease in English speakers in ESF and there could even be an increase. If the criteria is to have just 'adequate' English, then ESF will become mostly an English instruction Hong Kong Chinese school system. However the policy ends up, ESF could well become less international, i.e. international children whose first language is not English, i.e. Spanish, Dutch, Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, etc. may lose out. So, the ESF needs to be careful how it implements this policy. Many ESF schools are already 70% local. If the balance tips over say 75%, then the remaining expat families may want to move to truly international schools with a better mix of students and a higher standard of English.



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