SHE ARRIVED IN Hong Kong nearly a decade ago in the wake of bitter turmoil within the English Schools Foundation, and she departs for France tomorrow leaving a row behind her. 'I thrive on a good battle. I have not had time to get depressed about retirement,' said Jennifer Wisker during her whirlwind visits to ESF schools this week to bid farewell to staff and students. Wisker, who led the ESF out of its turmoil and through its transition from colonial education provider to a network of schools at the cutting edge of international schooling, has not been afraid of stamping her authority on the organisation. She has wielded power to the end, last month bringing Beacon Hill School under new management following a poor inspection report and attracting some of the fiercest criticism levelled at her during her nine years at the helm. 'We make management decisions that stick. Ten years ago the decisions would not have been taken,' she said. But Wisker does not want to dwell on Beacon Hill during her last days in the post. This week it was children and staff among the foundation's 20 schools whom she wanted to meet. On Tuesday, it was Bauhinia School's turn, a school close to her heart as it was very much her creation - opened in January this year in response to the fact that ESF schools, bursting at the seams, were turning so many away. She attended the weekly assembly, watching Pomeroy from 2T receive his record of achievement award from principal Katie Jones for 'having a go' and Sharon from 2W for numberwork, with 'not one, not two but three numbers'. On leaving the school she said: 'This school proves you can have happy children and academic excellence.' She also says the same of Island School, its 'outstanding' inspection the most notable record of achievement for the ESF in her final weeks here. Wisker arrived to head what was still a very colonial organisation - it was said that gin and tonics were still drunk in one staff room - in the aftermath of the greatest trauma the ESF has ever faced. She owed her recruitment to the crisis that had seen previous secretary and chief executive Maurice Millard driven from office by a board of inquiry and a two-year revolt by teachers. Millard had been accused of being too autocratic in his management style as he tried to reshape schools according to the new British National Curriculum. But Beacon Hill aside, Wisker leaves confident that she has much to show for her years here. 'I have had senior posts for the last 25 years and have achieved more in the last nine than the previous 16,' she said. The ESF more than survived the transition to Chinese rule. It thrived. There have been battles, such as over falling government subsidies, the phasing out of iron rice-bowl expatriate contracts, and heated negotiations over new staff benefits. But the Wisker years have been surprisingly free from controversy. The exponential growth of the foundation, both physically and in reputation, have been their hallmark. During her term, Wisker has seen student enrolment grow from just over 7,000 to 12,500 today, and laid the foundations for schools now on the drawing board for it to reach 17,000 by 2006. Four new campuses have been opened. Others have been extended. It has also won bids for two private independent schools serving local children, to be built at Ma On Shan and Discovery Bay. It has taken over the Canadian Overseas International College and is preparing to manage its first school on the mainland, in Shanghai. Around $360 million has been spent during her term of office. Another $400 million of growth is on the drawing board. Wisker does not think the organisation has overstretched itself. 'We are always aware of our competitive position. The sub-text is to maintain market share and grow that.' Wisker arrived with a brief to address the organisation's image within the local community and to help it survive the 1997 handover. This she has achieved. Today, the ESF champions its role as being part of the community of Hong Kong, the international city. Bauhinia, for instance, is located adjacent to housing estates above Kwai Chung, far from the exclusive expatriate heartlands the ESF has traditionally been associated with. Putonghua has replaced French as the second language taught and is compulsory at primary level. As for learning outcomes, she points out that exam results are better than ever (as they in fact tend to be in schools across the UK too). 'A-level results have continued to improve,' she said. 'This year they are stunning. But also important is that the breadth of ESF education has been maintained.' She takes particular pride in events that have become regulars in the ESF calendar, such as the concert given by the ESF Orchestra, the ESF design and technology exhibition, the sophisticated debates conducted by teenagers in the Model United Nations and the outstanding art and drama to be found across the schools. Wisker helped build bridges to the local community through new activities beyond ESF schools, run by ESF Educational Services Ltd, a non-profit making company created in 1995, which provides coaching, runs three kindergartens and is developing the private independent schools. 'We started our first English camp with 40 students. Now there are 1,200.' Its Active English Programme reaches out to 15 local schools. Beacon Hill teachers have led English instruction in village schools on the mainland border. Kennedy School has this year become a resource for local teachers, for language teaching development. West Island School was last year the only international school to win an Outstanding School Award from the Education Department, for its management. Wisker praises the ESF under its current chairman, Jal Shroff, and the executive committee that is its key decision-making body. This committee is made up of stakeholders, including principals, teachers, parents, a representative from the Education Department and the community, as well as herself as secretary. 'Once we agreed the way forward we could get things done very quickly,' she said. Wisker, 60, believes the time is right for new leadership. 'With a top position you have to ask after ten years 'am I still adding value to an organisation?'. There is a need for a fresh pair of eyes.' Her successor, Jonathan Harris, will need to manage the growth she has set in motion, the curriculum challenges - including the possibility of extending the International Baccalaureate from its trial at Sha Tin College to other schools - and the challenges posed by new technology. There will also be the lessons of Beacon Hill, of the need for closer monitoring from the centre and more benchmarking of learning outcomes, particularly in the transition from upper primary to secondary schooling. Wisker is retiring to her home in Brittany, France. But the central role she has played in Hong Kong's international community means it is hard for her to cut all ties with the SAR. She intends to spend some months of the year here. 'But I have resisted the idea of immediately doing something else. I have, after all, worked for 40 years non-stop,' she said. There is no doubt that her last month has been among the more challenging at the ESF, raising questions not just about Beacon Hill but the wider control of its schools. This Wisker does not regret. 'If I had wanted a quiet term I would not have put Beacon Hill up for inspection,' she said. 'I would much rather see it through while I am here.' Even though Robert Lyden had resigned voluntarily, Wisker said that in light of the report there could be no reversing plans for new management and action to 'turn the school round'. It had also been necessary for the centre to take some responsibility for the 'system failure' that allowed the school to slide so badly on the academic front, in the eyes of inspectors - hence education officer David Coles' resignation. Who knows what would have happened if Wisker had not already tendered her resignation a year ago and been weeks away from her departure. In her final days in office, she could not quell criticism of her handling of the crisis, which parents targeted so stingingly at her during RTHK's Backchat this week. 'Autocratic' - the adjective used to describe her predecessor - has been used again. And many are looking forward to what they hope will be a new era of measured deliberation in decision-making. Tomorrow she flies away from the criticism, and was this week looking forward to that hour. That, though, is a sad way for the woman who has for so many years paid such attention to managing and raising the image of the foundation to go. It would be fairer this weekend for the ESF and Wisker's leadership to be judged by Island School and other successes, not only by Beacon Hill, and the fact that she leaves the organisation far stronger than it was when she arrived. That is some record of achievement.